The art of redesigning a website
Most long running sites get to a stage that they start to feel old, and really need a facelift to keep up with competitors. This is usually seen as fun, difficult but often unrewarding work. Is it the change what is frustrating people, or something else? In this article I'll give a few guide lines to follow when redesigning a website and keeping your visitors happy.
Make learning the new design as easy as possible
A phrase often heard when releasing a new site is "The people who are complaining don't like change, just wait till they get used to it". This is somewhat true: Regular visitors learned how to use your site, like the location of the buttons they often use. They also probably liked the site the way it was (or else they weren't regular visitors). Suddenly their knowledge is useless and they have to start learning the site again. People don't feel happy about that.
You can counter this by keeping the same menu structure, put the more often used buttons/links at the same location as before. Basically: Look at how your visitors browsed before the redesign, and see if that same way of browsing can be applied to your new design as well.
Wait with new features
A new design usually comes with new features. But introducing new features at the same time as showing a new design will make the visitor feel overwhelmed. Like in the previous point: You don't want visitors to spend too much time learning your site again. Also your new features will not get full attention from your visitors at that point.
Slowly introduce new features after a while, after you released the redesign. Preferably talk about the features in news or blog articles (before and after the release) and provide enough explanation. Another good thing about this method is: Your site looks more active and maintained that way.
Don't surprise your visitors
Often a new release is just released without most of the users even knowing it was going to come. A big release like that sounds fun but your visitors will just hate it. A regular visitor gets attached to a site and especially with community driven sites, they feel like they're part of it (and they are!). Decide on a whole new design without telling or asking feedback from your users is just kinda selfish.
Let your visitors know that you are working on a redesign. Let people test it and find out what they dislike before making the old layout unavailable. Make them feel involved with the new layout. People use your site in many ways and they will always surprise you.
Keep control of your designer urges
As a designer you get inspired by great layouts and features appearing around you. New ways of scrolling and retrieving data, big screaming titles and fancy new data visualizations. Redesigning a site and adding all those fun things will surely make your site fit in with all the other sites. But those gimmicks can be seen as annoying by your regular visitors.
Only add gimmicks to your design if they actually are useful for your site. Also make them subtle. People don't care about a big fancy animating tag cloud. They just want to focus on the content.
A good redesign is more than just putting together some nice looking pages. Think about your visitors and find out how they use your site. Keep them involved, notice problems and fix them. Make it as easy as possible for them to learn the new site. Losing visitors because of a redesign is a real issue: People will search for alternatives and some even build their own.