When Iteration Doesn’t Work Anymore

Iterative design, the idea that you build a website, app, or other technology over time from the same set of tools, has a lot of value from a strategic standpoint. But what if that toolkit just isn’t getting the job done? (And what if you’re not iterating at all?)

When Snapchat maker Snap, currently sitting on a warehouse full of connected sunglasses it can’t sell, had a bad quarter recently, one of the key things the company talked about in its letter to investors was the necessity to redesign its application.

“One thing that we have heard over the years is that Snapchat is difficult to understand or hard to use, and our team has been working on responding to this feedback,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel wrote in the letter. “As a result, we are currently redesigning our application to make it easier to use.”

It’s a big step for the company, with Spiegel noting that such a redesign comes with risk, but adding that “we’re willing to take that risk for what we believe are substantial long-term benefits to our business.”

It’s not something that many organizations are able to admit, and Snap is a special case because the company famously held onto a vague, confusing application design that had this magic ability to discourage certain types of users (read: adults) from using it.

(Or, as early Snapchat investor Jeremy Liew put it, “everyone else’s thinking was constrained by conventional UI metaphors.”)

That worked for Snapchat when it was new to the scene and trying to stand out from its big-name competition. But eventually, competitive goals change, and what worked before may not suit the company as it keeps growing and takes on new strategic challenges.

Therefore, the company is going to move away from its more experimental approach to something that looks more like its competitors, because it makes sense as a strategy to reinvent the wheel. The old wheel turns funny, which was interesting at first, but over time proved a limiting factor to Snap’s growth. So better to get a new one than to stick with something that doesn’t work so well, right?

I think that many organizations weighing whether to redesign their website or rebrand their online presence get faced with these very same questions. Does our design make a lot of strategic sense anymore? Go big or go small? Should we start over or just keep building?

I commonly advocate for iterative designs, ones based on a rock-solid template and design language, because they’re often the easiest to work with and can be improved thoughtfully based on data, rather than in an overly dramatic way that can only be done once every few years. Structurally, going iterative makes more sense: Big changes are hard to digest, while smaller ones are much easier.

And dramatic is good if your goal is impact, but it also costs more. On the other hand, if you build an idea that’s flexible enough to keep with the trends, you can save a lot of money by doing a lot of smaller updates versus one huge one, right?

Then again, sometimes design language gets dated, works inefficiently with modern technologies, or (as highlighted in the case of Snap) gets in the way of larger strategic goals. Sure, something unusual or experimental is great when you’re looking to make a splash, but what happens when, 10 years down the road, you’re suddenly leading a much more mature organization and your goals have moved beyond simply attracting new members?

But there’s a difference here between simply doing a big redesign because it looks good and doing one because the strategy demands it. When I tackled this issue last year, Cecilia Satovich, the senior vice president of client services at Results Direct, had a pretty thoughtful response to the whole thing: Iteration often doesn’t happen on association websites because it’s never budgeted for and it’s considered “boring,” whereas it’s much easier to budget for a large-scale website redesign, which is considered “fun.”

“It is the website equivalent of tidying your house daily, wiping your kitchen counters off, and deciding to move the armchair from one side of the room to the other,” she wrote last year.

Honestly, though, associations would be better off if they could find ways to properly budget for the iteration over a long period and set aside the big redesigns for the moments when it’s clear something strategic needs to change.

Basically, full redesigns are best when, as Evan Spiegel puts it, there are “substantial long-term benefits to our business.”

If you’re looking at doing a full-on redesign, does it fit this high standard?

(scyther5/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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