Long Live the Redesign

In 2005, Cameron Moll wrote an article about something that was as incessant then, as it is now: The redesign.

In a nutshell, the concept he put forward is: Great designers adjust an existing work with little disruption of the foundational design for a goal or purpose. The end result is a modification to the design that improves the user experience. Good designers, on the other hand, recreate existing work focusing on the aesthetic, with a misunderstood notion that it will always improve it. However they end up disrupting and/or damaging the user’s experience making no real impact with the effort.1

“Like a kid in a candy store, we creatives redesign like it’s the new black. Why do we possess such an insatiable desire to refresh and remake? Why do we thrive on renewal? What tempts us to be seduced by the sway of renaissance?” –- Cameron Moll

His idea that “good designers redesign, great designers realign” seemed to be embraced by many. I say seemed to, because not much has changed since that time. The redesign has continued as an incurable obsession and the realign is a forgotten buzzword of an earlier era. The redesign is the wonder drug of the Web: Bad experience with an app? Give it a new design. Don’t like how Craigslist works? Here’s a free redesign for you.

The redesign costs more than money. Just ask Gawker where roughly 50 percent of their audience went. As Andy Budd put it: “People expect the pain of losing something to be greater than the value gained from its replacement.”2

The Wrong Approach

If we were to dissect a typical website and list out the items of focus like a list of ingredients we would find a much different experience. Take for example a university site. There might be elements like: an alumni success story, events, latest news, link to schedule a tour, etc. Now if we contrast that with what a current or prospective student might actually be looking for, we get a completely different list of ingredients: campus address, application forms, campus map, etc. So, why are most university sites designed this way?3

Typical University Site
Breakdown of a typical university Website by XKCD

We don’t just find this problem with university sites either. It affects many other sites for companies big and small. Ingredients like the marketing splash, or snippets of updates from their Twitter or Facebook, all take up a majority of the screen.

“The Walgreens site is an interesting example. One fifth of the visitors follow the “photo” link. 16% go to search. The third most important link is about refilling prescriptions. The fourth is the pharmacy link. The fifth most used links is finding the physical stores. Those five links add up to 59% of the total traffic …but those links take up just 3.8% of the page.” -– Jared Spool

A recent report by Jakob Neilsen echoes the quote above by Jared Spool. He talks about the use of screen real estate and how wasted it is most time on the elements that aren’t that important to the user. He found that even if the navigation was initially enticing, the users switched (once they discovered it) to the “slightly boring design for everyday, actual use.” Why? Because it was more useful to them than the “kind of cool” interface.

Jason Fried brought up an interesting point several years ago on the state of design when he showed the difference between the Google results for a site and the landing page of the site itself. His point was that you could clearly get to the items you needed to reach faster by using the Google results that cut to the essence of the Website.

This isn’t saying that having a site or application that is stripped of design down to links or bare content is the right answer. It says that our approach to design is simply wrong. So many organizations out there have trouble articulating who their audience segments are and understanding what those various groups really need. Their stakeholder wants run rampant without anything to balance them out. Forget about evaluating a site or app to understand what is actually not working or which specific things to fix.4

“One reason sites suck is that so many of us have forgotten why our sites exist. We get distracted, lose sight of priorities, and end up with sites that don’t do the most important things users want. Such a site is kind of like Swiss Army knife without the, um, knife.” -– Louis Rosenfeld

I can’t help but draw a connection here to the state of publishing and the reading experiences big media delivers versus Flipboard or Readability. They are so hung up on monetization, they have forgotten how to design a good reading experience. They obviously understand how to do it, since great (Web) design is many times influenced by print.

Esquire Print vs. Web
Comparison of Esquire print and web versions via Readability Blog

Most of the problems facing organizations that are doing a redesign could be avoided by approaching the design differently. This means focusing on the meaningful elements in the first place and setting up metrics to properly evaluate what needs to be fixed/improved later.4

The Never Ending Cycle

Being a creative first is tough because the first reaction to most new clients or products we see means dissecting it visually. We are immediately thinking what things we can improve without understanding the wants of the client or needs of the user. Designers have become enablers to the redesign. We helped to create this monster.

We complain about crowdsourced designs and spec work. But put a “bad” logo in front of us and we fall right into the trap of free work. Many designers feel the need to puff out their chest and show how talented they are by taking on well known Websites or applications and giving them a quick unsolicited redesign with zero insight. So, this is supposed to prove you understand design and UX better then they do? Really? If we want to be treated as professionals and seen as valuable, then this is not the way to do it.

Our exposure hours to the Websites and applications that we work on add up to weeks and months. For the user, it’s minutes or hours. Just when they get comfortable we pull the rug out from under them.5

“The mere exposure effect probably evolved to help early humanoids cope with their environment: they would like members of their own tribe and dislike outsiders, and they would feel more happy being on familiar territory than on foreign grounds. And they would prefer eating foods that they had seen before. All good survival instincts, and thus traits that were passed down the generations to us.” — Jakob Neilsen

The redesign disease is in full effect on the Web. It teaches us that it’s quick and painless, and we can always redesign our problems away. And the cycle of meaningless design continues.

It’s time to stop this madness. Realign it, or refine it. Focus and attack the high priority issues that will cause little disruption and improve on the experience. Set up ways to measure and diagnose specific problems. Yes, sometimes you really do have to make big changes, just understand why you are doing it. Fine tune the engine, don’t keep rebuilding it.

1) Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign by Cameron Moll

2) Website redesign: A design for strife on The Independent

3) Jared Spool: The Secret Lives of Links Notes by Jeremy Keith

4) Sweat the Important Things and The Redesign Must Die by Louis Rosenfeld

5) Fresh vs. Familiar: How Aggressively to Redesign by Jakob Neilsen