Time for a Makeover!

Improving your Web site doesn't always require a big, expensive redesign. A series of small, low-cost steps can produce immediate benefits.

The phrase Web site makeover often implies a dramatic, brand-new look for a Web site. But take a tip from leading companies: Redesign is an ongoing journey, not a final destination. The big sites are always freshening up their design features, and whether the project is big or small, there are some universal rules to follow.

First, start by asking these three questions: Will the change benefit customers? Will it produce revenue? Will it reduce costs? "That's where having the biggest bang for the buck is—having that conversation," says Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering in Bradford, Mass. "The next-biggest bang for the buck is figuring out how to measure that."

Freshening up a stale Web site is a process of identifying what would make the site more useful, evaluating the result and then trying again. The following are some tips from the experts:

Tip 1: Choose Compelling Artwork

Ditching stock art and choosing more appropriate images is a sure way to enliven a site. "You can put human faces on your site, but it's so much more impressive if you have real employees, real customers," says Marie Tahir, director of user experience at Intuit Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

St. Louis-based A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc., for example, dramatically sharpened the look of its client home page by enabling its financial consultants to upload pictures of themselves, creating a more personalized experience.

For transactional sites, show what's for sale. "If you have a real product to sell, show the product," says Tahir. "It makes people feel good and grounded and in the right place when they see the product they're looking for."

Keeping images appropriate usually means keeping them simple. Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc. is a good example: Its book section shows images of books, not people reading books.

Tip 2: Make the Writing Easy to Read

Want to quickly freshen up a site? Start with the writing. It's a surefire way to improve usability, which in itself is a great goal.

"Rather than just putting more lipstick on the pig, I always urge people doing redesigns to invest in really good writing and editing skills," says Tahir. "People think design, and they separate it from content."

Boston-based Fidelity Investments has a "jargon clip" on video that it uses for training, says Eleri Dixon, vice president for usability at Fidelity E-Business. In it, a real customer is asked whether she understands the words on the site. Dixon says the customer replies, "Well, if you use all buzzwords, I understand what you're saying, but they're not my words." Customers' words are now used whenever possible, she says.

At A.G. Edwards, wording on the navigation bar was made more intuitive, and the client home page was reorganized to suit the needs of visitors, says Betsy Lueg, site manager.

Tip 3: Simplify and Consolidate Information

Another way to quickly freshen up a site, especially a corporate site, is to consolidate. "Group all the company information in one place, rather than scattering it," says Tahir. "People's minds try to group things, and if they don't see it in the place where they think it should be, then they'll think it's not there."

The natural tendency when freshening a site is to give users more—more features, more options. Yet too many entry points can make a site look stale and may suggest that its designers added features without rethinking the old. A case in point: By simplifying an interface and making it more visually compelling, Priceline.com Inc. in Norwalk, Conn., saw a 50% increase in the number of visitors to its ticket site.

On the old Priceline.com home page, customers had to click a specific button to order a plane ticket, rent a car or make a hotel reservation. A new feature, packaged prominently in a gold box on the home page, asks customers where they are going and when. This change paid off. Now 50% more people start down the path to buying a ticket, and 5% to 10% of them actually finish the process. The old format is still available, but only 1% of people who use it buy a ticket. In this case, simplicity rules.

"Anytime you can take a thought out of the process for the user, it's always a good thing," says Brian Harniman, vice president of marketing at Priceline.com.

Tip 4: Be Selective When Copying Design Ideas

When eliminating stale site features, avoid going on a freshening rampage. Don't just wantonly lift designs from successful sites. Take Amazon.com, arguably one of the world's most copied sites. If a company that also sold such easily describable items as CDs and books were to copy Amazon's Web design, it would probably work. But when a site that sells hard-to-describe items—or, even worse, one that isn't transactional at all—borrows design elements from Amazon, it can be a recipe for confusion. When borrowing, "you always need to consider the context and why it works," cautions Tahir.

On the other hand, studying sites such as Amazon.com is a great way to stay up to date on the latest in good design. "Amazon has so much good stuff that people should learn from," says Tahir. One of the best things is "good, common-sense category names for their stuff," she says. "They call cameras cameras. They're not digital imaging."

Tip 5: Give Visitors Fair Warning of Changes

Freshening changes might seem small, but that doesn't mean users don't need to be warned. Transactional sites, as opposed to corporate sites, need to be especially cautious, announce changes in advance and move slowly, says Kipp Lynch, director of user experience at Nervewire Inc., a management consulting and systems integration firm in Newton, Mass. "It's kind of like Stephen Jay Gould," says Lynch. How so? The late biologist was renowned for his punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution, which posits that species evolve in spurts between long periods of little change. On Web sites, punctuated equilibrium is jarring for customers.

When A.G. Edwards redesigned its site last year, it notified users in two ways—on the site and through the mail. The company staggered the notices and then the rollouts, which started in April 2001 and wrapped up three months later. "We made them aware that a new site was coming on the log-in page of the old site, and we also sent them a packet of information in the mail with steps for what to do when migrating," says Lueg. Both the new and old Web sites were then run in parallel for six weeks.

Schwartz is a freelance writer in Somerville, Mass.

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