Relaunching can sink you
By David Walker (Google profile)
In the twin worlds of IT and media, the word "relaunch" carries a special power. Software companies pray their new version 4.0 will entrench their market dominance or rein in the industry leader. Newspaper executives look to relaunches to attract the younger, hipper readers they lack. Television producers declare that their popular old show, relaunched for the 2000 season, will prevent or arrest a ratings slide.
But nowhere is the relaunch so popular as on the Web. This is the Internet, so things have to change all the time, right - and besides, we've got these cool new graphics! So from AltaVista to Netscape to Telstra to Apple, sites redo their look-and-feel, their technology, their information design. In a June 1999 report, Internet research firm Jupiter Communications found 37 major sites had altered their look-and-feel, on average, every 10 months.
Yet the evidence suggests site relaunches carry heavy risks. Most Web site visitors want to do something or find something. Make them change the way they do things at your site, and you may confuse or discomfit them to the point where they leave. Faced with a plan for a relaunch, many site managers should Just Say No.
- Web professionals seem increasingly sceptical about the effectiveness of relaunches. A recent discussion on the CHI-WEB mailing list should caution anyone planning a site relaunch. "'Coolness' just doesn't seem to be enough of a payoff," mused one designer. "And as a user I have experienced the perilous confusion of rearranged navigation and informational structures resulting from some of those 'cool new designs'."
- Jupiter argues that "sites are undertaking major relaunches unnecessarily and too frequently". It surveyed 1775 consumers and found 44 percent reacted negatively to unannounced changes on frequently-visited sites. "Web ventures that respect the comfort and familiarity created by navigational and transactional consistency have a greater likelihood of retaining a loyal base of core users," said its June 1999 report.
- Relaunches can destabilise complex underlying applications and overstretch staff. Jupiter's report suggests a poorly-communicated site relaunch triggered eBay's notorious 1999 site failures.
- The most successful commercial sites, Yahoo! and Amazon, remain startlingly close to their designs of four years ago.
- Newspapers share a great deal with many Web sites; users look to them every day for the same functionality. Yet for sensible business reasons, many newspapers are wary about changing the design of specific areas that users visit every day, such as the crossword or the share tables.
- The Web site itself makes up a substantial slice of the brand identity of the growing pack of Web-based companies. When these sites relaunch, they actually change their brand experience. Experienced marketers change brand experiences only after careful planning - but site relaunches rarely get that sort of care.
Redesigns do make sense in at least four cases:
- When the change will clearly make the site substantially easier to use. Telstra eventually redesigned Bigpond.com to cut down staggeringly heavy page sizes and remove a browser-crashing Java applet. The RACV replaced its indecipherable graphics-only front page with an entry that actually lets you buy car insurance. In these cases, a redesign was the only sensible way to retreat from madness.
- When the business strategy changes. LookSmart started as a Web directory and AltaVista as a search engine, but both needed changes when they decided to become "portals". RealNetworks made the same call when it decided it was a "Web music company".
- When corporate branding changes. Here a change of appearance may be in order, but sites should strive to keep their information architecture intact. Internet loan-finding service eChoice changed its look when it acquired a new name soon after launch in early 1999. But it kept the site's overall layout and structure close to those of the old site - even though eChoice isn't oriented to repeat users.
- When a major application architecture changes. Jupiter expects this need to upgrade applications will drive the bulk of well-reasoned relaunches over the months ahead. The shorewalker.com site changed its design with the introduction of a content management system.
If you must change, change carefully. Tell regular users what will happen several weeks ahead (a step which Jupiter estimates at least half of all relaunching sites fail to take), and explain why the changes will help users. And if possible, change in gentle stages, incorporating new ideas one-by-one. Amazon.com made a long series of changes to its original 1996 site, but you'd have been hard-pressed to spot most of them. (The exception was its early 2000 trial relaunch.)
Former Fairfax chief executive and newspaper industry veteran Steve Mulholland liked to describe papers as acting "like a warm bath" - a comfortable and familiar space. Many Web sites serve their users the same way. And like newspapers, Web sites should be wary of splashing the water around.