Robert Bowen January 24th, 2012

The New Redesign Rules of the Web

With the ever-changing landscape that is the internet, web designers and developers are constantly tasked with redesigning some part of the web. Whether it be for our own sites or for those of a client, redesigning is a big part of working in the field right now. For whatever reasons, be it the growth and popular new directions of the web, or even a desire to keep your brand fresh, the web these days seems to be in a constant state of redesign. So today we are going to take a look at some of the new rules that govern these project undertakings, in the wake of the new web that has taken shape over the last few years. As the various technologies steer and redirect the course of the industry's future, we have to adapt the rules by which we play this game. So below are a few guidelines that will hopefully keep the redesign on track, and not end up with more costs than purely financial ones.

Let Necessity Be Your Guide...Still

For the most part, redesigning tends to stem from some sort of necessity; a need for an update. For example rebranding to keep your companies identity fresh and evolving, or because your business direction is changing and your brand needs to reflect that change. You may also feel the need to update because your current web design is not completely inline and up to date with your brand, or your site may not be up to date and fully functional. There are many valid reasons that your design's time may have come, and a redesign becomes necessary. But do not lose sight of what needs to be done as you begin looking at all that you want to have done. Necessity should still be guiding the refashioning of your website. Naturally there are going to be times when we decide to redesign, not out of necessity, but more out of desire to try something new and different. Which is completely reasonable. Though, as many ascribe to the 'if isn't broke, don't fix it' mantra, we have to remember that action without purpose tends to feel hollow and unjust. If we do not have reasons for the redesign, beyond just a desire to see a new face on the site, then we have to ask ourselves is the move to redesign completely justified? And while many of us believe that we do not owe any explanations to anyone else for our decisions to update our site's appearance, we must remember that our audience will have a reaction. And while we may believe the changes are maybe too minute to really have much impact on our users, we have to keep the user's exposure time in mind. Users interact with the site often much, much less than we do as the designers or webmasters, and as such, any change can register as a major slight on their radar when they return and things are different. Not like or where they expect them to be. So we need to bare this in mind when we redesign, and where possible, try and keep some level of familiarity. Even if it is just in small ways like placement of navigation, things like that. And once again, while we may not feel we owe anyone an explanation for our choices, our users are more than likely going to want them anyway. So if we do not have necessity in our corners for the changes we made, then selling the redesign to our regular audience may be a bit of a difficult task. But when we have solid reasons behind the decisions that we made, and can share them with our users, not only does it re-enforce the redesign, but it can further strengthen your relationship with your users.

Accessibility Grows or Remains Unchanged

With the explosive growth of the mobile market, and the ever-growing number of internet browsing capable devices the web design and development community has their sites set on this new direction for the web. However, we cannot get so wrapped up in looking forward that we forget to be thinking back. If we push our sites forward, breaking into new territory that is all good, but we should not be leaving users unnecessarily behind. As we seek to grow our reach, cutting access off tends to counteract our efforts. You cannot suddenly exclude a portion of your users who have been able to access your site regularly; or rather you shouldn't. Yes, IE6 is a bane and a pain, but is it really sound practice to close the door on any portion of our regular user base? Especially when we can at least still guarantee those users some level of access. So as we redesign, especially trying to reach new users, perhaps we should not be so quick to trade one group for another with regards to our site's accessibility.

The Metrics Exception

Now that we have stated the accessibility rule, let us take a moment and look at the exception to it. There is one forgivable reason that we can redesign without regard to a section of our audience, effectively leaving them behind, and that is when the site metrics tell us that some cuts can be made without much cost. When we get reports telling us that a certain audience is already on the decline, or that certain areas of our site are not getting any sort of attention, then we can take a look at the scales and see which way they tip. Naturally if it takes more effort on our part to keep that access going than the stats are telling us it is worth, then we can feel free to play into the exception and less into the rule. Though we may want to get more in depth reports than a look at basic site analytics before we go making these cuts or deeming them worthwhile.

Emulation Only Takes Testing So Far

As the web expands into new territories, the design and development community not only have to learn to design for these new devices and directions, but we have to realize that in order to fully test our website designs for say mobile devices we need to gain access to some of these devices. Often times this is the only way that we can get a completely accurate test of the full function of the site. There are many who rely on emulators to allow them to test on these various devices, but those results tend toward the aesthetics more than anything else. And while making sure the design doesn't break when it lands on one of these devices is important, it is only half the equation. Especially with the touch screen nature of many of the leading mobile browsing devices, emulators cannot give you the full simulation needed to see what all is going to be impacted and might need tweaking from these various environments. This can be tricky, as budgetary constraints can often impede on our ability to access each device we wish to test on. This is an area where the helpful nature of the design and development community can come in handy. We can often turn to our colleagues via the the various social media networks we tend to inhabit for assistance in testing on these devices we lack access to. So if emulators are all you have at your disposal, remember that the community is there and often willing to lend a hand as well.

Address Possible Content Cuts

With the number of websites dedicated to creating new content, redesigns open the door to an evaluation of that content; in particular how much of it needs to transfer over and survive the make-over. Content can sometimes have a shelf life. A fact that is often not given much thought until these plans for redesigning begin to rear their heads. So when this process gets started we need to consider that some possible cuts in the content may be in order. If you are working for a client, this is not always an element that we have control over, but that does not mean it is not a topic we should broach with our clients. Naturally we want the design to be as successful as possible, and as such we want to give it as many chances to do so as we can. So addressing this with the clients and letting them know that this is a consideration they should make is not completely out of line. And given the fact that we generally are having to control how that content is presented and accessed, bringing this up with clients is relevant to our work. If we see a problem that needs to be addressed, why ignore it?

Function Wins More Fans Than Form

Bottom line, the look of your redesign, no matter how well crafted and thought out is not going to land with every one of your users. There really is no way around that. So instead of putting so much effort into finding a way to please every one through the new appearance of the site, be sure to focus that energy into finding ways to please them all with the new functionality of the site. As long as the functionality is tight and flowing well, users will forgive the form that they are not a fan of. However, the reverse of that statement is hardly true. Even if you have the most original design the web has ever seen, if it is functionally glitchy users will be turned off, and often will not return. We have to realize that the look may draw some users in sure, and as such, it is not like it should go unconsidered. But allowing the look to be the top priority in your redesign efforts does not always lead to successful launches. If all of the new tricks your redesign has to offer are completely visual, then the shine is sure to wear off much quicker. Not to mention, if the new look is not appealing to some of your existing users, and you have no new functionality to accompany it to help win them over, then your redesign can fall far short of its potential. So keep the functionality aspect in mind when you begin planning the update. Have some tricks up your sleeve beyond the aesthetic to deliver to your users. In the end, it's better to be safe than sorry.

In Conclusion

Like virtually every aspect of design and development work, redesigning has rules that should be kept in mind as we set out on this type of project. This is not to say that success cannot be found without them used to guide you, just that they can offer us assistance and perspective when we may need it. What redesign rules do you tend to design and develop by? Are there any you would add to this list or amend from the list? Feel free to fill us in using the comment section below. (rb)

Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


  1. Yea, i’d say these are some great points. Not many people think about the Google rankings before they re-design their website.

    Thanks for the read.

  2. I’d be curious when you think a good time to redesign your company’s site would be. I know it’s different in each case, but maybe there was some unspoken “timeline.”

    1. Good question on timelines. Not sure there really is a set rule on the when. Especially if you follow the rule on necessity, it will usually dictate the when. That’s my take anyway.

  3. Nice article, but are you can’t possibly suggest we should still be coding for IE6? At this point usage is below 1% (according to MS). Hardly worth the trouble, IMO

    1. Hey Charles, no that was actually a poorly connected segue into the metrics exception part. As you mention usage is at less than 1% so the metrics would indicate that you could easily make that cut.

  4. Hi Robert – really great post. Enjoyed it a lot.

    The point about reviewing your website content is one that I found especially interesting, as I haven’t seen this mentioned by many other sites. I can definitely see that if a redesign also includes a partial or total restructure of the site, it may create a need to drop some content or add some more.

    It’s not great when a site does a “total revamp” yet the design is put first, functionality second. When a site is buggy or old content is still floating around for months after the redesign, it looks unfinished and unprofessional. I’ve seen a few sites that fell foul of that one.

    I write a weekly link love post on my blog and I also feature a few of the links in my weekly blogging newsletter. I can safely say your post definitely made the grade :) The post will be up later today.

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