3 Approaches, and 3 Mistakes Not To Make , When Rolling-Out Website Redesigns

Over the past several months it seems there has been a steady stream of articles about good, bad, and ugly redesign roll-outs. In addition to what I’ve been reading in the media, I’ve been involved in a few roll-outs through my work at Adaptive Path. As a marketing guy, I sometimes work with our clients on the roll-out of our work, so I pay special attention to the way we announce, prepare for, and follow through with launches. In my opinion, sending messages to those who will be affected, and opening lines of communication for feedback, is an important part of this process that still gets short changed. Beyond that, usability testing and roll-out planning are frequently overlooked all together. Often it’s because there is significant pressure to launch the %&#*! thing. Sometimes the roll-out strategy and planning is simply overlooked, or underestimated, when a project is initially scoped.  I’m writing to put a spotlight on roll-out strategy, to highlight the value, and to point out three approaches that might work for you.

The Value Of Rolling-Out Right

A solid roll-out plan is like a good follow through for a golfer. You’re practically done with the swing, but that little bit at the end can make all the difference. You’ve worked hard to create a great redesign and you want to make sure that it comes to market in a way that complements the work itself. This is equally important when you’re working on a short putt or a long drive.

The value of a well coordinated roll-out can be seen clearly through the relationship you have with your customers, and how they respond to change. Most people don’t like change, so roll-outs are inherently a tricky business. I recommend putting a dollar amount on the time you’ll spend managing a roll-out gone bad (not to mention the headache) and I assure you that it makes sense to invest in planning up front. This reminds me of a piece of advice that I’ve heard from many athletes, “it takes twice as long to re-hydrate as it does to hydrate.” Quick response time can be very helpful when rolling out redesigns, so be prepared with for as many scenarios as possible.

The perceived value of your team can be affected as well because their brilliant work can get lost if a flood of criticism rolls in without contingencies in place. It’s important to stay on course towards the long-term value, so plan out how you’ll respond to issues before they arise, and dedicate extra bandwidth to respond to the initial waves of reaction. If all goes well, you can use this extra time to drink some champagne.

Finally, the clearest articulation of value is expressed in returning business. Many organizations track attrition and conversion associated with roll-outs by comparing normal attrition/conversion rates against those after a roll-out. Look at the value of those customers over the average life of their patronage to estimate value. The real cost should be some standard percentage larger than this when you account for the goodwill and evangelism for your service that is lost.

3 Approaches

How you prepare depends on how significant your redesign is. As a general rule, and in the interest of fair disclosure, my own opinion is that large scale redesigns often send the wrong message to the community because they are hard to tie to user feedback. They can cause the support network to break down, they offer less opportunity to build on the site’s legacy of interaction design, and they are always more jarring. Of course, there are situations in which massive redesign can’t be avoided. In other words, I prefer a more Agile approach when possible, because this lets you roll out changes slowly over time and keep your community close. That said, there are different opportunities depending on what you’re launching.

Here are three archetypal approaches to consider as you formulate a plan for your roll-out:

  • The Slow Burn – this is similar to an “early and often” approach and involves getting your initial message out in the context of a multi-part reveal that you’ll be updating at key points along the way.
    • Media Impact: this can be helpful in establishing relationships with the media because you can build the dialogue over a series of communications. This works best with more traditional media where journalists may be working on larger stories that require long lead times. You can still take advantage of exclusive releases, and embargoed stories with this approach if you’ve got a good reason to do so. Obviously there will be lots of opportunities for you to get the message out through your own communication channels, just make sure to honor whatever arrangements you have made with the media.
    • Implementation: Changes can be released on a time-line with countdowns, where you give your community fair warning before they are implemented. If the changes are small enough though, you can sometimes migrate them without much of a fuss. Celebrate the best changes, and minimize the less sexy parts.
  • Going Beta – this approach can be combined with The Slow Burn approach, or can be run faster, and usually includes an opt-in by existing customers.
    • Media Impact: this has the advantage of letting the media get into the opt-in site along side the self-selecting members of your community. The good news is that self-selecting participants may be more likely to like the redesign, which means that media might be exposed to mostly positive feedback. At the same time, the media is less likely to make as big of a deal about a beta release (though there are exceptions to this because different sites interpret what it means to be in beta differently). If they don’t make a big deal out of it, then you should  work with them to make a big deal of migrating from the beta to a fully rolled-out redesign. It’ll be a bit less dramatic though because the cat is already out of the bag.
    • Implementation: when doing opt-in Beta releases you’ll want to make sure you have some sort of moderated feedback forum to collect responses from the community. It can be helpful to collect the most useful feedback on a board along with planned responses and/or explanations. This is most important when you are working in the context of a site that has a tight community of evangelists.
  • The Launch – Many people use this interchangeably with roll-out, but I think a launch is a dramatic type of roll-out. it’s not exactly a secret, but with this approach you’re artificially building pressure by creating a scarcity of information around your redesign. This can be very effective at generating a burst of coverage, and excitement in advance. This works particularly well when you are offering a stand service or content piece that your community can line up to get. Though this was not for a redesign or a website, we used this approach with the release of the Adaptive Path Aurora Concept Video.
    • Media Impact: in this case it’s easier to set up exclusive coverage for a story, particularly if you already have a good relationships with the media outlets you plan on targeting. Embargoed stories may be required, but beware of “leaks” that may compromise your media relationships. Obviously, the more well known the service the better this approach can work.
    • Implementation: the countdown approach works well in this scenario. Be ready for hell to break loose if you haven’t done any test markets or beta testing. This is the riskiest approach, but if you plan well it can survive some glitches. Think back to the launch of Firefox 3 which crashed their servers, but still set a world-record, and came across in a positive light (the ugly example in the intro).

Mistakes Not To Make (And Some Stuff To Watch Out For)

Some of the examples I cited in the introduction involve companies that host significantly engaged communities that were affected by the roll-out of redesigned pages or websites. Earlier this year, Adaptive Path worked on a website with a very involved community as well, MySpace (read a case study about this project here). When there is community involved, you’ll often see sites offering members a chance to opt-in to the redesigned areas to try them out. There are a couple of things to remember when doing this kind of activity:

  • Always remember that you’re working with a self-selecting group that may not be a representative sample of your community.
  • Such groups may tend to be more positive because they’ve actively chosen to participate.
  • Provide a resource for the community to offer feedback and make it highly visible to both those in and out of the opt-in.
  • Make sure that resource includes a means of acknowledging feedback with well moderated replies.
  • Collect the most common issues and respond to them in a clear and concise way that is consistent with your brand personality.
  • Be patient, and wait until new issues come up infrequently.

But beware! It’s possible to listen to all the feedback, and incorporate it in a balanced way, and still get massive resistance during roll-out. Perhaps Facebook did all of the above well, and even extensively tested the redesign to make sure it was solid. Let’s even assume that the redesign benefited from all the community input. That still won’t address the shock that the community will feel when they come to their Facebook page one day and see that everything has moved.

Sometimes this issue has nothing to do with the redesign itself. So what is it about, and how can I avoid it?

  • Don’t move too fast – Avoid going from an opt-in beta to a site wide roll-out suddenly. A banner at the top of the page requesting that people opt-in, is not enough warning in an of itself. Give people time to figure out what’s going on. Some people touch your website everyday, others may only visit once a month or less. This means it may take for the message to get to them.
  • Don’t explain after the fact – Speaking of getting the message out there, don’t forget to let the community know why you are doing this in the first place. I recommend building such messages into some sort of countdown. I’m not necessarily talking about a literal countdown, though that can work. I’m talking about a messaging plan that culminates with a message that reaches deeply into your community, either through your own communication channels or through those in the media.
  • Don’t lose your focus – Direct your energy to the aspects of the redesign that are most likely to cause a stir, and be prepared to support your decisions. The smaller issues aren’t likely to be deal breakers so don’t stress about the small stuff.

There are many approaches and pitfalls associated with rolling-out redesigns, but hopefully this has gotten you thinking. As is often the case, the single most important factor to consider is the end user. What is their experience going to be like, and what can you do to make the experience the best it can be? If you’ve got other insights about how to roll-out redesigns please comment below!

The Ultimate Driving Experience

A couple months ago I had the pleasure of traveling to South Carolina to attend a driving course at the BMW performance driving school. My father had recently purchased an M Series car and attending the school with a guest was part of that package. I love driving, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to take some tricked-out BMWs onto the track. What I didn’t expect was a well crafted experience from start to finish. The weekend really summed up how powerful a great experience can be. Here are some of the highlights:

The experience actually started in a BMW showroom when my father went in to learn about the car in the first place. These cars are marketed to driving aficionados who are often interested in the mechanics of how they work. BMW has lead automobile innovation for a long time, and the M Series of cars is the product line that expresses this innovation most. For those interested in these cars there is extensive information about what makes them so remarkable online. What will probably be more engaging to the readers of this post, however, is how BMW uses Microsoft Surface screens in their showrooms:

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BMW presents technical information alongside information about their driving schools where owners have the opportunity to get training by some very talented, and competitive, drivers. You can watch some of those videos here. Together these presentations are compelling, emotionally inspiring, and contagious enough to make most people want to put the pedal to the metal. But, if you’re not interested in the track, BMW has other experiences on tap. For example, you can pick the car up in Germany and take a road trip through Europe before heading home with the car.

One interesting note about the factory in Germany is that it was one of the first places to use audio tours, which later made their way into blockbuster museum exhibitions. It seems that they are very capable of bringing their design thinking outside of the cars themselves. Before leaving for South Carolina, BMW sent me a nice letter of introduction, an itinerary, and a list of what to bring. When we arrived in South Carolina they were waiting for us in BMW SUVs that took us to our hotel. They’d a BMW branded menu at the restaurant (ok that may have gone too far, but it was a tasty meal), shirts and hats were left in our rooms, and cars were provided if we wanted to catch a movie in the evening. When we got up the next morning there was a bus to take us over to the driving center (sadly, not a BMW bus), which was an impressive bit of architecture.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the curriculum of the driving school itself, but I will say that it was well run and a lot of fun. There was a good mix of play and instruction. I would, however, like to highlight what happened when I got home from the school. A couple weeks after the course. I received a DVD in the mail with footage of my training so they could review my performance, and continue to try and build on the skills that I was introduced to. What I find interesting about the videos is that they embed the speedometer an tachometer into the image along with a representation of where you are on the track. Here is a video clip of my 65 year old father winning a race on a short loop course in the rain (he beat me by three stinking tenths of a second).

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While we were at the school I heard a story of how the BMW design approach had been a barrier to user experience at least once. Apparently, BMW’s M Series cars did not have cup holders for a long time because the designers did not believe it was safe, or appropriate, to drink beverages while driving. When they did initially install them, they were apparently of poor quality. Fortunately for my father, it seems they’ve rectified this issue.

Which brings me to the BMW iDrive, which a computer system used to control most secondary vehicle systems in many current BMW cars. iDrive’s user interface consists of a LCD panel mounted in the dashboard and a controller knob mounted on the center console. iDrive allows the driver and front-seat passenger to control such amenities as the climate (air conditioner and heater), the audio system (radio and CD player), the navigation system and communication system. This is another area where the user experience seems to break down a little bit. You can read some of the critical reviews here:

  1. JAMES G. COBB (May 12, 2002). “Menus Behaving Badly“. New York Times. Retrieved on January 18, 2008.
  2. Jasper van Kuijk (December 24, 2007). “More iDrive Reviews; the Evolution of a Bad Idea“. the product usability weblog. Retrieved on January 18, 2008.

Based on my experience on the track I’d say that many of these issues are still present in iDrive. There is a fairly steep learning curve, and the system seems to contradict the safety concerns that made the BMW designers resist cup holders. In other words, it’s hard to use when driving, which could be dangerous. This begs a question about how siloed the design teams are at BMW, and makes me think there is probably an opportunity here for better management of user experience.

As your industry grows, and user experience teams become more embedded in product and service development practices, there will be a greater and greater need to focus on the managemnet side or our practice. Our conference MX: Managing Experience is all about this effort. If you’re having these kinds you issues please check the conference out.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments.

Getting some quotes

Today I got in touch with a bunch of companies online that offer services to take visual design files and turn them into WordPress themes. Since I have my visual design complete, this is the next step. My blog is going to be really simple so almost everything can be cobbled together from existing themes, widgets, and open-source code. Once again, I’m reminded that just because this is over my head does not mean it’s rocket science. I also posted the project description on Craigslist and got some good leads as well. I’d prefer to work with a freelancer, so I think that’s the direction I’m going to go in. More soon!

Building my theme

Today I started working on the design of this so called blog. I spent most of the day looking at other blogs, seeing what works, what fails, what fits with what I’m trying to do, and looking for unique opportunities. And, I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s just a blog … and not to over think it. That said, I visited the blogs of some pretty fancy dancy “experience” designers today and I was pretty disapointed to find some pretty poor experiences out there. It seems these folks create great experiences for companies, but not for their own stuff. Who’da thunk it? Strange …. but I have to say, not too surprising. Human nature has something to do with this I think.

In any case, here the first sketch of my new site!

Early Theme Sketch

Early Theme Sketch

Okay, that’s it for now.

SurfGopher

Putting Your Design Where Your Money Is: A Prototype Wallet

For the past several years, I’ve been walking around with a wallet that is actually the insert for a larger one. At first this was because wallets just seemed bigger than they should be, But over the years I realized that I’ve never found a wallet that really anticipates my behaviors well. For example, being able to reach into my pocket to get my driver’s license or cash without having to pull out the entire wallet. I’ve also never had a wallet in which I can hold business cards without mashing their edges. There are other issues, but those seem to rise to the top.

In true Adaptive Path fashion, I decided it was time to do some rapid prototyping. I started with paper prototypes which I unfolded and used to create a fabrication drawing. I then sent it off to a leather guy to make a better prototype. Regrettably, the fabricator did not fully understand the project, despite lots of notation on the fabrication spec, and I got back something that was worse than my paper version. The dimensions were off and it was made from thick leather that made the wallet too big and stiff. The lesson I took away from this is that you should always try and make the prototype yourself if possible because you understand your goals better than you can possibly explain in a spec. So, I decided that I’d look into making a prototype that was better than paper, but which didn’t require special tools. That’s when the duct tape came in. I’d seen duct tape wallets before so I decided to try making one myself.

I liked the basic design of the insert wallet I had, but it needed some adjustments. Below you can see images of my old wallet next to the prototype I created. I’ve only been using it for one day but I already know I’m heading in the right direction. I’ve turned up a couple issues that will impact my next prototype as well. Yay for prototypes! Let me know what you think!

Old Wallet Inside View – As you can see the cash is simply folded in the middle which allows you to peel off bills like a bill fold. I used to use a bobby pin to keep the cash in, but ultimately found that it was unnecessary. Also, I liked being able to take the cash out of my pocket without the wallet (this requires that you put the wallet in your pocket with the open end up).

 

oldinsidecash

Prototype Wallet Inside View – As you can see it’s very similar, though instead of using clear plastic that tears easily, I opted for triangular thumb pulls which make getting the cards out easier.

 

newinsidecash

Old Wallet Inside View Without Cash – here’s what it looks like without cash in it (I hate it when that happens)

 

oldinside

Prototype Wallet Inside View Without Cash – same.

newinside

 

 

Old Wallet Outside View – you can see here that the driver’s license is held on the outside, which I really liked. This way you can quickly reach into your pocket and pull out just the license.

oldoutside

Prototype Wallet Outside View – I kept the license on the outside, but added a pocket on the other side for business cards rather than keeping them on the inside like in the old wallet. This allowed me to create a flap of material over the entire business card that keeps the edges clean (note that the pocket in which the license sits leaves the edge of the license exposed). My next version will add a thin plastic card over the business cards to protect them even more.

 

newoutside

Old Wallet Side View – The old one was pretty thin, which I really liked.

 

oldside

New Wallet Side View – the new one is slightly thinner because of the material used. Ultimately, I might have this fabricated from a thin, durable, and slightly stretchy cardura.

 

newside

 

UPDATE:
Here are some other interesting thin wallets:

Wallet Pens