If you’ve ever held a job in the digital group of a large-scale corporation it’s highly likely that you’ve been:
a) Sneered at by others in the company with slightly frightened eyes for being “one of the Web people”
b) Involved in a major re-design
While there are plenty of amusing stories to tell around point a), the subject of this post is everybody’s favorite this-can-solve-all-our-problems-and-serve-as-a-great-emotional-crutch-to-make-us-all-feel-better about-ourselves project. The re-design.
The re-design is something that inspires both rapture and fear, depending upon your perspective. Marketing people love them because it lets them ignore thousands of pages of well-thought-through consumer research and simply say things like “make it green.” Agencies dream about them because what was once a fairly simple exercise now involves armies of engagement leads, interaction designers and brand strategists that are all conveniently billable by the hour. And boy, do they bill.
The IT group generally hates them because it means their wildly inappropriate and bloated infrastructure might have to change in order to accommodate the very expensive recommendations from the agency. And the rest of the company—the non-digital crew—view them with suspicion and despair that the free-spending, extravagant digital people are throwing money around again without any real plan to ever turn a profit.
But the fact remains that companies LOVE re-designs because it’s much easier to blame all your problems on the way a site looks than it is to worry about the substance of the product itself. Revenue down? Re-design! Page views down? It must be because people don’t think our site is pleasant enough to look at. Sales down? Bust out Photoshop and let’s create a new masterpiece, only this time with even BRIGHTER colors.
The re-design is like the hydrogen peroxide of the medicine cabinet. People think it will cure or help practically any minor medical condition, but the reality is that it just froths and fizzes in a mildly impressive way for a couple of minutes without actually having any impact at all. But all that frothing and fizzing makes us feel like we’ve done something!
Redesign = Boondoggle?
And therein lies the point of the re-design. We love it because it makes us feel like we’re actually doing something. It’s kind of like the elderly grandmother pottering around the kitchen before mealtime. She’s not actually making a gigantic contribution to the meal, but it makes her feel useful—and sometimes that’s important. Just not in a business setting.
I’m not some kind of anti-design, utilitarian maniac who’s looking to wipe any glimpse of creativity off the face of the earth. Maybe in another life. But the point I’m making is that while design is very closely tied-in with usability and functionality, for the majority of companies it’s rarely the problem. In fact, it’s all too easy to hide behind the re-design shield to ignore other more pressing problems, such as my content is awful, I have no idea who my audience is, and my staff are just here because it’s too easy and have no desire or enthusiasm for growing this digital business beyond happy hour drinks.
Some of the most successful sites on the Web have designs that would make many designers shudder. Craig’s List. Wikipedia. The list goes on and on. I’m certainly not advocating “poor” design, but you need to make sure that the DNA of the product is compelling and that the features of the product make people want to use it. Design certainly plays a role in this, but the pig in lipstick is ultimately still a pig and that’s what counts.
So the next time you hear somebody say “We REALLY need to redesign this site”—and then produce a bunch of wildly inflated traffic projections or metrics based off said redesign—it’s worth asking them what their reasoning is. Because while good design is a critical part of a well developed digital product, it’s never the sole solution to all your woes.
Jonathan Hills is a User Experience and Content Strategist who helps clients build digital products that resonate in the real world, and not just in PowerPoint presentations. He has worked for some of the leading brands in the media space over the last 15 years and is a tireless advocate of building simple, focused, accessible digital products. Follow his daily postings at The Spinning Hamster.