book called Surf the InternetI’ve talked a lot lately about what to consider when you’re starting a web site from scratch — which is where a lot of my clients are when we first meet. However, I also have clients who come to me for redesign and tweaking of their existing web site — either a site they had designed before we met, or one which we built together previously. This process can be a little murkier, mostly because the reasons a business owner or nonprofit would want to make changes are as varied as the organizations themselves. Here are a few of the scenarios we’ve encountered in the last year:

  • A nonprofit with a web site built by someone else using a software-as-service provider finally lost patience with the limitations of the features available through that SaaS provider.
  • A small business with a web site they received in a service barter did some reading on web usability and realized that their site was hard to read because of the design itself.
  • A nonprofit with a web site we built wanted to add an in-site search engine, a member-only area, and make some small layout changes to their news page.
  • A nonprofit with a web site we built had all new print marketing materials designed and wanted the color palette of their site to match their spiffy new brochures.

For each of these clients, the path from what-we-have to what-we-really-want was different. Some of them required just a few hours of work, and some became major development projects. No matter what, all of them — like that cutting-edge book over there, published in 1993 — eventually required an update. So, how do you know if your site needs to be freshened up?

There’s a problem with the way you’re managing your site.

In the first example above, this was the issue. Sometimes, you’re working with a web site that looks great, shares just the information you need with your customers, and has met all your needs but one: you struggle to make changes to it. One client admitted that the final straw for them was that they could not move their phone number from the bottom footer of the page to the top header of the page. This type of thing happens often with Software-as-a-Service providers. You can read a nice succint report of the pros and cons of Software-as-a-Service web providers here, but the gist of it is that when my clients come to me from one of these systems, they’re concerned with one of the following issues:

  • They can’t customize something like that phone number I mentioned above, because the software is limited and they can’t access the code to change it.
  • They are concerned that the service provider may not be in business forever, and they realize that they’ll lose all their web content if the provider goes under.
  • They want to add additional functionality to their site, and it’s not supported by the provider.

Many SaaS providers offer the perfect solution for a new business web site, so we are by no means condemning this option. It’s fantastic that there are places like SquareSpace, Weebly, Wix, and other hosts that roll the content management system in with the web and email hosting — but inevitably, we see our clients outgrowing them. If you’re noticing things you can’t do with your SaaS provider, it might be time to think about a traditional host with a more flexible environment.

Something on your site doesn’t meet usability standards.

tomatoland web site with content hidden below the foldWe are learning all the time about how users are interacting with their screens. Five years ago, very few people were taking seriously what we now call “responsive design” — web sites that respond to the kind of device on which they’re being viewed. Now, however, it’s considered very important that your site look presentable on a desktop computer, laptop, smart phone, and tablet. Though your current site might look great on your computer, it might be nearly impossible to read on your iPhone. That’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem, given that “34% of cell internet users go online mostly using their phones, and not using some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer,” according to Pew Internet Research (read the full article here).

Of course, there’s more to usability than device compatibility. In the case of my client example above, the site had been designed with a visually beautiful but extremely large header image which was keeping users from being able to see the first, most crucial lines of “call to action” text below the image without scrolling. Web users are generally lazy — not always, but generally, and lest you think I’m pointing the finger, I am one of the laziest. SCROLL? You are asking me to MOVE MY FINGERS to see if this content on the Tomato Land web site is interesting to me? I say NAY! NAY, I WILL NOT SCROLL! And this is what was happening to that client — no one was scrolling, no one saw much beyond that very pretty header image, and she was losing a chance to hook her readers on her very useful content. All we did was make that header short enough that her textual call to action was “above the fold” — aka, above the need to scroll — and she expects a difference in the number of people who bounce quickly off of her home page.

Little things like that can make a big difference, and they’re worth investigating. Sometimes all it takes is a few hours of work.

There’s cool, new technology available.

This is a very common reason site owners have for calling me to talk about updates to their site. My third example above is a perfect illustration. When we launched that client’s site initially, we always saw it as Phase I. Additional functionality was expected to follow in a year to eighteen months, and while we were able to predict some of it — a member-only area in particular — we hadn’t realized some of the things that would become useful down the line. As the site grew in size, a search engine became crucial. As they used some features of their content management system in different ways, changes needed to be made to some page layouts to accommodate them.

This is always hard to predict. Most businesses that launched sites in 2009 wouldn’t have anticipated that they’d be using Twitter in 2013 — or that a facility for their users to connect to them via Twitter and share their pages on Twitter would be not just a nice-to-have but a gotta-have-it-now. Check with me again in 2019, and there will be something else to add — and probably a few things to remove.

Your look has changed.

Design changes are usually on a slower cycle than the changes above because they take coordination and plenty of forethought. When my client in the fourth scenario above let me know that they were planning new print collateral, I had the time to consult with the print designer, get high-resolution images and color codes for use online, develop a prototype for my clients, and settle on a finalized redesign before the print materials were mailed. That was really important — we didn’t want the visual identity of the whole organization to be compromised by mismatched web and print marketing.

For some organizations, this process begins as a change in leadership, and for some, it comes as part of another organization-wide effort to modernize or freshen a look. Sometimes it’s part and parcel of an upgrade to usability or technology — when you change one of those things, you might want or need to change how you present it to your user. Either way, this is one to take slowly and carefully.

It’s a good idea in general to see your web site as an evolving piece of your marketing and customer experience delivery system. Unlike your business cards or brochures, you can tweak it any time you like, and staying agile about your expectations will give you a lot of freedom. Just be sure to work with someone who can understand your vision and the destination you have in mind for this cycle of your web site’s evolution.