A reader of this column recently asked, "How often should a website be redesigned?" It wasn't the first time I'd heard that question, and I doubt it'll be the last. As we've devoted the last few columns to solving common design issue problems in uncommon ways, let's add this topic to the mix.
The question of redesign deals with branding, loyalty, product release cycles and related topics. We're going to look to the intersection of these items to come up with a single solution that addresses them all. The suggestions offered here are based on the research behind a three-year project developed for a Fortune 500 company in the workforce management business.
The military method
I explained to the reader what I proposed, explained what I proposed until I believed he understood the suggestion, and then reviewed what I'd just proposed with him to make sure he could carry out the steps on his own. His statement to me was "Oh, you just used the military method to explain things to me. You told me what you were going to tell me, told me what you told me you were going to tell me, then you told me what you'd just told me. I get it."
It was one of those young Jedi moments I so love when I work with people.
I gave him a few minutes to go over in his head what we'd just covered on a cocktail napkin. He took a sip of his beer then slammed the bar with his free hand and laughed. "That's what you just told me to do when I redesign sites, right? You want me to tell visitors what I'm going to do, tell them I'm doing it, and then tell them what I did after it's done!"
Ah, Young Jedi.
Fellow iMedia Connection columnist, author and consultant Rob Graham has some excellent stories about companies that debrand customers. Debranding occurs when a company not only fails to fulfill its promise of good service or product, but also fails to do so in a way that leaves a lasting negative impression on the consumer. Many websites go through a redesign and, because their interface is their brand on the web, they end up debranding customers rather than building loyalty.
The three-year study mentioned above demonstrated that there was a direct link between changes in website traffic patterns and a decline in web-related sales to previously loyal customers.
The changes in traffic patterns and decline in web-related sales synchronized in an unobvious way to rebuilds and redesigns of their site, with the majority of website visitors being debranded each time a new version of the site was released.
Nowhere to go and nothing to do
Debranding occurs on websites when enough of the website is changed so that acquired navigation patterns no longer apply. Debranding, which happens when website visitors find it easier to shop elsewhere than continue on a site they were previously loyal to, can sometimes be traced back to website rebuilds or redesigns done without alerting previously loyal visitors to changes before they occur.
Quite literally, visitors can't figure out where to go or what to do. Because they could rely on your site to meet their needs and goals previously, this creates frustration and an unfulfilled expectation on their part. It may not be easier for them to go elsewhere, but your site betrayed their trust, and if they're early in the trust cycle then they, like a jilted lover, will find solace in the arms of another.
Consider this example: About once every few months you take a drive in the country to a favorite destination (perhaps a good restaurant that you don't go to often but which is at the end of a relaxing drive, so the trip is worth it once in a while). You get the family in the car and start out on the drive and about half way there you discover they've changed the roads. They aren't just in the process of doing road maintenance, they've removed the roads, moved the towns... you know the restaurant's still out there, somewhere, but your landmarks are gone; your travel plans are gone, and very quickly your interest in getting there is gone too. You decide to go somewhere else.
The goal is to migrate repeat visitors to the redesigned website while encouraging first-time visitors to explore whatever interface they're greeted with. This needs to be coupled with a metric that can provide marketing, web and management teams a better feel for when redesigns need to occur rather than incurring the cost of a complete redesign or rebuild simply because "it's time".
Migration is a matter of timing
Here's the method the Young Jedi and I came up with for determining when to perform a site redesign or rebranding.
- Migration Item: Create a "What's Coming" section on the home page. The "What's Coming" section highlights future changes to the website and offers interested visitors a chance to become beta testers of the new site, or, if the rebranding is tied to a new product release, to become beta testers of that.
- Migration Item: The "What's Coming" section links to a "What's Coming" page that goes into detail of design changes and to a beta tester sign up page. Beta testers have the opportunity to buy-in to the beta process for a discount on the full release and have direct access to the design and technical support teams.
- New Content Timing and Site Redesign Metric: Track the web logs to determine when the average visitor's time on page became roughly one-third of what it originally was, then redesign the website. In other words, follow these rules:
- Publish a version of the site
- Pick a time interval (day, week, month)
- Multiply the number of visitors during that time interval by the average time on a page
- Label the answer V0. Each equal time interval, do the same arithmetic.
- Label each new value V1, V2 out to Vn
- When Vn = 1/3 * V0 it's time for a new design
These suggestions (again, based on the three-year study and implemented on several sites since then) provide marketing, management and web development teams a standardized metric for adding fresh content to pages that don't update often and a guide for when it's time to go through a rebuild or rebranding process.
Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truckdriver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling -- and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others. Carrabis is CRO and Founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global, and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He's inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. You can download sections of Carrabis' next book, "Reading Virtual Minds," at www.hungrypeasant.com.