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Your New Website is a Disaster, Now What?

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The worst has happened. After months of waiting and having paid a small fortune, your website is finally delivered and it's a disaster. With your reputation and potentially job on the line, it's time to decide what to do. How do you fix things?

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Your dream website has turned into a nightmare. You hate it, your boss hates it and everybody is ashamed that potential customers will see it. Unfortunately this is an issue which comes up more often than you think. Whose fault it is and why it has happened doesn't change the fact that the site is a disaster.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams "Don't panic!"


Don't Panic!

When confronted with a new website it's common to have a strong reaction. People don't like change, as can be seen from users' reactions every time Facebook redesigns. It takes time for us to adjust to change, so don't do anything immediately.

Every time Facebook redesign they experience a massive backlash. This demonstrates that people do not like change.

Every time Facebook redesign they experience a massive backlash, perfectly demonstrating that people do not like change.

Once when I was speaking to Daniel Burka about his time at digg.com he said that they always waited two weeks after launching a new design before making decisions about what to do next. Less than that and you are in danger of becoming reactionary.

This is good advice. No matter how bad you feel the design is, give yourself (and your colleagues) time to crystallize your feelings before taking action.

Even if you still hate the site at the end of this period, you will at least have a clearer idea in your mind about where the problems lie.


Assessing Where the Problem Lies

Despite how you may feel, it's rare for a website to be a complete disaster. Our disappointment often leads us to dismiss the entire site out of hand, rather than look objectively at where the problem lies. This can be a costly mistake because we end up throwing good work away with bad.

Before dismissing the entire site try identifying where it fails. Site's normally fail in one or more of the following areas:

  • Visual appearance.
  • Usability.
  • Management.
  • Business objectives.

Let's look at each of these in turn.

Visual Appearance

Probably the biggest reason for reacting negatively to a design is its visual appearance.

The first thing to remember is that design is subjective. Just because you and your colleagues don't like it, it doesn't necessarily mean your users will not. I once worked on a university website aimed squarely at undergraduates. This was when everybody was into Myspace and the design we produced reflected this. I hated the design and so did the client; it was busy, bright and overwhelming. However, in usability testing the target audience loved it.

That said, you maybe justified in your dislike for the design. It could be inappropriate for the audience, unprofessional or not reflective of your branding.

Then again, even if the website looks great, it maybe difficult to use.

Usability

If a website is hard to use it will frustrate users and reflect badly on your organization. Therefore it is entirely justified to be unhappy with a site if it doesn't have clear signposting, or leads users in the wrong direction.

However, before you jump to conclusions about the site's usability, test it. You don't need to do anything fancy but get a few people to complete certain key tasks on the site. This will help you identify just quite how bad the problem is. You never know, you might discover that the problems are not severe as you first thought and can be fixed relatively easily.

With services like Usertesting.com, usability testing does not need to be time-consuming or expensive.

With services like Usertesting.com, usability testing does not need to be time-consuming or expensive.

Of course, sometimes the problems with a site are nothing to do with the user experience. Instead it is your experience that is the problem.

Management

Another reason a site can feel like a disaster is because it is painful to manage. It is not enough to simply build a site, make it live and forget about it. You need to keep your site fresh and if you don't have the right tools to do this it can become frustrating.

If you struggle to add, edit and delete pages on your site then you have a problem. Not that this is your only potential problem with site management. Depending on your site there could be any number of ways your admin system is failing you. Make a note of what is going wrong and how you would like to see it fixed.

Business Objectives

Finally we come to what's likely the most serious of problems; a site which fails to meet your business objectives. If your site exists to drive enquiries, yet contact information is buried, then the site is failing. Equally, if it is an ecommerce site but checkout is so complex that users give up, it has failed in its objective.

That said, although business objectives are the most serious of potential issues, they are not necessarily the most difficult to fix.

So with a clear, objective view of the site's shortcomings in the front of your mind, it's time to speak to the designer who built it.


Talking to Your Web Designer

An ideal scenario is that the web designer recognizes the failings of the site, admits that it's his responsibility and rectifies it. For that to happen you cannot afford the relationship to turn into a confrontation.

Start by arranging a debriefing meeting with the web designer to review the project.

It's vital that this meeting doesn't turn into finger pointing. Blaming the web designer for all your woes will achieve nothing. He (or she) will inevitably become defensive and blame you in some way.


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Instead, clearly articulate the problems with the site as you see them and ask the designer for suggestions about how these can be solved. By asking him for his thoughts on possible solutions you show that you still respect his contribution (even if you don't) and it will help reengage him with the project.

He may suggest further work needs doing on the site and that there will be a cost associated with that. Explain that you have already spent your web budget and that it would be difficult to find more cash. Ask if there is anything that can be done without spending huge amounts more. Ask whether he is willing to meet you halfway in covering the costs.

In a lot of cases you maybe surprised how accommodating the designer will be. If you can agree some further work with him ensure that the work is clearly defined and documented to avoid further misunderstandings about your expectations. Also, request that you be involved heavily in decision making and reviewing work in progress. This will prevent the designer going down the wrong track again without you being aware of it.

Of course, even with the best will in the world, you will not always be able to reach an agreement with the designer. In such situations I believe you are better off walking away rather than forcing the designer to do further work on the site. Once the designer has become disillusioned with the project you will find it hard to extract quality work from him.

Fortunately, even if you can no longer work with your original designer, there is still much that you can do without spending a fortune.


Quick Fixes on a Budget

The extent of what you can do to fix the problems with your site is dependant on its problems and how it is built. For example, if the problem is the visual design and your site is built on Wordpress, the solution maybe as simple as switching to another template.

Sometimes fixing the design of your website can be as easy as switching Wordpress template.

Sometimes fixing the design of your website can be as easy as switching Wordpress template.

In fact, if your site is really bad, implementing a basic Wordpress blog might be an improvement.

Another effective quick fix for a broken site is to simplify and focus. Often taking away is a great way to make a website better. For example, if you have a particular feature that is not working, take it offline until it can be fixed. If the interface feels overly busy, simply remove some elements. If users are not completing calls to action, remove clutter that distracts them. Removing elements is cheap. Adding functionality is expensive.

If your site has a decent content management system then you can do a lot to improve the website at no cost. Reorganising the site's structure, changing the copy and creating clearer calls to action, can solve many of the problems most websites encounter.

The aim is not to create a perfect site (as this is unachievable even with limitless budget). The aim is to improve what you have. See your ‘disastrous' website as the start of an iterative process that will improve it over time. That is the great thing about the web, you are not stuck with what goes live. You can change it on a daily basis if you want.

As I have already said, test what you have and make changes from there. Once you have made some changes, test again in an iterative cycle. Each time your site will greatly improve.

The big question is whether you attempt to make these changes yourself or whether you hire somebody to do them for you. This comes down to whether you are willing to spend some more money on the site.


Do You Spend More Money?

The decision of whether to spend more money is based on two factors; what you can do yourself and what return on investment the changes will generate.

You should not allow previous money spent on the website to cloud the decision either way. That money is gone, for better or worse. The decision is now whether spending more will get the site to a position where you will recover the cost of the additional spend. If it will then the decision is obvious.

You may find that many of the fixes you can do yourself. If you have access to the site's content management system you can:

  • Edit copy.
  • Reorganize pages.
  • Create clearer signposting and calls to action.
  • Simplify the site.

This is often enough to move things forward considerably.

Depending on your skill set you might find changes to the design a little beyond your reach and so require outside help. However, often that help does not need to be expensive. A freelancer is often all that is required to make tweaks to a design or even replace a template.

If the changes required are more substantial you may need a more skilled agency like my own. However, that does not mean you need to hire them to do all the work. Instead use experts to provide help in specific areas or to oversee the project and your own freelancers to do the heavy lifting.

Of course, in an ideal world all of these problems could be avoided. As the saying goes "prevention is better than cure". How then can you prevent your next redesign becoming a disaster?


Avoiding the Same Scenario

If you want to stop redesign projects going wrong, stop doing them! Flippant I know, but there is a grain of truth there. The problem is that periodic redesigns every few years are a risky strategy. They involve a large capital outlay, place all of your eggs in one basket and risk triggering our inherent dislike of change.

A better approach is an ongoing program of incremental change. Because each change is much smaller, the chances of a disaster are considerably reduced. Instead of revolution, the site naturally evolves over time.

You need to be actively involved at every step of the way.

This incremental change also makes it much easier to work in a collaborative relationship with the designer. To avoid misunderstandings and mistakes you cannot simply brief the designer and leave them to get on with it. You need to be actively involved at every step of the way. You need to see sketches, moodboards, wireframes and design concepts as they are produced. The final design will then be as much influenced by you as the designer. This is not to say you should take over the designer's role. They have the expertise and knowledge, but by being constantly engaged you can catch problems before the site goes down the wrong road.

To ensure you don't reduce the designer to a pixel pusher with you controlling the design process, focus on communicating problems you perceive with the design rather than suggesting solutions.

If you tell a designer to change the blue to pink on a design, he is none the wiser about why you want the change. However, if you explain that you are worried a pre-teen girl audience won't like the blue, then the designer can make suggestions. He might suggest changing the blue to pink or he might suggest another solution. He is still in control and you get the full benefit of his expertise.

If you do see something that concerns you speak up quickly. The longer a designer spends on a design the more attached to it he will become and the more expensive revisions will be. By speaking up early you can make changes while things are still simple.

Finally, encourage the designer to regularly repeat back your requirements. This way you can ensure he has understood you correctly and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.


Being faced with a ‘website gone wrong' can certainly be a demoralising experience. However, take heart. Most sites can be salvaged and it is rarely necessary to start again. Remember we evolved from primeval ooze and so can your website!

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