Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How Often Should I Redesign My Website?

How Often Should I Redesign My Website?

We were asked this question by a potential client several weeks ago, who was commissioning a website redesign. Of course we gave the precise answer, 24 months, based on plugging into a redesign algorithm the site traffic, the online sales, the relatively modest size of the site, the brand index, the competitive site metrics, the x-factor of new web technologies and best practices, and the loudness of the moon-howling by disgruntled employees and distraught executives. There were other variables, of course, but they were lost in the howling, and we did answer 24 months.

In 1997, things were different. Simpler algorithms, for one. My first company website was redesigned every 6 months. We tried everything. We were learning new things. We latched onto some usability geniuses who developed a “search frustration factor” and we were off to the races: Let’s change this and that. Let’s try this navigation scheme. Let’s add a remote control. We were in the experimental mode of “fire for effect.” Later, when e-commerce was added, and ERP systems linked, and ASP sites for HR and IR, and international sites, and a catalog with thousands of products, rapid change was of course more difficult.

Fast forward to 2011, and now on the agency side of the creative process. We have just completed one robust site redesign and are in the midst of another. Both are time and labor-intensive, both have a new information architecture and content management system, both have thousands (thousands) of “pages,” both have significant system integration tasks, both have new images, video and written content. The process for both is in the year-long range. The size and complexity of a site does matter here: it complicates redesign. For large sites, a total revamping after 24 months would not provide a good ROI, and a 36 or 48-month cycle may be more appropriate. But - it depends!

So when should you consider a site redesign? What’s the tipping point for change?

1. The World Has Tilted On Its Axis. If the market has changed dramatically - with a disruptive technology, a new competitor, new demographics, or a major industry-wide downturn - a business or institution has to respond, and the website has to reflect, drive and lead that response. Three or two-year-old thinking may have to change on taxonomy, information architecture, content, function, and design. If an enterprise site has had the foresight to build a robust and flexible content management system, change will be simplified, but still significant.

2. You Want to Tilt the World a New Way. New branding, new strategic direction, radically new technology – you need to redesign your website. Again, your back-end systems and architecture so well thought out two or three years ago may save you time in redesign - but it is still a significant project, with new upfront work required on target users and their needs.

3. You Need to Significantly Tilt Sales Up and Costs Down. Let’s say your direct higher education competitor has a significantly higher admissions yield, or your direct life science tools competitor has a significantly higher percentage of online sales, or faster sales growth. They announce at their annual meeting that their online sales are 80% of their total and yours are just breaking 8%. A site redesign can help remedy that and provide a significant ROI, assuming it is based on customer intelligence - including focus groups and usability testing.

4. Your House Is Tilting. Drive out into the far suburbs of Boston and you will see these colonial houses with endless additions that go on and on. A room here and a room there, a building that extends deep into the woods. If you have made a lot of additions to your website over a two-year period - entirely new areas of content, new types of tools - it may start to look like one of those colonial houses. At some point it may make sense to tear the house down and start over with a stronger foundation, including a stronger information architecture. But - of course - beware the Historical Society.

5. You Tilt on Auto Pilot. Well-run websites are constantly in flux - changing imagery and content, optimizing their nomenclature, tweaking their integrations and linkages, adding new interactive applications. The changes are based on user input, on traffic, on analytics, on periodic direct research. But if a site is fairly static for two to three years, chances are it needs an overhaul - both of product and process.

So, “How often should I redesign my company or institution’s website?” It really does depend on a number of variables, but typically not less than two years, and not more than five. For a major enterprise, change can be “built-in” and simplified with a robust back-end CMS system. The more work you do to get it right the first time, with a deep understanding of your user and what they want to achieve, and with a well-founded information architecture scheme and taxonomy, with a continuous mining of analytics and end-user intelligence, the easier it will be the next time.

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