26 April, 2012

Goals of the Re-Design Process

Re-designing a website is more than just giving it an improved new look. The successes and shortcomings of the existing site are invaluable in knowing how to truly improve the site and make the re-design worth the time, effort, and cost.

Like any site design/development, a clear set of goals and purposes should be established to direct the project. Without knowing specifically why the site is being re-designed or what needs to be improved, you may wind up with a better looking design, but it is unlikely to be more effective for the business or for the users.

I’m currently in the very early stages of re-designing a website for a client that needs a fresh look and some usability improvements. The client is a service provider and the existing site has been effective at attracting new business, but the site has grown and usability has suffered because the navigation can be difficult, and because the most important content isn’t consistently prioritized and featured throughout the site. In general, the site could be more effective for both users and for the business. The design needs to be updated and the income-generating services that drive the business need to clearly be the focal point of the website.

This situation has led me to evaluate the re-design process and how it should be approached for both the designer and the client/website owner. Throughout the post we’ll look at some steps and key points in the process and why they have a big impact on the end result.


Goal Setting

Regardless of whether you’re creating a new website or re-designing an existing one, it’s critical to identify the purpose and the key factors for determining the success of the project. Part of a designer’s job is to make things look good, but the more important part is to make the site effective for the business owner and for visitors.
Before starting a re-design, take the time, preferably with the client, to list the specific goals of the project and what needs to be accomplished. Once clarity is established in this area you’ll be able to work towards achieving the goals with confidence that the job is being done well.
Part of the goal setting process involves knowing specifically what the website should accomplish for the owner/client. This may seem pretty obvious in some cases, but it’s worth taking some time to consider because the wrong approach here can seriously damage the effectiveness of the site. What is the most important aspect of the website for the business? Selling products? Finding new clients? Is it strictly informational?


Evaluating the Current Design

In almost all cases the current website will have some strengths and weaknesses. Of course, the strengths should be maintained as much as possible through the re-design and the weaknesses should be improved to the point where they can no longer be considered weaknesses.
Here are some specific specific questions you can ask yourself to evaluate the current design:


1. How does it compare to websites of competitors?
It’s common for websites in specific industries to have some similarities, and it’s easier to compare a website to another in the same industry than it is to compare sites in two completely different industries. Take a look at some of the leaders in the industry, or maybe just some of the most significant competitors, and judge the overall design of the sites to see how yours compares. Visitors to the site are very likely to also be visiting other sites in the same niche or industry, so it’s desirable to have a site that compares favorably to others.


2. Could a new design keep the same feel, or does it need to be stripped down and totally started over?

Because websites are so important for branding, and also because re-designs can have major impacts on repeat visitors, it’s usually preferable to keep a similar look and feel to a website rather than completely going in a different direction. An example of this is the recent redesign of PSDTUTS and the other sites in the TUTS family. The new blog theme gives the site a fresh and improved look, but still keeps major elements in tact so visitors will feel at home even after the re-design.




In some cases the current design may be sufficient to the point that it can be retained in some ways, but in other situations the re-design will need to start from scratch. Of course, it’s helpful to know this as early in the process as possible.


3. What style should the new design feature?

There are obviously many different styles a designer can use to create an attractive and effective website. However, the style of the website should fit with the purpose and content of the site, and visitors should be a major consideration.

The target audience of a website is likely to have certain preferences when it comes to design style, and these should not be ignored. This is the main reason that so many websites in particular niches or industries share a similar style. While you don’t want your designs to look just like everything else, it’s a good idea to factor in the common user expectations and what they will want to see when they arrive at your site.


4. What works and what doesn’t work in the current design?

When looking at the current design and determining a direction for the re-design, it’s important to take a close look at what is working and what is not. Are there certain aspects of the website or the design that draw a lot of feedback, either positive or negative? Are there areas of the site where usability could be improved? Once you have a specific list of strengths and weaknesses you’ll have a much better idea of what direction to take with the re-design.


Site Structure

If the website has been continually growing with new content or pages being added, the structure of the site is an area that may need evaluation. Does the current structure allow for visitors to easily find what they’re looking for? Does it allow for the site to continue to grow without any problems? If these items need to be addressed it’s best to do so at the time of re-design so they can be adequately handled and fixed.


Traffic Sources

One area that is often overlooked during a re-design is traffic sources. It’s important to know how visitors are arriving on the site because it will help you to learn more about the visitors of the site. In addition, it’s helpful to know which pages are the most common entry points so that you can be certain to make these pages as useful as possible to new visitors.

Knowing the sources of traffic can help you to find ways to maximize those sources. For example, before I redesigned this blog theme about six months ago Design Float had consistently been one of the leading sources of traffic, and fortunately a targeted source as well. As part of the re-design of the theme a voting button for Design Float was added at the end of each post, and since that time the traffic from Design Float has become even more significant.


Layout

The layout of a website has even more significance in terms of content than it does in terms of design. While the layout is important for creating an attractive site, it also helps to determine how the content will be presented to visitors and what will be emphasized the most. Take the time to consider what is most important on the site, and remember the ultimate goals of the site and the re-design. Is there content that needs to get priority by being placed in prime areas of the layout?


SEO

Search engine visitors are important to just about every website. One of the potential areas for disaster in a re-design is damaged SEO that results in lower rankings and reduced search engine traffic. Obviously, only a portion of the significant SEO factors are influenced by on-page factors, and others are off-page.

For the on-page factors, if the site is currently doing well with search engines, pay close attention to how it is structured and coded in order to avoid damaging the rankings. If the site currently isn’t doing as well as it could, then changing things up and improving the on-page SEO is necessary.

Even off-page SEO needs to be considered to some extent. It’s preferable to keep the URL structure the same as it was before the re-design so search visitors are going to arrive at the right place and so that the exiting pages get the benefits of the existing rankings rather than starting over. If a lot of links are pointing at specific pages, make sure that those URLs are not changed, or if they must be, make sure to use SEO-friendly re-directs.