Radical Redesign vs. Evolutionary Design

Website redesign isn’t what it used to be.

Hello friends,

A potential client came to me last week with the following question…

Should I completely redesign my website or should I push new features one by one so I don’t ruin my conversion rate?

This email answers that question.

What we know today as a “website redesign” isn’t what it used to be.

‘Radical’ website redesign — where the company embarks on a big website overhaul — is becoming less common these days — which is generally a good thing, and there are a number of reasons why.

Pretty much every UX/CRO expert and company will advise you to tread lightly when it comes to radical redesigns.

The Common Pitfalls of Radical Redesigns (and Some Possible Fixes)

Many suggest you should replace radical redesigns with what’s known as Evolutionary Site Redesign (ESR).

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First, it is simply far less risky to iterate on an existing website than to start from scratch.

It’s also generally cheaper, faster, and more measurable — ESR allows companies to make educated, incremental changes to their existing websites that can be validated.

Perhaps most importantly, the ESR approach tends to be rooted in data insight. Radical redesigns traditionally aren’t.

However, this doesn’t mean that radical website redesigns don’t still happen.

Sometimes there isn’t the option to do ESR, as the decision has already been made by senior executives or the CEO.

Radical site redesigns are often the result of:

  • ‘digital transformation’ or re-platforming

  • an existing website not being mobile-friendly

  • an outdated look and feel

All is not lost if you find yourself in this situation, though. There are things you can do to minimize the potential negative impact on performance that a radical site migration might have.

Sometimes you need to answer this question:

Should you continue optimizing the existing site (evolutionary design approach), or scrap it and do a radical redesign instead?

If your brand or company direction changes, you probably need to start over. But if your brand remains the same, it’s not such a simple decision anymore.

The website you’re working on might reach a point when, despite your evolutionary design approach and making lots of little changes (running tests) to it over time, the gains are either very small or non-existent.

That point is called the “local maxima”- it’s when you’ve hit the limit of the current design. It can’t get much better. Even if you make 100 tweaks, you can only get so much improvement. It is as effective as it’s ever going to be on its current structural foundation.

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Always be hesitant about declaring that you’ve reached local maxima. Radical redesigns are risky — when you change everything at once, inevitably some things get better and some things get worse, and you can’t be totally sure how it’s going to play out. You can hit the jackpot, but you can also spend all that money on the redesign, and end up with lower conversions.

The way to go about it is to optimize — use evolutionary web design — until you reach a point of diminishing returns: Design until changes just aren’t having a big effect. Then, stop optimizing and return to other kinds of analysis to figure out the next steps.

Redesigns are not just about data. In fact, it’s next to impossible to create a brand new design solely based on data. Because a redesign brings forth a multitude of changes at once, there’s no way to identify which specific elements of the redesign account for conversion rate fluctuations.

Conversion analysts and designers have to take a chance. Using the data they have available, plus their intuition; what they think will work based on what they know about the business and their customers.

Before redesigning, understand what’s working and what’s not.

There are many horror stories about spending a ton of money (sometimes many millions of dollars) on a brand new website, only to discover that its conversion performance sucks. In many of those cases, the old design was reimplemented. That being said, I have experiences with redesigning a crappy-looking site and seeing the performance increase just by changing the look and feel.

The main point here is that radical redesigns can work, but can definitely also backfire. That’s why you need to be smart about them. There are always things that work well on your current site, and you need to know what those are. Keep the parts that are working (e.g. if the checkout page drop-off is under 5% — keep the same layout), just polish them. If the product page performance sucks, redesign it.

When you design through the local maxima, you need a balance between data-backed methodology, the intuitive sense designers use when making big changes, and design heuristics (stuff that usually works well). You need to intelligently alternate between innovation and optimization, as both are required to design great user experiences.

You need to gather data about the current site — understand how people use the site, what the problems are — and understand the people who’re using the site. What are people trying to accomplish? What are their higher-level goals? What aren’t people doing that we want them to? What causes friction? This level of insight will allow you to make those bigger changes.

How to decide when to redesign?

When the brand and identity of existing site changes, it’s better to re-think the whole thing and start over.

If that’s not the case, you need to conduct proper conversion research to uncover all the issues. Even if you end up doing a radical redesign anyway, you’ll know which parts are working and thus will be able to create a better new design.

When a radical design is better:

  • You’ve hit the local maxima.

  • The technology is severely outdated (uses outdated technology, not usable on mobile devices, backend system/website engine is obsolete, etc.)

  • The design of the site is amateur (looks like your grandma designed it), causing a negative first impression with most people. How to determine if this is the case? Conduct a survey or 5-second test. Ask people who’ve never been to the site to rate their instant reaction

  • There’s very little traffic, and conversion analysis reveals so many problems that it would take years of A/B testing to do it all properly (aka test every change).

When an evolutionary approach is better:

  • The existing design is “good enough”, there no major technological issues

  • There are a lot of returning visitors who are familiar with the existing design

The evolutionary design approach is what you should want to use when you can. That should be your default option.

Stay splendid!


P.S. My one-hour workshop How to Create a Hero Section That Converts (Psychology in Web Design) is now available for sale on this link