"It seems like a such a huge undertaking," the Senior VP of Marketing told me. "Frankly, we're terrified we're going to make things worse than they already are."

The VP was sitting at the conference table with her senior staff. They'd been discussing the state of the web site and their desire to completely redesign it.

I couldn't really fault them. One person had created the site in 1997, basically to showcase some of their most basic features. Over the years, as the business needed a new feature or added a new service, they appended functionality and content to the site without fanfare or forethought.

Initially, they didn't consider the web important to their business. Like many small organizations, the web's strategic advantage to their business just crept up on them -- they didn't plan it, it just grew that way. They woke up one day and realized that their web site had become critically important. Organic design, I call it.

Now, years later, they were faced with a site that seemed to defy architecture. Everyone at the table agreed. The look was dated -- big fonts, too many graphics, and frames (you read that right -- frames!). They all knew something had to be done.

That's why we were talking about a re-launch. More than anything, they wanted a major overhaul. A complete rethinking of the site. A total gutting -- they will spare nothing -- they will redesign everything.

It sounded good on the surface, but the dimensions of it were overwhelming. There was so much content -- approximately 3,000 pages at last count. A complete new architecture had to come from scratch. They had to drive the design from the user's goals and tasks -- a new mindset for people who normally think in terms of business units and organizational departments.

For example, they knew the current left navigation bar had to go. It was 24 independently scrolling links with ambiguous single-word terms, no specific order, and rarely useful to the user. They knew they wanted to replace it with links specific to the user's tasks. (For example, while exploring housing mortgages, the links would all be specific to researching, explaining, and applying for loans.)

The team to do this was limited with five full-time folks. None of them had ever undertaken anything of this scale. Even something as simple as a card-sorting exercise seemed daunting, because of their lack of experience.

It would have been easier to consider this if everyone hated the site. But, that was the problem. People loved the site! Customers regularly wrote emails saying that the site was great. Many generally considered them the most state-of-the-art of all their competitors. The industry trade press regularly hailed the site as an 'example of the future'.

Everybody thought it was great. Except for the designers, who knew, deep down, that they could do so much better.

The VP leaned forward and asked me, "How do we orchestrate a re-launch on a site this big without upsetting our customers? Any change is going to be so dramatic that people are definitely going to complain. How do we do this?"

I leaned back in my chair, paused for a second, then dropped the bomb. "You don't, " I responded. "A re-launch is a very bad idea. I highly recommend against it."

The group around the table manifested what looked to me like a single confused look. It was as if they had a corporate standard for displaying puzzlement.

The Creative Director, who'd been very quiet up until now, broke the silence. "Are you saying that we keep the site as it is? Leave things the way they are?"

"No," I replied, "I'm just saying that you don't embark on a total redesign. There's another way to build a new architecture with a whole new site without the risks of a re-launch."

I explained that re-launches are a thing of the past. There was a time when sites launched in cycles, living from one major redesign to the next. Each new redesign would bring a whole new look, a whole new user experience.

Companies would often hire new outside firms to create and execute these new designs, abandoning the firm that made the previous design. The new firms would try to top the existing design with something dramatically different and attention-grabbing. After all, if you can't notice any change, why did it cost so much?

Subtle Evolution: The Success of Continuous Design Improvements

However, the best sites have replaced this process of revolution with a new process of subtle evolution. Entire redesigns have quietly faded away with continuous improvements taking their place.

The big survivors of the dot-com crash -- Amazon, eBay, Dell, Google, Yahoo, and CNN -- have each foregone the big redesign in lieu of continual changes on the site. The changes are so fluid that users hardly notice.

Here are some of the stories of subtle change that I told the team:

Revamping Amazon.com's Product Lines

Many long-term Amazon customers tell us they believe the site is almost exactly the same as it was years ago, when they first started using it. Yet, there are many new features added every month. Currently, Amazon is revamping their product lines to support the addition of apparel sales -- something which needs an entire new interface compared to their previous lines. They have slowly phased in many of the necessary changes over several months.

The Subtle Morphing of Yahoo.com

Yahoo recently redesigned their home page, but the rest of the site didn't seem to change -- at least, not for a while. Then, a few weeks later, they updated their Yahoo Mail service with a new look. A few weeks later, Yahoo Movies had several new page designs. Over time, the entire site is morphing, but it's hard to say when it started and when it will end.

eBay.com: Satisfying their Users with Gradual Evolution

At eBay, they learned the hard way that their users don't like dramatic change. One day, the folks at eBay decided they no longer liked the bright yellow background on many of their pages, so they just changed it to a white background. Instantly, they started receiving emails from customers, bemoaning the change. So many people complained, that they felt forced to change it back.

Not content with the initial defeat, the team tried a different strategy. Over the period of several months, they modified the background color one shade of yellow at a time, until, finally, all the yellow was gone, leaving only white. Predictably, hardly a single user noticed this time.

More recently, eBay recently underwent a redesign of the forms that people use to post items for sale. These pages are critical to the success of the site, used more than 1,000,000 times every week. Knowing that their users are sensitive to sudden, dramatic changes, the team came up with a novel approach to phasing in the forms.

After verifying the changes through usability testing, the team made working versions of the new pages available for previewing with a link on the existing seller's page. After looking at the preview, users had the option of making the new forms their default. By tracking how many users converted to using the new forms, the team could measure it's acceptance.

Task Success is Key

Sites much smaller than Yahoo and Amazon can take advantage of an evolutionary process. Recent research on how users perceive the design of the site helps us know what we can change and what we can't.

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.

With this knowledge, I recommended to the Marketing VP and her design team that they focus on a small portion of the site, such as the presentation of the mortgage interest rates. They needed to thoroughly research the different goals users had for this information.

Then they could try redesigns in usability testing, experimenting with different page designs. Once they have a design that is doing well in the lab, I suggested they put on the site, carefully monitoring it's acceptance (maybe even using the same technique as eBay did with their seller's forms).

There are huge advantages to this approach. Instead of investing in a large scale redesign, the team can get their feet wet a little at a time. For a team such as this one, that has little experience with user-centered techniques, the focused approach allows them to develop their skills in small steps.

It also has the advantage of allowing the team to garner a lot of quick feedback on smaller impact portions of the site. If, somehow, the team launches a few pages that users are unhappy with, it's easy to quickly backtrack to the old version and regroup. It's much more difficult to bring back an entire site to a previous design.

As the team progresses from one section of the site to the other, they'll quickly gather tremendous insight into how users are approaching the site, reacting to the design changes, and accomplishing their goals.

The meeting came to a close, with the team still absorbing the advice I had given them. While there were many details still to resolve, the VP and her group were excited about their new options. "It's going to take a little getting used to," she said, "but I think we should consider the idea of a major relaunch completely dead." •

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 on UIE's Brain Sparks blog.

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