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Website Redesign

Without a Nervous Breakdown

by: John Marshall
 
It doesn't matter whether you're working for a company or working as a freelancer with clients. It happens to all of us. That sigh of relief we breathe when the website we've been designing is finally 'finished.' Truth be told, a good website is constantly in flux, taking advantage of the web's fluid and flexible nature.
      Unlike other marketing and sales materials, changes made to your website can be relatively painless-or at least less painful than throwing out a box of brochures because you've decided to change your branding or your focus. It's hard to throw those away, no matter how outdated or inaccurate they may be; when you do, it's hard to see anything else but dollar signs hovering above the trash can.
      The web offers unparalleled flexibility in making changes. Whether it be adding or changing content, switching graphic elements or including features that allow customers to more easily interact, these changes typically requires only the desire, the technical know-how and the budget to support both. Go into a site redesign blindly, however, simply adding and subtracting elements and pages based on hunches or what one visitor has commented on doesn't make any sense.
Three steps to remember
In order for the site redesign to be effective, and your sanity to remain intact (or at least as intact as it is now) it's imperative that you do three things:
  1. Benchmark your site. Figure out what's currently happening, what's working and what isn't.
  2. Visit the competition. Are they doing something you should be doing?
  3. Know when to be flexible. Carefully pick your battles with the boss or the client.
Benchmark your site
What works for one visitor may not work for the majority of visitors... and what works in the mind of one well-meaning designer may not work at all for the site's target audience. Measuring your site's current status is imperative, and can be done in a number of ways. The cheapest way to accomplish this is to guess. Of course, guessing is also the most inefficient and error-prone method. Use this as a last resort, but don't expect it to be effective. Another option is to utilize a log file analysis program, which run the gamut from free, open source software to thousand of dollars, highly customized solutions.
      Looking at raw log file data is like looking at a run-on sentence filled with gibberish, semi-colons and numbers. Log file analyzers basically take the information collected by your server (page views, referrers, time spent at each page, etc.) and puts it in a format that's easier to understand. Usability testing can also give you an idea of how well your site is performing. Several companies provide this service at varying price points, or you can do it yourself. Low cost usability testing can be something as low-tech as having an observer watch 'over the shoulder' of a web user, recording the actions they took when asked to perform a specific task.
      It's also important to gather qualitative data, such as the user's overall satisfaction with the site, their opinion on the site's ease of use, etc. to help flesh out the quantitative data you collect.
Visit the competition
If you haven't been keeping tabs on them already, now's the time to do a thorough reconnaissance mission of your competition's web properties. I'm not suggesting that you wholeheartedly rip off entire applications and make your site a carbon copy of theirs -- I'm simply saying that there may be things that you can learn from how their website is structured and the content and interactivity within it.
      When you're checking out the competition, go beyond the surface. See what meta tags and keywords they found to be the most important, and judge whether or not they'd work for your site, as well. Do they have a particular component they're really pushing on their home page? Is their press/news page easier to understand and more logically organized than the same page on your current site? By analytically looking at your competition, you may recognize content or elements your site is lacking, or ways in which their site excels that you can work into the redesign of your client's site.
Know when to be flexible
We've all been in situations where we're working with a client who's built their business from the ground up, having migrated from taking responsibility for everything to having to delegate certain tasks to others. Or we've worked with a boss who hired you because you knew what you were doing, but wants to second guess any suggestion you make 'just in case.' Some things, as crazy (and inefficient and ineffective) as they are, may truly be nonnegotiable.
      It goes back to human emotion. You know how you feel when someone questions a particular design element that you put together. Although they may have a valid point, it's pretty human to have an emotional attachment to those things that you've created. If your client or boss has listened to your suggestions, and is still unwilling to accept your recommendations, it's time to do some thinking. You have to consider what this particular job means to you (e.g. check your bank balance...the difference between PB&J for a month or maintaining the highest level of design integrity?) and decide accordingly.
 
By measuring your site's current status, looking over your shoulder at the competition and knowing when to say when, you're on the road to website redesign success. And though these tips may not make you a millionaire, they'll certainly go a long way toward saving your mental health.
 
Former Netscaper John Marshall
is CEO of ClickTracks, developers of a log file analyzer designed for the right-brained. He can be contacted at www.ClickTracks.com
 
Posted: 02/01/2003

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