Remodel vs. Redesign: Which is right for your next online project?

August 19, 2015

There are 3 broad classifications of UX design projects that we work on.

  1. Build new: Start from scratch
  2. Remodel: Optimize what is existing
  3. Redesign: Start over (mostly) from scratch

This article focuses on what factors to consider when deciding whether to remodel or redesign your website or application. It describes the benefits (and drawbacks) of each approach and details how to maximize usability, meet key objectives, and stay within budget.

Find out what users want first

Most of our clients come to us with a strategy already in mind. Either the business wants a fresh start or there is a need to ensure that a previous investment into a development platform or a content management system can be maintained. While technology often drives decisions related to the evolution of your site, it can be detrimental to your users to focus solely on the technology requirements.

The first question we ask is: “Have you talked to any end users about what they want from the site?” The second question we ask is: “What business problems will doing this solve for you?” Understanding the goals and objectives of your end users will help inform the business decision to remodel vs. redesign. For clients who have not checked in recently with their primary audiences, our recommendation is to conduct a high-level baseline usability study of the primary functional components of a site or application.

Doing this helps better understand:

  1. What functionality is working and where there may be breakdowns
  2. What new features, content, and functionality will be useful to end users
  3. What is the competition doing
  4. How to prioritize the new functionality and content that will provide the most return on investment
  5. How to budget for the short and long term evolution of the site or application

What if it is too far gone to test?

We hear this all the time. “We don’t think there is value in performing research on the old site. It is too far gone to get anything out of it.” Or “We already know what our users want, we don’t want to waste time talking to them.”

We learn new things from end users during every single usability study. It may be true that your site or application is a barrier to the success of your business because it is dated and hard to use—you can be sure that watching your users interact with it will provide insight into challenges you weren’t aware of and improvements you haven’t thought to consider. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating— you are not your users! You will save time and budget on your next interactive project if you understand at the outset how your users complete key tasks or go about initiating a relationship with your company.  Lean, high-level usability research isn’t costly and will result in vastly better outcomes.

When do we redesign?

A redesign means that you are looking to start over. You might retain some content and graphics but your primary goal in this case is to rethink the functionality, design, and brand positioning so your site is more modern, and easier to use and maintain.

Responsive Design Approach

The biggest factor today informing the decision to redesign versus remodel is the mobile experience for your users. You can’t flip a switch and “make a site responsive”. Using a responsive design approach means redesigning the UX to provide an optimal experience from any device. Again, there may be content, graphics, and a brand system that can be reused, but if you’re looking to go responsive, plan on a redesign.

We have a Frankenstein

A “Frankenstein” is a site or application that is made up of a lot of different applications that are all bolted together. This causes the user experience, branding, and content to feel disconnected and inconsistent. While, redesigning a Frankenstein can be a daunting task due to technical restrictions and requirements.—we find that developing a consistent and usable system, that accommodates both new and legacy requires a full redesign .

We need a new CMS

Content management systems deliver interface components using templates and design patterns. When changing to a new CMS, it usually makes sense to start from scratch rather than trying to force an antiquated system to do something it was not designed to do. Many modern systems have built-in components and navigation styles that can improve the delivery of content and functionality. Be aware that customizing components or adding your own special ones to the system can dramatically increase the implementation and maintenance costs.

When do we remodel?

Remodeling means that you are looking to retain the overall structure and approach of an existing site or application, but you want to freshen it up by adding features or changing the look and feel.

We just went through a re-brand

Brand updates often drive a remodeling project; sometimes referred to as “reskinning”. We do a lot of reskinning of sites that are managed within an enterprise-wide content management system. The task is to change the look and feel of the site while maintaining the exact structure of the pages templates, navigation, and in-page features.

There are pitfalls associated with this process. Reskinning often gets mistaken for an inexpensive way to “redesign” or an opportunity to “make the site responsive”. If your goal is to make a lot of changes to the navigation, page structure, and how the content displays on mobile devices, than you are really looking to do a redesign of the site.

If you decide that a reskin is appropriate, make sure the designer you are working with has a solid understanding of the technical requirements and knows how to manipulate the front-end code to demonstrate how the new colors, fonts, and graphics will be displayed.

Our site needs to be more accessible

More and more sites and applications are required to meet guidelines for accessibility for users with disabilities. There are many enhancements that can be made to an existing site to improve its accessibility score and make it a better experience for people with disabilities. We often recommend conducting an accessibility audit to help our clients better understand where changes in the code, content, and graphics can be made without impacting the overall site structure, templates, and navigation of the site. It is a great way to prioritize those updates that can make an immediate and significant impact and those that can be made down the road. There are times when a site is simply incompatible with the needs of disabled users and a redesign is needed to ensure your website is accessible.

If you are thinking about a redesign or remodeling project for your website or application, we can help determine what approach may be right for your business and help you consider the pros and cons of both approaches. Contact us to learn more about our User Experience Design Services.

By John Golden

John’s career in interactive media design began in 1995 and has spanned over two decades with a focus on developing simple, streamlined approaches for complex problems.

View John's Bio


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