Technology

The Risks Inherent in Redesigns

By / May 15, 2018 (scyther5/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Doing a big, bold redesign is often a great way to further an organization’s goals while putting on a fresh coat of paint. But if it fails, it can be a source of great headaches—and great lessons.

Redesigning a widely used service is a dangerous game. There are a lot of elements that can go right and reshape your business. But so, so much can go wrong.

Guess which side of the coin Snapchat’s looking at this week as it rolls back some elements of a widely derided redesign.

Last year, the company, long notorious for having a design that was apparently created to scare off certain segments of the population, rejiggered its design in an effort to soften some of those edges, including by creating a more algorithm-driven approach and by separating user content from brand-created content.

CEO Evan Spiegel focused on the things his company did well when discussing the redesign, while distinctly separating its approach from that of its competitors. From an November 2017 Axios op-ed:

With the upcoming redesign of Snapchat, we are separating the social from the media, and taking an important step forward towards strengthening our relationships with our friends and our relationships with the media. This will provide a better way for publishers to distribute and monetize their Stories, and a more personal way for friends to communicate and find the content they want to watch.

This certainly sounds like the work of a company that was talking the right talk. But none of that matters if consumers don’t like the results. And Snapchat found itself in the unenviable place of having a redesign that seemingly everyone hated. (And when I say everyone, Kylie Jenner is included.)

But the problem was, it wasn’t just a redesign that people hated, but one that was failing to meet basic business goals—the decision to split its media-focused stories from the ones created by friends had the effect of kneecapping the business. Its stock price cratered, as did user sentiment. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d want out of a redesign.

As many observers have helpfully pointed out in recent days, they’re redesigning the redesign. And some folks don’t think the company’s change will even move the needle the other way, because of strategic problems still buried in the app.

“The company still fails to understand that people want a predictable app that’s convenient to lay back and watch, and social media stars are more similar to you and me than they are to news outlets producing mobile magazine-style Discover content,” TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine wrote last week.

Snapchat has fallen into the great redesign trap.

Getting a Redesign Right Isn’t Easy

This is not a new phenomenon—and I know this because of my background in design on the print side.

When I worked in newspaper design, I remember how up in arms readers got about the occasional redesign of some modest part of the newspaper—for example, if a crossword section was placed in a way that part of the puzzle folds over in the design, or if editorial constraints led to some obscure feature getting the heave-ho. (People love their bridge.)

If you changed the point size or the font of the body copy, you threatened to unleash nuclear warfare on the newspaper’s phone lines.

Perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but the example points at an important truism that associations should heed: People like convention, get committed to a design, and they just don’t want to change their ways.

On the other hand, if you don’t redesign, you’re limiting your organization’s ability to improve, especially online. So even if it’s not on the table now, it may soon be.

Redesign Considerations

There is a give and take with design. While redesigns take a lot of time, they are necessary from a modernization standpoint and are tied closely to broader business goals if done correctly. It’s not just about a fresh coat of paint—it’s about what’s under the hood.

So how do you balance these competing needs? A few thoughts:

Do your research. One advantage your association has over Snapchat is that you’re probably dealing with an organization that has a more narrow reach, and you’re likely interacting with many of the people who would benefit from a redesign. Take advantage of that! Focus group your ideas, work with your volunteer committees for input, and bring that homework with you when you start talking redesign. But don’t feel compelled to follow every single recommendation to a T. Instead, balance the potential for improvement with the impact of disruption.

Is iteration a better choice? As I wrote back in 2016, many sites in the tech world have moved away from the idea of doing bold redesigns every year or two in favor of a more iterative approach, one where stuff is constantly changing in small ways. The effect of this strategy is that you’re not taking on the whole beast at once, but taking on smaller chunks so that you can build correctly based on the data.

Accept the feedback, but don’t immediately back down. The thing that somewhat complicates redesigns is that they take some time to really click with an audience, and often when you hear back about a redesign, it’s a qualitative reaction for something where quantitative results also have value. And you need time to have both at your disposal. Whenever I worked at a paper that did a redesign, complaints would always arise, but we’d temper these by pointing out it was usually a small number of people, and if the redesign met broader business (or, in our case, editorial) goals, it was a success. If it didn’t, you had the design equivalent of New Coke. But you still need to spend time researching why that’s what you ended up with.

Snap’s Evan Spiegel did all this with Snapchat, but there were clear signs it wasn’t working from either a qualitative or quantitative standpoint—including a rough fiscal quarter, which matters because Snap is a public company. Beyond user complaints (much broader than a few calls), the redesign was affecting usability.

“We learned that combining watching Stories and communicating with friends into the same place made it harder to optimize for both competing behaviors,” Spiegel stated during an earnings call this month.

That’s a lesson associations can take away: Sometimes, a redesign just doesn’t work. But it’s still important to know why it doesn’t work.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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