Optimize—Don’t Overhaul

At Elementive, I think it would be fair to say that we believe in optimization not overhaul. Optimization is the process of “making something…as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.” Overhauling is about finding ways to “renovate, remake, revise, or renew thoroughly.”

Why do we have this belief? Well, too often, we see clients who want to overhaul their websites and/or their companies. Nothing short of complete change can possibly fix their problems. Yet, after the overhaul process is complete, the company is in complete chaos. Everything is broken. Traffic is gone from the website. Sales are non-existent. Their current clients are canceling services.

Now, this doesn’t always happen but it happens far more often than it should. And in those instances when an overhaul does fail, simple optimizations—tweaks to improve performance—would have likely done a far better job solving the client’s initial problems than a complete and total overhaul.

Late last year we began working with a client shortly after they had done a complete redesign of their website. The redesign had failed, leading to a significant loss in traffic and a sizable loss in customers for this organization. Now, part of the failure was technical issues with the redesign itself (redirects matter). But beyond these technical issues, the redesign also missed the mark on what this organization’s customers wanted, and it missed the mark in a pretty substantial way.

As we began to help this client, it became clear that their old website wasn’t that bad. They had a decent amount of traffic arriving on the site and they were getting some of those visitors converting into customers. If, instead of overhauling via a redesign, the organization had made smaller tweaks to the content, to the navigation, to the home page, or other key pages, they probably could have corrected many of those initial problems.

We’ve seen this happen with countless other clients of ours. The most recent example comes from a client we’ve been helping for the last two years. After a steady two years of optimizing their website, gradually correcting one problem after another, their leads and sales have begun to double when comparing to historical averages. The optimization work has cost them a fraction of what it would cost to do a complete redesign and redevelopment of their website.

Why The Overhaul Preference

There is an institutional bias toward overhauling instead of optimization, especially at larger organizations. It is easier to get funding for a large redesign project because the end result is much easier to state: we’re going to change the way our website looks or we’re going to adjust this functionality. This is pretty straightforward—you may not know what the redesign will look like, but it is clearer what this project will involve. It is also much easier to plan out this project—we’ll have the redesign completed in 3 months, or whatever.

It is a bit harder to explain the need to invest in small tweaks or even explain the process. We’re going to invest money and time in slowly changing a few things on the website at time, continually testing and tweaking to find what works better. What specifically are we changing? How often are we changing things? Well, we’ll have to get back to you on that—those all depend on how other changes perform. This is much more open-ended, and much harder to wrap your head around.

Granted, some people who make decisions around investments are beginning to see the advantage in optimizing instead of overhauling. But, en masse, there is a preference toward investing in the thing that is easier to conceptualize. The bigger companies where this happens largely set the expectations for the smaller companies, which results in a widespread belief that the only way to succeed is to overhaul.

The Risks Of Overhaul

In reality, the less risky path is to make small changes, see what works, make more changes based on what you’ve learned, and repeat over and over. If things fail, the failure is limited to a particular group of test pages instead of across the entire website. More often than not, though, the failure won’t be that big. For instance, if you optimize your website by adding images to service detail pages, and those images hurt the conversion rate, chances are it won’t hurt the conversion rate so severely that the company will suffer as a result. Optimization allows for more control, but it does require being willing to embrace uglier, somewhat imperfect designs.

On the other hand, overhauling anything is incredibly risky. Take the website redesign example. With a redesign, you are changing everything, all at once. The look of the site will change on every device for every user. Everything will be laid out differently, the navigation and text might even change too. With a redesign, you are betting the company (or at least the part of the company dependent on the website) that the redesign will work better.

As you explain the risks, people see the value of investing in optimizing instead of overhauling. This isn’t to say “never overhaul”, because sometimes you do need to completely start over. But the times when overhauling is the right answer are rarer than many would think. More often than not, you don’t want to risk everything in the name of making changes. Instead, optimization is the more reliable, less risky, and simpler path forward.