Digital Strategy: What's the best way to redesign a site?

Set the right expectations at your company, and you should be growing a successful website incrementally, not chopping it down and re-planting every few years.

We've had more than a few clients ask us the question "How long should a website last?" Since they typically ask this at the beginning of a large-scale website redesign project, what clients probably mean is "How long until I have to spend this much money again?" 

So, how often should you do a wholesale website redesign? Unsubstantiated, conventional wisdom says "every three to four years." The more strategic answer is "if you plan it well, not until your brand changes." 

A website is no longer a self-contained box with four sides and a shelf-life. In today's digital landscape, it's more like an organism. It should integrate tightly with other crucial systems like your CRM, e-commerce/point-of-sale, and marketing automation software. It should shift and change incrementally based on performance data. And—if planned well and built on a scalable platform—it should be adaptable, not obsolete, in a few years. 

But our current one is SO bad. Isn't it just easier to overhaul?

The instinctual urge to clear-cut the digital forest will never go away. When things get complicated, it's human nature to want to start fresh. If you aren’t starting with something workable, there are a few good reasons to ditch your website and start over: 

  • You can’t make editorial changes without calling your web vendor.
  • Google can’t crawl your text content (As in, it's mostly images or even...Flash?)
  • Your users are getting hand cramps from pinching and zooming on a mobile device. (a.k.a., it’s 2016 and your site isn’t built with responsive design in mind)
  • The site can’t integrate with third party business systems.
  • You are ready to embrace the long term, and want to rebuild your site with scalability, testing and incremental improvements in mind.  

It should go without saying, but even if you are hard-set on a website redesign, don’t expect the effort to necessarily solve a business problem. It’s easy to blame the technology when it’s the process or brand that needs to evolve.

Get what you can out of your current site

Ok, so you’re still convinced your site needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. You may not have the most data-driven reason for doing it, but you (and your CEO) are tired of looking at it. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is redesigning without REALLY knowing what works and what doesn’t on their current site. Have the patience to squeeze as much value out of it as you can before you chop it down. You may be tired of looking at it, but users are still using it and it could provide valuable details into what they want. 

Remember that thing you learned in elementary school about experimental and control groups? Once you launch a brand-new site, there isn’t much of a control to compare to. So gather some data while you have something up and running and use those insights to guide your new plan. Where to start:

  • Do some attitudinal user research. Use your site as a benchmark. Ask users what they use, don’t use. Like, don’t like. 
  • On to behavioral user research. Scour your general site analytics. Install easy granular tracking tools like Crazy Egg or Google Tag Manager to get detailed insights on what’s actually being used and where people are clicking. 
  • Try an A/B test or two to gather data on messaging or image directions. 
  • Evaluate the structure and effectiveness of your current content. What will you be bringing along to the new system? And more importantly, how will you grow and maintain it?
Click map exampleScroll map example
Click map and scroll map from CrazyEgg.

If an overhaul is your only option, do it right and make it your last one for awhile. 

Not just a marketing thing anymore

Company websites have evolved into a core asset that connects to other systems and makes everyone’s—both external and internal users—experience better and more efficient. No longer is the website completely “owned” by a specific department. It allows each part of the business to communicate with customers, collect and assess data and streamline operational processes. The more uber-connected your site is to other business systems, the more cost effective it is to pick a forward-looking platform and evolve it rather than replace it.

Think about your bank’s website. You go to one web address, but after you log in, you have everything you need at your fingertips. You have access to your savings and checking accounts, you can change your profile information, request documents, manage your brokerage account and even read about new credit card products. Chances are, there is more than one system stitched together helping you get your tasks done. 

Ally Bank screenshot

You may notice that a landing page changes from time to time, or the login process got a little smoother. But when’s the last time the entire interface changed? With various systems connected into one public-facing user interface, think about the implications if the company decides to uproot and move to a new platform. You may not be a bank with hundreds of thousands of customers, but like them, your site is still the center of your digital universe. Replacing platforms is far more complex than it used to be, and it pays to build for scale and improvement, not with the intention of starting over at the end of a short cycle.

How to plan for a site with a shelf-life 

A clear digital strategy that centers around incremental testing and improvements on a scalable platform is the “redesign of today”. Whether you are building from the ground up or stepping up efforts on your existing site, here are a few ways to extend the shelf-life of your site.

  • Technology: Look for extendable technology platforms that have solid support, play well with other systems, and release features regularly. It all depends on the size and needs of your business, but massive, rigid proprietary systems that don’t “philosophically” like to integrate with the latest tools usually require a strong internal development staff to maintain and can require lots of money to build custom tie-ins. On the other end of the spectrum, sounds-too-easy-to-be-real, plug-and-play platforms usually don’t have the flexibility to grow with your business over time. Elevated Third specializes in Drupal development because of its extensability and community support. 
  • Resources: If you already have a nimble digital team of strategists, designers, content creators and open-minded developers, you’re well on your way to keeping your website relevant for a longer life. If you partner with an outside firm for digital strategy and digital development work, find someone who will be an optimization partner. You don’t want the equivalent of a real estate developer who builds, sells the units and walks away. Your partner should be able to think long term with you. They should talk about testing, data analysis, and platform roadmapping in their pitch, and as inherent elements of their approach. 
  • Budget: Through data, make the case for an ongoing research, maintenance and enhancement budget for your site. Compare how much has been spent on bulk website redesigns in the past, extend that cost monthly over two years, and run the numbers to see how it compares. 
    • Site overhaul, completed in 8 months - bulk cost $250,000 
    • Incremental monthly investment over 2 years - $10,416/mo

Factor in all the unplanned costs that you’ve incurred over that time (emergency “microsite” spinups, content development, one-off event technology subscriptions, etc.) and you’ll be surprised how much you could actually spend to strategically nurture your site for a longer period of time without a complete overhaul. 

Happy Users, Happy Company

Building a digital strategy and planning a budget for the continuous evolution of your website is a culture shift for many organizations. But in the end, it is actually lower risk than banking everything on a revamp every few years. And ultimately, your users will thank you. While we mostly talked about the impacts of an ill-informed overhaul on YOUR bottom line, ripping away all the conventions your users have adapted to on your site is a whole other disruption. If you focus on tuning what works and replacing what doesn’t, you’ll learn much more from your users and ultimately deliver them something that better meets their needs.