8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site—let’s start with WHY?

Redesigning your site cartoon

Monday I started redesigning a site that I'd first built in 2003. Tuesday I received today's mission from Problogger's 31 Days to Build a Better Blog project: "Write a list post." Somewhere in my brain these thoughts collided, so today I thought I'd share some of the core issues I consider when working on a redesign project.

Why do you want to redesign your Web site?

Hint: The answer is not "because the old site is old and boring and I'm sick of looking at it. I want something new." A lot of site owners use this line of reasoning, but we have to keep in mind that we're designing sites for our visitors, not ourselves. If you're thinking about redesigning a site, take stock of the old one.

Look at your site analytics and read your visitor feedback to gauge what is or isn't working. As Cameron Moll wrote in 2005, Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign, so it is up to you determine which changes will enhance your site and which are change for the mere sake of change.

Web site goals

You've heard me wax forth about goals in my Planning Your Web Site Tutorial, so you already know that you have to set specific goals to develop content and measure results. Presumably you did that when you first built the site. But things change over time. Does your original goal still apply? Or is it time to focus on something else? For the site I'm working on now, the goal remains the same, but the scope has expanded. The site was developed to market one product. Now the company has 9 products in 3 product lines. These lines have related, but slightly different target audiences. So while the site still has a goal to sell widgets, it must now be adapted to appeal to a broader audience.

That site had, and continues to have, a clear objective. Such objectives are easy to determine for small commercial sites. For others it is more difficult. Most of us want our sites to do it all: sell more widgets, increase brand recognition, make coffee, etc. But if we try to tackle too much we'll never develop a clear vision. Instead try to focus on one primary objective. What do you want the site to accomplish this year? Is this the same objective you had originally or have situations changed in such a way that you should now focus on something else?

Let's say you're the chair of the philosophy department at University X. You have an interest in applying philosophical thinking to real-world scenarios and want to add more interdisciplinary classes—covering topics such as cognition and intellectual property. Doing so will require more faculty—and the funding to hire them. To make a case for this you must demonstrate a demand for these courses, a demand that can be shown if there is an increase in the number of students taking philosophy classes or, better yet, selecting philosophy as their major.

You have several weighty goals for the department, but if you establish student recruitment as the primary goal of your Web site, you are one step closer to achieving the rest.

Content: What information must you provide to support your goal?

Given that you already have a site, you may have existing content that will also serve your goal. That said it can be distracting to sort through what exists and what doesn't. Instead come up with a new outline based on the new goal. You can then use that to determine what old content to keep or revise, what content to create anew, and how the content should be organized.

For our philosophy site we can consider our recruitment goal by asking the following types of questions. What do students need to know about philosophy to decide if it is right for them? What are the features of the program? What benefits will it provide? What are the requirements?

Students must be given sufficient information to determine if the subject is right for them or not. Philosophy seems vague and esoteric to many, so the site should define the topic, the skill sets used in studying it and the benefits gained from its study. In our current economy, when many choose a major based on how it will help them find a job, it's also helpful to show the practical value of studying philosophy.

I majored in Philosophy because I found it intriguing. I'm the kind of nerd who liked the story problems in algebra; I see the world as a series of puzzles. The study of philosophy gave me a new approach to solving these puzzles, a framework through which I could approach problem solving from a variety of vantage points. I later discovered that this type of critical thinking applies as much to marketing and Web design as it does to hypothetical questions of ethics and meaning.

Prospective students and their parents may not yet know this. My parents supported my choice as they were already strong supporters of a classic liberal arts education. But they had friends who weren't. Vocal friends who asked things like "What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy, sit on a mountain top dispensing wisdom?

In this day and age it's not enough to show that philosophy builds critical thinking skills that can be applied to all aspects of life. People are more skeptical about spending money on a degree that doesn't seem as practical as one in business or engineering. To counter such obstacles you'll need to show exactly how the philosophical method can be applied to the real world. Examples of logical fallacies used in advertising, or ethical questions regarding file-sharing, help demonstrate how the specific reasoning skills learned in the study of philosophy can be applied in real life.

Whether your goal is to share information or sell more widgets, it's important to think about the audience. What information do they require to make the choice to do what you wish them to do? Get into their heads, consider the goal from their perspective, do market research, then apply what you've learned to developing your content.

Content formats: how can we most effectively convey this information?

These days people are anxious to add video and interactivity to their sites to show that they are keeping up with the latest technologies. But video isn't appropriate for everything. Think about the content first and let that help you determine its format. Will you be including a list of available philosophy classes and course descriptions on the site? How would you present that? Would you show a video of Professor Smith reading the course descriptions? Or would you present the information as text? I'd go with text.

How is a philosophy class different than one in math or history? Would it help students to see a class in action? Perhaps this is the time to videotape Professor Smith. If he's known for leading dynamic class discussions, ask him if he'd let you video tape a few seminars. This allows you to share his expertise and knowledge with the public while also letting prospective students see what a philosophy class is like.

Do you want to include educational resources on ethics or logic that will teach students about the field while also enticing their interest? Perhaps you could create a blog or discussion forum in which you pose questions so that readers can respond.

If you think carefully about the information you wish to share and what site visitors should do with it, you'll soon find yourself choosing content formats that are far more appropriate than some talking head yammering at a camera.

Organization/navigation

Once you've come up with a list of the content, and content formats, you will need to support your specific goal, you can organize it into an outline or site map that will guide you in organizing the content and navigational structure of the site. As before try not to look too much to your old site for guidance at first. Instead look at your outline with fresh eyes. Put yourself in the mind of your target audience, and see which content items form logical content clusters.

Then, when your new outline is complete, compare it to the old site. Is the new structure completely different? Or are there only slight variations? This will help you determine whether your revised site will need a new menu system or just some minor adjustments. Also look at your site analytics. Are there pages on the current site that are important but don't get enough traffic? Are those pages hard to find? Is the content less than compelling? Will your new outline make it easier for visitors to find and view these pages?

Whether our new site will be redesigned entirely, or modified slightly, we can learn a lot from the statistics for our old site. They can show us the pathways visitors use to get to specific pages, the amount of time people spend on pages, and which pages they are likely to use as exits from our site. If certain pathways are often used we can try to maintain them so that we don't break anything that is currently working well.

The pages our visitors spend the most time on are typically the most important. If they're not on your new site outline, you may wish to add them. Are there important pages (to you) on the old site that visitors don't spend time viewing? Do these pages support your new goal? If so consider how you can make these easier to find and improve the content so they provide more value to visitors.

Technology/code

Ideally your old site was built in W3C standards compliant HTML using semantic mark-up. If so it will make it far easier to re-use any of the old content you intend to keep. If not, here is your opportunity to clean things up. Whether you are making significant design changes or minor alterations this project will probably involve edits to every page. Given that, it's a good chance to make some changes.

Did your old site use a table-based layout? Did you use bolded paragraph elements instead of headers? If so, try recoding your site using CSS and semantic mark-up. This will both clean up your code (so you're not stuck trying to make sense of all those old nested tables) and help with search engine optimization (SEO).

Also consider how technology has changed and what new options are available through your hosting provider. For example I used to use SSI (server-side includes) to include repeating elements such as headers, menus and footers. I'm now using PHP which also makes it easier to create unique page titles based on my page headers. If your content will include new features such as videos and interactivity, research the best methods for presenting these. Perhaps a content management system or blogging software would help. For my project I'm using WordPress. This makes it easier for me to group items by category and generate RSS feeds and will allow the client to post event and product announcements.

Your needs will vary, but if you take the time now to determine what the best practices are for the features you'll require, you'll find that the site is easier to rebuild and maintain.

Graphic Design

People assume that a redesign means a change in the visual look and feel of the site. But how much you change depends on your goals. Does the current look support your corporate identity and brand? Does it work with the new goal? Does it support the navigational scheme of the new site plan? Do visitors like it? If so, a dramatic change may not be necessary, it may in fact cause confusion. If this is the case you may want to just tweak things here and there to support the new structure.

On the other hand, if you've changed your logo, the old design doesn't serve the new goals or if your site looks like it was built by someone's 10 year old nephew, then yes, change is in order. Let the new goal and your brand identity lead the way.

I take a fairly minimalist approach to design. I don't want flashy graphics and images to compete with the message. Instead I want them to augment the message. But the header image on the site I'm redesigning focuses on only one product. Now that there are more products I'm changing the header graphics and color scheme to better reflect the theme of the full product line. For example, if my site had originally been about grapes, I might have had pictures of grapes and vineyards on the site. But if the company now sells a variety of fruits, my imagery must reflect that.

There's neither time nor space here to fully discuss design theory, but as you work on your new design concepts, keep your visitors in mind. Your favorite color may be hot pink, but your site is meant for your visitors so choose color schemes and readable typography that make it easy for them.

Marketing

Build your new site with marketing in mind. Properly marked-up code, and the use of keywords in your content (especially headers) will improve SEO, thus making your site more easily found in the future. Avoid technology choices, such as using Flash for your entire site, that don't support SEO, page linking, bookmarking, cross-browser compatibility, etc.

Compare your new site plan to the old. Try to keep the old file structure intact as much as possible. If your site has been around for awhile, then others are already linking to your pages and those pages are ranked in Google and other search engines. You don't want to lose what you've already established, so if you can avoid moving old pages, that will help. If you must move or delete old pages, then use 301 redirects to guide visitors seamlessly to the new pages.

When you launch the new site, consider this an opportunity to re-connect with your visitors. If appropriate, poll your visitors before and after the redesign process to get their input. People hate change but they like to feel included. It's impossible to design a site that will appeal to everyone, but if you have access to user input, it will help you design a site best suited to your audience.

When the site is ready, you might also send an e-mail, announcing the launch to your existing user base. Some people will praise you, some will opt-out, and some will complain. Respond to the complaints in a timely and thoughtful manner. You may have annoyed them with your changes, but you've also started a conversation with someone who cares enough about your site, product or service to voice their opinion. Keep them onboard by responding to their issues.

As with any Web development project, there are far more details to consider, but I hope these have provided you with a good starting point for your next redesign. If you focus on the goals and the needs of your site visitors you'll be well on your way.

Web Design and Development Resources
Edu Blogger Scholarship Update

Thanks to everyone who read Learning for fun and adventure: online education comes in many flavors. Through your support I made it to the finals! If you're interested in higher education and related topics, you may want to peruse the blogs of the other finalists. You'll find some good reads there. (Which means I've got some stiff competition.)

Bookmark & Share:
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Digg
  • LinkedIn
  • FriendFeed
  • MySpace
  • email

    Share on Google Buzz

20 Comments »
  1. Twitter Comment... Heidi Adams Cool - 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site?let?s start with WHY? [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by schools4me (schools4me) — April 8, 2009 @7:08 pm

  2. Twitter Comment... Another smart post. RT @hacool: 8 things to consider when redesigning your website—let’s start with WHY? [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by mStonerblog (Michael Stoner) — April 8, 2009 @8:15 pm

  3. This is a great post, Heidi. Chock full of really useful pieces that folks would be smart to keep handy the next time someone brings up the dreaded "r" word. Ron’s last blog post..Higher ed: Adapt or die

    Comment by Ron — April 8, 2009 @10:17 pm

  4. [...] 8 Things To Consider When Redesigning Your Website [...]

    Pingback by 8 Things To Consider When Redesigning Your Website : Design Newz — April 9, 2009 @4:00 am

  5. Very informative and useful post, cheers! Will be tweeting and bookmarking for sure! Gordon MorayWeb’s last blog post..What’s In Line : April 2009

    Comment by MorayWeb — April 9, 2009 @4:27 am

  6. Twitter Comment... 8 Things To Consider When Redesigning Your Web Site [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by MorayWeb (Gordon Naldrett) — April 9, 2009 @4:34 am

  7. Twitter Comment... READING: 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by murdamw (murdamw) — April 9, 2009 @5:12 am

  8. Twitter Comment... RT @tweetmeme » 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site—let’s start with WHY? | Web Development Blog... [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by kristinag1 (Kristina Dooley) — April 9, 2009 @10:24 am

  9. Twitter Comment... Eight things to consider when redesigning a website: [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by cosmicblend (cosmicblend) — April 9, 2009 @11:27 am

  10. Twitter Comment... 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site—let’s start with WHY? [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by brandonacox (Brandon Cox) — April 9, 2009 @11:31 am

  11. [...] 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site—let’s start with WHY? (tags: redesign) [...]

    Pingback by Inspiring Design Links for Creatives for 2009-04-10 | This Inspires Me — April 10, 2009 @9:21 am

  12. Twitter Comment... 8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by foan82 (Foan82) — April 10, 2009 @12:51 pm

  13. Twitter Comment... Are you redesigning your site for the hell of it or is there a reason? @hacool is asking: [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by timjahn (Tim Jahn) — April 13, 2009 @10:45 am

  14. Interesting post, Heidi, as always! :) Realignment does make the most sense, but I think my blog will need a complete overhaul... or (worse, and more possibly) I'll have to start afresh under a different domain name :( tashfeen’s last blog post..Having template problems

    Comment by tashfeen — April 14, 2009 @10:09 pm

  15. Tashfeen, You may find that you can get better control over things if you do a self-hosted WordPress install on your own domain instead of blogspot. Sometimes hosted solutions only get you so far. Good luck! Heidi Cool’s last blog post..8 things to consider when redesigning your Web site—let’s start with WHY?

    Comment by Heidi Cool — April 14, 2009 @10:59 pm

  16. Twitter Comment... Why redesign your web site? [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by KesslerFreedman (Kessler Freedman Inc) — June 13, 2009 @8:30 am

  17. Twitter Comment... RT @hacool: @SueSpaight You may find that a few minor tweaks are sufficient. Prob. don't need full redesign. [link to post] #Blogchat - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by JDEbberly (J D Ebberly) — October 25, 2009 @11:32 pm

  18. Twitter Comment... @hacool Thanks for the link Heidi - will definitely check it out. #blogchat - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by SueSpaight (Sue Spaight) — October 25, 2009 @11:40 pm

  19. Twitter Comment... RT @hacool: @ValerieInRke yes, enhancements rather than full redesign are often enough - [link to post] #Blogchat (Agreed) - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by kdrewien (Kathy Drewien) — November 2, 2009 @12:00 am

  20. Twitter Comment... RT @hacool: @ValerieInRke yes, enhancements rather than full redesign are often enough - [link to post] #Blogchat - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by JDEbberly (J D Ebberly) — November 2, 2009 @12:34 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URL