The Risks Of Redesigning A Website

At some point, every website will need a redesign. While there are many good reasons for a redesign—from branding to technology to product to things just not working all that well anymore—there are also plenty of bad reasons to redesign a website. Far too often, I see companies dive into a redesign, excited about the new look and the possibilities for what could be only to see the new design fail. Following the redesign, they see decreased search rankings, traffic, engagement, reputation, sales, leads, or other conversions.

The problem for many redesigns usually stems from not understanding the value in the current website’s design—value that can exist even if the website’s current look is ugly or outdated. So, before you consider redesigning your website, you want to know ensure you are redesigning in the right way and for the right reasons.

Side Note: If you find yourself in the situation where a redesign caused failure, it can be a long road ahead. How to recover is outside the scope of this post, but please contact me and I’d be happy to help you figure out your recovery plan.

Risks of Redesign

A website redesign can mean many different things, but commonly it means one of three things.

It can purely be a new look, with the text, page structures, and navigation largely remaining the same. Often, this is referred to as a “reskin”, since you are changing the skin but leaving the innards the same.

Along with changing the look, the functionality can change too—with changes to the code. This is referred to as a redevelopment and can occur with or without altering the look of the site.

A redesign can also involve changing the navigation and content. Links are added to and removed from the navigation. Pages are rewritten or removed entirely, while brand new pages are added into the mix.

All of these types of redesign come with risks. A new look comes with the risk of disorienting people who were familiar with your old design, reducing the number of people who are converting following the redesign. In the worst case scenario, people don’t even recognize that your site is your site.

Building new functionality risks confusing or frustrating people who don’t understand how this new stuff operates. This frustration and confusion will grow worse if the new functionality has bugs or errors that weren’t corrected during development (no code is ever perfect, after all). These problems lead to a reduction in conversions but can also lead to a reduction in the overall satisfaction people have when visiting your website.

There are also risks when changing content or navigation. People might be looking for a page that you removed from your website. Or, if you kept the page but are linking to it in a new way, people may not know where the link to that page now resides. Along with confusing or frustrating people with page changes, altering content can also negatively impact the traffic visiting your site. If you remove or significantly alter the content on a page that was ranking highly in search results, the rankings and traffic associated with the old content on that page can completely disappear.

When a redesign goes south, it takes a lot of time and effort to recover—time and effort that could have been spent gaining something new instead of regaining what was lost.

But, there are ways to do a redesign the right way…

The Right Reasons To Redesign

It all depends on how the redesign starts…I’ll share two stories.

Story One: A Bad Redesign

A few years back, a long-term client of mine told me she wanted to redesign her website. We started discussing the reasons why—she was tired of the way her site looked and wanted something more modern to represent her company’s brand. The website’s design had only lackluster support for mobile, so a better design was needed for visitors using a smartphone.

She also wanted to get rid of some pages of content that were on her site. While there was traffic coming to these pages, people were just too confused by the text that was there and she didn’t see value in retooling these pages. Of note, some of those pages led to some people contacting her through the lead form but the client insisted these people were poor quality contacts.

After some back and forth on different options for how to handle the pages she wanted to remove, I helped her locate a designer and she proceeded with the redesign. The new design looked really nice—it was very modern and very clean, exactly what she wanted. The navigation was simplified as well thanks to the removal of several pages from the site. Other pages were consolidated to further simplify the design. It certainly seemed like it was easier to move through the website. As well, the mobile version of the website was considerably improved.

Almost immediately following the redesign, her traffic dropped as did her search rankings. To an extent, this was expected since she had removed or consolidated some of the pages from her site. But, the traffic decreased to other pages too—even though the text on those pages had remained largely the same. Making matters worse, the number of people contacting her plummeted. The redesign had depleted her budget and she didn’t have the resources to rebuild traffic, especially given the drop in sales. Clearly, this redesign had failed and had caused irreparable harm to her business.

Story Two: A Good Redesign

This story is about another client of mine who embarked on a redesign but things started quite differently. This client is in the same industry as the first example—selling a similar product and the website is also focused on generating leads by getting people to contact her. Like with the first client, I’d worked with this company for years.

This redesign started with the client and I discussing some systemic problems people were encountering on her website. We had tried a few different changes to the current site to fix those problems but nothing seemed to be working. Along with the problems people were encountering on the site, she was getting feedback saying her company’s brand and her website’s look was disconnected from the quality of her product—her customers were telling her that she needed to refresh her brand. Taking all of this into account, it was clear that this company needed a redesign and redevelopment of the website.

This client was initially reluctant to pursue a redesign, afraid of what negative implications there might be. We took the time to dig in and understand what was working about her current site. What pages did people want to visit? Which pages didn’t people want to visit and why? What content was helpful and what wasn’t? Where was the traffic coming from and why?

These are the questions that help uncover the value of the current site. Along with digging into the data, we conducted interviews with her existing customers to better understand what they were thinking and what they would want to see change. We found some sections of the site where people were getting confused by the content and figured out a plan to retool—not remove—these pages.

After completing this research, I helped the client locate a designer to work on the new design. The new design looked really nice and did alleviate most of the systemic issues the client had been facing. It offered a nice, new look to the company’s brand. The content was rewritten and the navigation updated. A few pages were removed from the site based on what we’d learned about content while reviewing the data.

Following the roll-out of the new design, traffic stayed even as did contacts. It was, frankly, kind of boring without any huge gains or losses. We did see some positive movement related to two problems people were facing. About a month after the redesign, we started to see a slight dip in traffic—just outside the realm of normalcy. But, three months after the redesign, we started to see an uptick in traffic, rankings, and an uptick in contacts. Six months out traffic was up significantly year over year and conversions were up too. This redesign was a success.

Understanding What Works & What Doesn’t

There is a clear difference between these stories—and I’ve seen it play out time and again with redesign projects. In the case of a failed redesign, it usually starts with internal motivations with the board, founders, executive team, or marketing department wanting something to change. Successful redesigns are more likely to start from external motivations with the people using the website telling you what to clean up or fix. These are broad, general statements—reality rarely fits so neatly into such clean distinctions. Certainly, you can misunderstand those external signals from visitors and miss the mark of a redesign. And, just as certainly, you can succeed with an internal push for a new look.

But, to increase the chances of a redesign working, you need to take the time to understand what people really want from your website—those external factors. What is working on you current website? What problems do you really need to clean up? What pages are people accessing and why? What pages are people not accessing and why? Where does your content need clarification or refinement?

To answer these questions, you need to dig into your data. You want to find out what visitors are really doing on your site right now. Focus groups and interviews are helpful too, especially to find new ideas. But there is a world of difference between what people say they want and what they actually want from your website. So much of a visit to a website is unconscious behavior—people aren’t aware why they clicked certain links so they can’t clearly communicate those reasons as part of an interview or focus group discussion. You need to look at the data as well to see what people really do, not just what they say.

After digging into the data and talking with visitors, you can figure out how to fix the problems people are facing. In the example of the client who had their redesign fail, instead of removing the pages from her site, she should have investigated the problems with those pages more deeply to understand why people were confused and what it would take to reduce that confusion. People were visiting these pages and people were contacting her after visiting these pages…people wanted these pages, just a revised version that was clearer.

Equally important is knowing which problems not to fix. In the example of the failed redesign, the people visiting the site weren’t struggling to use her old design. Sure, it didn’t look modern, but people were able to visit the website, read the content, and contact the organization. Where there was actually a problem was on the mobile website—people using a mobile device were struggling to click on the navigation. Instead of a full-scale redesign, some small improvements to the mobile design could have resolved many of these problems.

Should You Redesign?

Maybe. Redesigns are risky requiring a huge investment of time and money. When redesigning, you divert funds, time, and focus away from other endeavors. Before redesigning, you need to clearly identify the problems you are improving for your visitors (as opposed to identifying the problems you’d like to solve even though nobody else sees these things as a problem). If you do decide to take the risk and redesign, you need to be prepared for an unfavorable outcome, so have the funds and time ready to invest in a recovery. But you also need to accept that maybe you shouldn’t redesign your website. Instead, by making a few small tweaks to your uglier and older site you could see gains with less of the risk.