2012 is set to be a big year for the web. HTML5 is becoming a Candidate Recommendation, the heat around Responsive Web Design will start to cool down and people will actually use it in effective & purposeful ways, and Microsoft will open the Windows application development platform to hundreds of thousands of web designers and developers.
We've also been blessed with the redesigns of a few popular websites - The BBC, The Boston Globe (OK, they were late 2011 - but close enough), and more recently Smashing Magazine. These redesigns have all been received with a mixture of rave reviews, harsh criticism, and even boycotting of the site. At the risk of stating the obvious, users don't like change.
Change is coming; whether you like it or not.
The users of these websites tend to forget something - change is inevitable. When the BBC announced their beta home page to the public, many people jumped aboard and tested, letting the Beeb know their thoughts. But the common user struggles with the idea of change. When they announced the beta, what the BBC were saying was something like this:
Hello everyone! We're going to change the home page of the BBC. This is what it's going to look like - but if there are any little things you don't like, or you find any problems, please let us know.
Excellent. Bring on the change! However, what the common user reads is something more like this:
Hello everyone! We're going to change the home page of the BBC - but only if you think it's a good one. I mean, if enough of you complain about the changes, we'll keep it as it is.
Not good. And if you think I'm exaggerating, have a read over the comments. Some of them are ridiculous.
Know your users better than themselves
It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them. — Steve Jobs
If there's one prime example of a site that undergoes changes often rejected by users, it's Facebook. By August 2012, Facebook is due to have over 1 billion users. That's an awful lot of people to please, and they manage it very well. You might be thinking "Dan, you're wrong. Everyone hates every new design feature Facebook introduces" and you'd be right- but they don't hate it for very long. The Facebook design cycle goes something like this:
Facebook introduces a new feature
Users rebel, paste thousands of comments criticizing Facebook's latest big mistake
Users eventually adjust, and completely forget about the new design features, as they effortlessly work themselves into the user's daily routines
Lather, rinse, repeat
One reason Facebook has been so immensely successful is because it's giving us features and tools we didn't even know we needed - and much of it is achieved through design.
A big fish in a little bowl
Users, understand this; when a website is born - any website at all - it's impossible to fully guarantee its size. What starts as a one or two page website may one day be a thriving blog, with thousands of articles and pages. The design of a site is one of the biggest limitations of a website's content, so of course it is only natural for a redesign with the addition of content, functionality, and and increase in user base. And we all know we love more stuff. So here are a couple of reasons that a website might have a makeover:
An increase in content
Any website worth it's own will generate content on a fairly regular basis. As more content is added, it becomes a lot harder to navigate - imagine trying to find the very first article published on the BBC's website? I'd say this is a pretty obvious reason for many of the redesigns I've mentioned here.
Another no-brainer. Facebook hasn't always had comment liking, photo tagging, and a slew of other features. They were all implemented with their own special little design, some of which has been hated and forgotten by users.
A change in audience/in response to negative feedback
Here's a paradox for you: your users don't know what they're talking about. Listen to them. While you need to remember that a lot of the time, your users don't know what they need until they see it, they're also your primary source for feedback. It's always a risky business with a redesign - you can't splutter out your ideas to the public, (though the BBC did and I think that was a great idea) so you end up only interacting with coworkers and other designers on the project. You get locked in a bubble, and tend to forget the bigger picture. Listen to the feedback of your users, and as long as it isn't "I hate this redesign, I'm going back to MySpace" you should be able to take something away from it.
I suppose the summary of this post is two-fold. Users; don't be afraid of change. It's usually for a reason. Try to trust the designer to do the right thing, at least until they admit they were wrong. Designers; don't cling to your user's every word. Take your audience's criticism with a pinch of salt. They'll forget, adjust, or leave - and that last one is usually an indication that you really did screw it up.