Article: The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch

Jared Spool

August 7th, 2006

UIEtips 8/07/06: The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch

Every week we get calls from people who are looking for help with a redesign of their site. They are rethinking the entire design and hoping their new concept will get them what they want.

The sad thing is they are very likely to fail. We’ve been studying web site design for more than ten years and, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that redesigns rarely improve a site. At best, it just rearranges the elements. At worst, it frustrates the existing, loyal users without bringing anything valuable to all those new users the site is trying to attract.

For several years, we’ve recommended our clients take a strategy of incremental change. Pick one small piece of the site to change and focus on that. You’ll have less stakeholders to cater to, fewer personas to integrate, and you’ll keep the risk down to something manageable, all the while you’ll be learning about your users and what they need.

Back in 2003, I wrote an article entitled the Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch. This article is just a relevant today as it was back then. That’s why we decided to republish it in this week’s UIEtips.

Is your organization thinking about a major re-launch? Have you come up with a strategy that reduces the risk? We’d like to hear from you. Join the discussion in the comments below.

Read today’s UIEtips article.

[This is one of the many design strategies we'll be covering in our sessions at the User Interface 11 Conference, October 9-12, in Cambridge, MA. You'll want to check out the impressive array of speakers and topics at the conference site.]

31 Responses to “Article: The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch”

  1. Bryan Says:

    “The sad thing is they are very likely to fail. We’ve been studying web site design for more than ten years and, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that redesigns rarely improve a site. At best, it just rearranges the elements.”

    I’m sorry but I disagree with your analysis. If you look at more progressive firms conducting redesigns now as rather than in the over the span of the last 10 years; it’s clearly evident that they redesign is making a big difference. Infact, most redesigns are cleaning up outdated coded sites.

    Just to name a few: yahoo.com, nypl.org, nytimes.com, etc…

  2. Ross Says:

    One thing that is overlooked here is the requirement for redesign when incorporating a new activity or organization that expands the original scope of the site. We’re int eh process of a merger and will have to look squarely at a full redesign in order to accomodate the new organization. Incremental change is simply not an option.

    In the face of this, we plan to keep as much of the original design concepts, but let go of the particulars of the layout of the home and internal pages. Anything short of this will seriously hog-tie our ability to communicate the changes that are taking place.

  3. DJ Says:

    Hi Jared

    I think I raised a similar point with you a while back — it’s not always for design reasons that a site is re-designed (in my experience design doesn’t really come into it up front). There are technological, business and logistical reasons too.

    In my firm’s case it’s that the code base, technical architecture, and general infrastructure has been developed without a clear understanding of the strategic direction (or really of the customers using our site). At the time all this was being developed the “powers that be” were never *really* sure whether our web presence would become an important part of the company’s biz model or not.

    So for 5 years or so we’ve had organic change with decisions made on “educated intuition”, on a platform that is not user-centric in its conception anyway. As you can understand, the code itself is like a plate of spaghetti. Pull the end of one strand and you’re never sure what else will begin to wobble.

    All of which has affected not only the online customer experience and our team’s flexibility to implement change, but also our business processes, our team’s attitudes to change and our technology decisions.

    As a Ux team this puts us in an interesting position where we really need to influence BIG technology decisions in order to get a new platform where the kind of gradual change is at least conceivable… (this is typically an IT role, not ours)

    That doesn’t mean I’m not at all nervous about when our new sites & web platform goes live (next year). Quite the opposite; I would love to hear from people who have been through the process of enforced major site changes across the board and any learnings they have had from that experience.

    Regards
    DJ

  4. Dimiter Simov Says:

    I agree with Jared. I remember reading the article back in 2003. Ever since I am referring to it when talking to clients or prospects who want to completely redesign their sites. Not a single time have I been successful at convincing them not to redesign completely. I am speaking from my experience with companies here in Bulgaria.

    It seems easier for people to understand a complete redesign than gradual change. A complete redesign also seems much cleaner a solution – you do not mess with the legacy code and structure.

    Most companies hire a consultancy to build the site for them or to redesign it. Consultancies prefer a redesign because in most cases some other company has built the site. Even if it has been the same company that had made the site a few years ago, the people who worked on it most likely have left. Besides, there always seems to be more money and less work in a full redesign than in gradual change.

  5. Enric Naval Says:

    I think that Jared is talking about changing the external appearance of the site, and the way that clients interact with the site. I don’t think he has anything against redesigning the internal code in a way not noticeable by the end user (unless he looks at the HTML code).

    DJ Dave. I had to make both types of redesign on two websites.

    I always prefer incremental changes, but there are situations (mentioned here by other posters) where you have no option but doing a complete redesign. In those case, the incremental redesign should have given you information enough to make a good design.

    About the complete redesign:

    I have to say that it has an enerving tendence to get out of hand with feature creep. Even if you are simply attempting to replicate the same behaviour using newer code, some or other “improvement” winds up infiltrating in the new design, and it always creates a flurry of problems because they don’t quite fit with the rest of the interaction.

    This means that any complete redesign ALWAYS has to be followed by testing and incremental changes in order to assimilate the new “features” that you couldn’t prevent from appearing.

    Another big problem is when you make a new design and, once it’s finished, you notice a failure, but then you won’t be allowed to change anything because you are told to keep the proposed design. This is because, for your managers, the new design has become sacred and untouchable because of reasons out of your control.

    You may also have technical problems, because the new features need lots of coding to integrate it, and you aren’t given time/budget/permission to do it.

    Also, users may find new ways to interact with the contents on you site, causing lots of problems: they manage to reach cul-de-sacs, following navigation paths that you didn’t anticipate, hitting “back” to navigate forms because the new design somehow suggests them to do so, etc.

    When you do a complete redesign, make sure that you will be able to change it further. You may discover that polishing the code after deployment takes longer than actually coding the first deployment.

    About incremental redesigns:

    On incremental redesigns, it’s good to take lots of time doing certain key changes and then polling/observing the user reactions, and getting feedback. It’s good to do this because, after a few iterations of this, you have lots of knowledge about their preferences.

    You can then make bigger changes knowing that, in the worst case, you won’t make a blunder bad enough that you’ll piss off your users. This has two issues:

    - on one hand, if you are ever forced to make a complete redesign, you’ll have an invaluable amount of knowledge of how to improve your user’s experience, obtained directly from your users

    - on the other hand, the design may have incrementally gotten so good that you don’t have much left to change in case that you want to do big changes, or it is no longer clear which are the worst parts

  6. Judy Says:

    Well Jared,

    There are times that a redesign is just what is needed. The real trick is the hard work that preceeds the design, and enables you to impart both the business and consumer model on your site. We are a discipline that focuses on users, but we often fall short on understanding what truely drives business, or what will cause consumers to have the comfort and confidence to move forward with us online. This is substantative work. It requires more than designers changing the overall organization or look of a site, more than a single usability test, and more than a couple of subject matter experts providing their feedback. It’s a full on reconsideration of how you realize business, leverage technology, and speak to your consumers online.

    This kind of redesign is not often necessary, but when it is, we should recognize that it is not a single event. It is the implementation of an improvement strategy that unfolds over time. What unfolds, how frequently, and in what priority is all part of the prework. There are discrete and measureable steps, that on average takes 1-2 years to fully complete. And because it “goes live’ over time, it has the flavor of biting off smaller chunks and assessing interim success, but is driven by a common improvement strategy that has a measureable beginning and end.

    When all the pieces are in place, I have seen this approach result in increased sales of 30-150%– a nice rate of return.

    Judy

  7. Steve Says:

    I think there are two cases here, one where a major redesign could work and the other where it would be less desirable. The first case is you have an organically grown site, without a history of user centered design. In this case a redesign, applying UCD principles could dramatically improve the user experience.

    The second case is you have a site that has a solid history of UCD. In this case a major redesign would likely cause more disruption to the user experience than improving it.

    Another benefit of incremental changes is that if you do longitudinal customer satisfaction surveys each incremental change should give you a boost in customer satisfaction. Continual improvement are safer and less risk than putting all your eggs in one basket with one monumental change.

    One last consideration when doing a large scale redesign is the impact it will have on customer support. They will not be happy if the phones start ringing off the hook and there are not enough representatives to answer all the calls coming in.

  8. Aaron Baker Says:

    I completely agree with Jared. Iterative design works as the best practice to improve both the information architecture and the interface elements in a gradual fashion.

    In our recent (and ongoing) redesign of the homepage, we used the existing architecture as the base frame of reference and an ideal architecture of portal integration as our ultimate goal, and decided to make gradual steps in that direction.

    While the major look and feel changed considerably because of a new logo and style guide, it was less disturbing to our user base because the navigation was similar to the previous design.

    Now that our team has subscribed to this idea of iterative design, that is, making small changes to the design or info. arch. one at a time, there will (hopefully) never be another true “overhaul.”

    This helps us keep up with design changes as well. We have a very small staff and can only do so much at once. The initial redesign nearly killed us; changing incrementally will help keep the work load even.

  9. Jared Spool Says:

    Wow. Apparently I’ve touched a nerve.

    (It’s always interesting. I have no ability to predict which topics will get people excited and which ones go without any comment. I figured this one was one of those yeah-we-got-it, tell-us-something-we-don’t-know topics.)

    Enric is right in that I was focusing on the user experience of the site, not necessarily the underlying code or internal architecture. However, in either of those cases, it’s still not necessary to change the entire site over in a single shot. Changing a small portion of the site over as a test will help you understand what problems you’ve missed.

    Judy’s point that understanding all of the key needs of the users and the business are essential to succeeding in a design. However, you don’t know what you don’t know. How do you ensure you’ve researched everything you need to know.

    Moving to an incremental approach allows you to discover what you don’t know in a low-risk fashion. Basically, the early iterations are prototypes which inform your team on user and business needs at a very rapid pace. And if you really screw up (which does happen occasionally), you can rewind to the previous design very easily.

    Like Judy, I too have seen redesigns that have resulted in 30-150% increases in sales. But for every one of those, I’ve seen two redesigns that have resulted in 20%-70% decreases in sales. The risks are high and, in almost all cases, it was impossible to go back and start over.

    I’m all for minimizing risk and not have the cross-my-fingers-and-hope approach to meeting and exceeding business objectives. That’s where this recommendation comes from.

  10. DJ Says:

    Agree with both Jared and Judy in lots of ways.
    The complexity & risk is coming into our project at full throttle because getting the right people engaged at the right times gets very tricky as the many strands of the project progress into detailed requirements, design and specification.

    Resource clashes are inevitable, especially as business stakeholders still have their day jobs etc, so are communication gaps as the project team becomes larger.

    On top of that, managing the dependencies between all the strands of a major re-design is incredibly tricky, regardless of how you approach it…

    Jared mentioned:

    How do you ensure you’ve researched everything you need to know.

    Very true, and it’s not an easy problem to deal with.
    Nevertheless, the way we are approaching this one is to break down the project into smaller more manageable chunks (having done some signficant up front user research, competitive testing, persona & scenario definition etc) and ensure each of these chunks features some kind of user input as part of its design process.

    Each of these user interactions may inform and update the initial user research – although I acknowledge it may also highlight missings in work to date.

    Also before certain key milestones in the project we aim to quantitatively measure the user experience against the benchmarks we have for our current websites. (We’re using this as a way to mitigate against the risks of not meeting business objectives).

    Love to hear a critique of this approach, may just save my life ;o)

    DJ

  11. Craig Says:

    This fits with my experience too. Somehow companies make the mistake of wanting to be rid of a design that, for the most part, has served them well in some capacity for months and maybe years. I think it’s part emotional, the same motive that makes us want to buy a new car when the old one just has a few things wrong with it. What we don’t consider is that even new cars have problems, they are just different. Plus, they smell good and are very shiny – in essence, a brand-new start, which is very attractive and sells a lot of cars, and sites.

    So, yes, sometimes new sites (read cars) are great if the underlying technology is poorly suited to new needs, the color scheme doesn’t fit the company anymore, and it’s just plain hard to use.

    To carry this idea further, I wonder what would happen if we could take Jared’s idea into carmaking. I would be able to take my regular cab pickup in and have it expanded to a quad cab (for an additional fee of course) to fit my growing family, and when I could afford it, add four wheel drive. I would definitely be a happy camper, because I like all the other aspects of my truck. I don’t see that happening soon, but it’s a very enticing thought.

  12. Richard Todd Says:

    What about the challenges in trying to avoid a major relaunch?

    When faced with many new site ideas and a desire to introduce them in a better structured environment, the pressure is on to – while you’re at it – rebuild everything. This pressure is compounded when, regardless of any surface changes, the internal architecutre must be reenginnered due to changes in servers, browsers… the forces without and within. Call it “valid software engineering principles”.

    what then? Recreate the old site on a new platform? It would be like putting an old , but not-so-classic, car body on top of a high-end power plant. It works in the funny car races, but that’s why they’re called funny cars.

    There are times when a rebuild forces so much change that a relaunch is inevitable.

    The other truth is that the transitional approach can be much more expensive. A wholesale change is a one-step event. Transitioning takes planning – each baby-step to pull the audience along with you, can be as expensive. And it often must take place over a long, gradual period of time – this also gives competitors a chance to usurp your ideas before they have finally hatched.

    In other words there are forces outside the confines of the user interface and user hand-holding. Not every company can afford the time and extra effort of small steps.

    It is a chalenge we face right now. I’ll let you know how it turns out – if we go to major re-launch or if we sneak in incremental changes until we get there.

  13. beatnic - just wondering » links for 2006-08-07 Says:

    [...] UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » Article: The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch (tags: Now will you believe me? :-)) Categories: linklog TrackBack URI: http://www.beatnic.co.uk/2006/08/08/links-for-2006-08-07/trackback/ [...]

  14. Andrew Gianni » Blog Archive » The End of the Waterfall Cycle for Web Site Redesign? Says:

    [...] Jared Spool discusses the demise of the major site relaunch. While I’m not a UI designer, I have been involved in software development and Web development for over ten years. What I think Jared is speaking to is the equivalent of the demise of the waterfall model for software development. [...]

  15. Paul Adams Says:

    I don’t think this is black and white. I don’t think anyone can ever say that ‘incremental change’ is better than ‘a complete redesign’ or vice-versa.

    I work for a User Experience Consultancy and clients often come to us with the same problem:

    “Our website has ‘bad usability’ and we need to make it more usable”.

    However, we often find that it isn’t just the ‘usability’ that is the problem, it’s something more fundamental. It could be the structure of the site (for example businesses externalising their inner company structure). Worse still, it could be the concept of the site e.g. sites trying to be a supermarket when the customer needs a newsstand. We’ve also had cases where the website ‘usability’ is great, but the business proposition is wrong. So no matter how much incremental change you undertake, nothing will get significantly better until the concept and proposition are changed. And (unfortunately) that often means a full redesign.

    Incremental change only helps if the proposition and concept are already sound. So I think both approaches are valid depending on what needs improvement.

  16. » Blog Archive » The major re-launch is (still) often appropriate Says:

    [...] [...]

  17. Stephen Cote Says:

    Design, and how users experience it, is subjective. Experienced designers and artists know what is pleasing to the eye, and what design best aligns visitors with the content and navigation. User experience can be measured and observed in a controlled setting, but those are more difficult tasks to do in the wild. For example, I’ve seen a number of studies that attempt to correlate usage statistics, shotgun charts of mouse clicks, and click streams, to quantify user experience. However, I don’t think such measurements adequately reflect actual user experience, not like those measurements that can be obtained in a controlled setting. There are some redesigns that should be major redesigns because a site is visually unpleasant.

    A couple months ago I wrote a brief comparison of my own content layouts and how users behaved with those layouts as the content changed: http://www.imnmotion.com/blog.jsp?record_id=10527

    I think it interesting to see the motivation behind a major redesign, particularly when no behavioral study had been made about what works and what doesn’t, both for the existing design and the new design. For large sites, the major redesign could easily translate into a large gain or loss in revenue or traffic.

  18. UIE Brain Sparks » Blog Archive » More on Why Major Relaunches are a Bad Idea Says:

    [...] Republishing our 2003 article, The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch ,touched off a surprising amount of discussion, much more than when we originally published it. [...]

  19. Are Major Redesigns a Bad Idea? at Experience Planner Says:

    [...] Usability pundit, Jared Spool, republished a UIE article from 2003 called The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch.  Here’s a quick quoute: Our findings show that consistency in the design plays second fiddle to completing the task. When users are complaining about the consistency of a site, we’ve found that it is often because they are having trouble completing their tasks. On sites where users easily complete their tasks, the users seem to pay little attention to glaring inconsistencies, often telling us in their ratings that the site was indeed very consistent. [...]

  20. higher ed marketing » Blog Archive » Failure to re-launch? Or ’subtle evolution’? Says:

    [...] Should organizations make a big deal about doing a major overhaul and re-launch of their web sites? Jared Spool, a usability design engineer who blogs at UIE Brain Sparks, thinks organizations would be better off making incremental change. In The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch, he writes that over his 10 years of work with web design, “if we’ve learned anything, it’s that redesigns rarely improve a site.” [...]

  21. When and how to redesign a web site » Neat Redesign Says:

    [...] Read more about the iterative process of redesign at Brainsparks. [...]

  22. Mike Atkinson Says:

    “The News of My Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”

    While I agree with much of what you say, I’m concerned that you’re painting one solution for everyone, which just doesn’t apply.

    Most of my clients are small, usually non-profit, organizations with websites built by their sister’s boryfriend’s cousin’s son back in 1998 – frames or not. Usually the design actually hurts the organization’s credibility; the interface is user antagonistic; the org has changed their goals and objectives, which aren’t integrated into the site…I could go on and on.

    I’m sorry, but in that scenario, we’re in triage with barely a pulse. Many times major surgery is the only way for the org to recover with donors, the board, foundations, clients, etc.

  23. Jared Spool Says:

    Mike,

    I believe your situation with non-profit organizations puts a lot of demands on the process. However, I still contend that if you go with a major relaunch approach, your clients will be in the same situation 2 (or 4 or 7) years from now.

    An incremental approach will give them a perspective that the web site is a living, breathing, constantly evolving entity, not something that gets a total makeover every 4 years.

    But they are your clients, not mine, so whatever you think is right is fine by me. :)

  24. Joan Vermette Says:

    My experience with large sites is that we KNOW the site is a living, breathing,constantly evolving entity…that ALSO gets a makeover every 4 years…go figure…

    Every few years, a company’s brand identity needs to be inflected to speak to the current market. That the web should respond to that need is natural — and why not…clean up your architecture (systems and information) at the same time? Or, conversely, as suggested above, use a systems renovation to take a look at cleaning up the interface, as well.

    By the way, I love the comment about consistency and task completion — for years, as the owner of design standards for a large suite of BtoC and BtoB financial sites, I’ve been trying to get people to understand that consistency in and of itself is not a transcendental good…what matters is consistency to PURPOSE. So one strategy for a redesign is to subtly shift the design section by section as determined by their purpose: the user task each section allows.

    That’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it?

  25. Raise bar for newspaper design investments : Small Initiatives - Sensible Internet Design Says:

    [...] Meanwhile, on the Internet side of things (where everything is measurable but you have to decide whose measures to trust), respected usability experts warn us to avoid total Web site overhauls in favor of strategic design incrementalism. I don’t agree in every case, but often I do. And I believe the line of reasoning applies as well to printed periodicals as Web sites. [...]

  26. Richard Todd Says:

    Well, you were right. It is now a year and a bit past the point of no return when we relaunched our website. The site is much better (far from UIE endorsed perhaps but better) in term of navigation, design, content, and all those other reasons why companies decide to re-launch.

    But, the truth of it is, while comments from users are favorable, page views have not substantially increased per user nor has time on site. Overall user numbers are a function of other factors such as marketing effort, so we are only looking at the actual user experience.

    There was certainly a high curiosity factor in the first month (perhaps the best reason for a “re-launch” – the marketing opportunity it provides). And the functionality under the hood in the new content management system is very robust and flexible and extensible – it had to be done for our authors, and our memebers, and our sales streams.

    But the part of the process where we redesigned the look and feel was the area of fault. It might have been more difficult to reengineer everything while trying to match the old appearance, but in hindsight we would have been better off to do that – to say with the familiar.

    Words of advice from an anecdotal experience with the pitfalls of relaunch. We were warned, you have been warned.

  27. One Year Later on Major Re-launches: “We were warned, you have been warned.” » UIE Brain Sparks Says:

    [...] little more than a year ago, we republished my article, The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch. The article generated an interesting discussion about when a re-launch is [...]

  28. Intelligent Experience Design » Articles » Usability News Round-Up Says:

    [...] wrote the article “The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch.” In August of last year, UIE republished the article to significant commentary. Though there was ample discussion on the benefits of major re-launches [...]

  29. Genny Engel Says:

    We did a total overhaul of the visual design of our home page concurrent with, and matching, a new companion website where the hideous old client-side Java was replaced with an HTML-based site. Internal staff complained bitterly. Customer comments switched suddenly from 80% “I hate this!” to 80% “I love this!”

    The intranet I would redesign much more gradually. I think there are totally different issues in redesigning an intranet where the same small number of staff interact with it daily, vs. redesigning a public site where a much larger number of people interact with it much less often. For the public it has to work like other websites they use (a swiftly moving target). For the staff it has to work like it worked yesterday (a nearly static target).

  30. Lynne Says:

    I think your article has particular relevance to the changes occurring in ebay lately. Lots of problems reported and no one seems to listen to the users…In particular, why are 5% of the entire community being forced to endure a new interface(MY EBAY BETA) for coordinating their activities on ebay for 4 weeks without the option to “opt out”?
    It couldn’t be a very good marketing strategy to gain more users, could it?

    The search is being pushed on the members in groups as well..big changes, not small changes as are suggested here..

    This article should be re-published, it’s very good!

  31. Is an intranet redesign necessary? « GenY to the Xpower Says:

    [...] redesign necessary? March 19, 2010, 9:38 pm Filed under: Intranet | Tags: change management This article scares me. The article says site redesigns are rarely necessary and that we need to take baby steps [...]

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