Website Redesign: Big Bang, Gradual or Evolutionary Approach?

I'd like to look at three approaches to redesigning a website:

  1. Big bang — move completely from an old to a new design in one go
  2. Gradual — implement the redesign by sections over time
  3. Evolutionary — avoid redesigning altogether and focus on improving the existing site

These approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Let's consider them in reference to a large, content-rich website.

Big Bang Approach

Advantages

Keeps your site looking consistent. On one day your whole site simply changes from one design to another.

Easily understood by your visitors. Whether or not they like it, your visitors will be familiar with this traditional method of redesigning. Messaging around the redesign is not about what is going on but more about why it was undertaken.

Easy to sell this approach internally. It's easier for stakeholders to understand the concept of moving completely from one design to another than an approach that involves interim steps where more than one theme may be viewable to visitors.

Keeps your web analytics clean. Having a single cutover date makes it easy to immediately start measuring the effectiveness of the new design and comparing it to the previous one.

Disadvantages

It can take a long time. You need to migrate all of your pages over to the new design in order to launch and cannot gain any of the benefits of the new design until you do. While you're doing the project, you also have to maintain the live site and so are likely managing content in two places.

It can create a jarring user experience. No matter how well you advertise the upcoming redesign in advance, the changeover is still going to catch many visitors by surprise. Suddenly they have to relearn how to use the website, and many of them won't be happy about it.

Keeps your site static. Redesigning a website in this way is such a large endeavor that it is only undertaken infrequently. This can lead to your site design being static for longer than it should be based on changes in business conditions, your knowledge of your visitors, etc.

Gradual Approach

An increasingly popular approach is to launch a site redesign in stages, starting with the most popular pages or even just the home page. This approach has become quite common with news sites, which may just start with a home page redesign and go from there.

Advantages

Easier to implement the redesign. For large, content-rich sites, it's easier to move smaller sections of the site over to a new design than to do it all at once. You can also control the pace of the redesign so that the web team can keep up with maintaining the live site as well.

Shorter time to launch. If you're starting with, say, your home page, you can be up-and-running with a site redesign in a much shorter timeframe than if you were going to switch over the whole site. This provides an opportunity to gather feedback from your visitors much earlier and to apply it as you redesign the rest of the website.

More gentle introduction to the new design. Most people dislike change, and so introducing it at a more gradual rate will make it easier for your visitors to get used to it and adapt the way they use your site.

Disadvantages

Can be complex to do. If the redesign involves information architecture changes, it can be difficult to introduce the new IA gradually while still maintaining the old one. Extensive use of redirects may be necessary in order to avoid broken internal links. The same challenge is true for sitewide features like a new search tool.

Harder to sell to stakeholders. This approach is harder to sell internally as there will be concern that the site looks broken. Most stakeholders don't understand how task-focused web users are and instead focus on keeping the look of the site consistent above all else.

Evolutionary Approach

A third method, the 'evolutionary' approach, tries to avoid the need for a redesign altogether. Rather than change the overall design of the site, the pages, content, features and functionality within it evolve according to changing visitor and organizational needs.

Netflix is a good example of this. Although the overall theme of the site has not changed substantially for years, the pages within it (particularly the home page) are constantly changing as the team tests out new ideas with their users.

Advantages

Avoids the pain of redesigning. Large website redesigns are very challenging to do and will tax the resources of most web teams. They are often very political (especially what goes on the home page) and can be subject to the whims of higher level executives.

Frees up time to work on something useful. Time spent not redesigning can be spent on something more relevant to the bottom line, such as A/B testing of checkout flows, refreshing old content, or improving the conversion rate of a signup page.

Keeps your visitors happy. As I mentioned before, people hate change and website redesigns are generally received negatively. Unless your website is in desperate need of an overhaul, you may be better off leaving it as is for as long as possible. Better to direct your focus instead on ensuring that visitor tasks can be easily completed.

Disadvantages

We're bored with the old site. The teams responsible for the website will become bored with the current design and will want to update it. Redesigning a website is also a very obvious way of showing 'progress' to internal decision makers when it comes to annual review time. It's often harder to sell less tangible improvements made to a website unless they have more obvious visible components.

Further Reading

Posted on: June 10, 2010 | No comments

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