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I work with companies to better understand the people that visit their websites and find ways to improve their experience. These are some of the things i've learned along the way...

  • Scott Olivares

The Website Redesign Trap

Website redesigns.

They can sound like a great idea when your website is beyond repair. Often, the research that’s done for this type of project leads to an experience that looks, feels and HAS to be better. Unfortunately, this better-looking and feeling experience sometimes comes with a lower conversion rate than what you're already used to.

It happens ALL THE TIME.

Why it can happen

When you completely overhaul a website you get rid of all the bad things, but you also get rid of all the good things.

Think about it. You or your marketing team spent a lot of time tweaking and optimizing that old website to get the most out of it. There was probably a lot of good stuff in there.

Now it’s replaced with a shiny new website built on modern research and by highly-paid experts. But it’s new. Nobody has spent any time optimizing it yet. It’s like you started scaling a new mountain.

To make it worse, because so many things change in a redesign, it’s very difficult to identify the exact changes that are causing the conversion rate decrease.

So what should we do?

Sometimes we just have to reinvent and redesign. Incrementally optimizing something that is obviously not what you need doesn’t make sense.

Imagine if all we ever did was incrementally optimize the first website ever?

The first website ever

The first website ever, August 6, 1991 – The Internet would be much different if all we ever did was incrementally optimize this bad boy.

Follow some guidelines plus apply your best judgment about what will work in your organization, and you can reinvent your digital experience while minimizing the risk to your conversion rate.

#1. Build a project plan that includes optimization

What often happens: Company X starts planning for the launch of its new website. This includes resources for research, design, content, production, quality assurance, launching the site and puts it all in a nice schedule. It’s a necessary step that helps allocate teams, uncover gaps, estimate cost and set expectations with stakeholders or clients. 

The problem: We assume that our project is going to yield the optimal scenario – a great looking website that converts better. Because of this we assume that the team can move on to other work after the launch, we schedule other work that’s dependent on the new website and fail to give ourselves a safety net.

It’s a huge gamble (many times a multi-million dollar one).

Build your plan with optimization in mind: With any website redesign, the expectation must be set early that optimization will be needed. If it's not needed because you nailed it the first time, then you can use those dedicated resources to make that great site even better; but don’t bet on it. Everyone, up to the CEO or VP that is sponsoring the project must understand that launching a new website is not the objective. The objective is to launch a website that increases revenue, leads, content consumption or whatever your KPI is. 

Plan plenty of time for optimization and make sure everyone knows it will be needed.

#2. Minimize your risk with A/B TESTING

What often happens: Company X sets a launch date. On this date, the old website ceases to exist and the new website is shown to all visitors. For better or worse, they take the plunge.

The problem: In this scenario all visitors are exposed to the new website and the old website is history. Again, this is a huge gamble.

If the new website has a lower conversion, it will have a negative effect on your ENTIRE user population, leading to huge losses that can be difficult to recover from. Even if you do analyze website performance pre- and post-launch, you still expose yourself to extreme risk. Additionally, pre/post comparisons include many environmental differences, making it impossible to have a fair comparison.

Always run an A/B test: Before deploying the new website to everyone, run an A/B test with only 10%-15% of your visitors. During this initial test, measure all critical KPIs, and analyze any differences between version A and B.

This quickly uncovers whether the new website is better or worse than the old one. It also gives you a glimpse of your future conversion rate before you open the floodgates. If you learn that your new website converts lower than your previous one, you now have the opportunity to learn, analyze, and optimize before letting all your visitors see it.

#3. Have a measurement plan

What often happens: Nothing out of the ordinary. Most companies have reports that track advertising campaigns, email campaigns, visitor count, conversions, conversion rate and some basic engagement metrics.

The problem: Regular reports usually do not provide you with actionable insights. If conversion rate decreases after a redesign, it could be for 100 different reasons. It’s similar to getting a fever – you know something is wrong, but you don’t know exactly why. If you have just regular reports when you launch a new website, you may know what happened as a result of the new site, but you’ll have no idea why.

Do some investigative analysis: Prepare to do some serious investigative analysis as soon as that new website has any user behavior data. Before you even start the redesign, do the following things:

  • Create a measurement plan that clearly defines how the new website will be evaluated against the old one. This will help you and all stakeholders understand how success will be measured.

  • Assign your best analyst or analysts to the task of identifying the pages on the new website that have poorer engagement compared to the old website. And if possible, why.

  • Make sure everything you plan on measuring and investigating has proper tracking. It's pretty frustrating to begin an important analysis only to find out that there’s no tracking or it’s inaccurate.

#4. Let the data guide your optimization

What often happens: The new website launches and conversion rate decreases. Top-level metrics are often tracked and evaluated, but web usage patterns are not investigated. Eventually, a design/user experience expert is brought in to fix the problem. Company X then implements creative changes dictated by this expert and crosses its fingers once again that the conversion rate increases.

The problem: Without investigative data, you really don't know what the problem areas. This leads to poor attempts at fixing the situation. Design and user experience experts can certainly help, but without carefully analyzing site usage patterns, you severely decrease your chances of success.

Let the data guide you: Take the time to understand how visitors are using the new website. Bring in that awesome analyst to investigate the situation and draw insights from the usage data or visitor feedback (surveys and user testing are great tools for this). Then use those insights to steer that design and user experience experts in the right direction.

#5. Have a flexible schedule

What typically happens: A timeline is created with hard dates in order to fit other projects into the year’s schedule. The new website must be launched on a specific date and all work on it must stop at a certain point so that the people on that team can start working on other important projects.

The problem: If the new website doesn’t convert as well as the old one, and the team is no longer available to work on doing some much needed optimization, bad things will occur.

Having such hard timelines with such an important project puts you between a rock and hard place – you’ll either have to live with the new website’s poor conversion or put off some other important work.

Plan to win, not to finish on a certain date: Set the expectation that the new website project does not end until the new experience is at least as effective as the old one. The goal should be to create something better, not meet a deadline. 

The team working on this project needs enough time to run multiple iterations of analyzing web behavior, drawing out insights and A/B testing their hypotheses until they have an experience that improves business KPIs to an acceptable level.

In summary

Launching a new website that hurts conversion is worse than having done nothing at all, but I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to innovate and redesign as needed.

Most of the time, website redesigns produce insightful research, great design and more efficient code. However, the best teams understand the need for learning how their audience use this new experience and aim to deliver something that looks great, feels intuitive and converts higher than what you had before.

Anything else is gambling.

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