Some Thoughts On Redesigning Your Site

Recently, I worked through the redesign process of this site.  While I had my blog designer draft an overview from his perspective, I wanted to share some thoughts from mine.

First up – it’s worth it:  invest in a custom design

I was using a free theme I customized myself up until the end of January, 2010.  It was simple and did what I wanted it to do:  share ideas and build a community.  Although this worked, I should have invested in a custom design sooner.

Many reasons to do this:

  • If you’re going to vest time in anything, it’s worth investing some resources to make it be as successful as possible.
  • A custom theme helps you stand out from the crowd.  With the number of blogs growing larger each day, every little advantage you can get helps.
  • Templates are well and good – but I can’t help but think they communicate to the world your content is also templated even if it’s not the case.  That’s the initial reaction it can inspire.  Your content now has to work twice as hard to prove a reader’s initial thoughts wrong.  With a custom design, you’re communicating to the world you’re more committed and unique than others.  This might not always be the case either of course, but when it is, it’s a powerful first impression.
  • You can create a stickier brand by creating a mental image associated with it.  This is more effective if that mental image is unique.  Read the Dosh Dosh case study for more on how a unique image/brand/design can help your blog (or any type of site) stand out.
  • The open web is not going away anytime soon.  While real-time services and RSS both matter – and your content will certainly end up external of your site – many (for most niches, a majority) still find content on pages themselves as destinations (RSS users only make up 11% of the web, according to data from Forrester).

Once you’ve decided to create a custom design, how can you get great work out of your designer?

Do your research – you should choose a designer you have personally sough out and found their style resonated with you.  Take your time to find this.  It makes no sense to choose someone who designs in a style that doesn’t fit your brand.  Designers all have individualistic styles and preferences, so find one that aligns with what you want.

Don’t go cheap – it’s worth spending the resources to invest in a good designer.  No, it’s not as cheap as using a template, but you get what you pay for.  Good designers don’t cut corners, they spec things out, work through revisions, make something SEO/social media friendly out of the box, all that jazz.  Bearing you find a designer you really like and have done your homework, you shouldn’t mind paying their rate.

Find a small shop – small shops rock at design – I still haven’t worked with a big firm I’ve been happy with.  There is just less creativity inherantly with larger groups.  My experience is web design is a dish best serviced by agile firms and individuals (you might not find this to be true, but it’s been my experience).

The less people involved in the design, the better – the more people there are, the greater chance you’re going to ruin it.  Everyone has specific tastes and, to be perfectly honest, most don’t have any aesthetic sense at all.  Let the people who understand the audience and those who will be marketing the site have a say – by bringing more people than this into the mix you’re going to ruin it.  Also, only bring people who are web-literate into the process.  Most others aren’t going to add much value to the equation – they’ll like it or hate it but they won’t be able to articulate why in a meaningful way.

Respect your designer – don’t make them create more revisions for revision sake.  Be clear with what you want before the first go.  It is my pet peeve when others try to micromanage designers or make them create an insane number of mock-ups.  Also, listen to your designer:  they are making recommendations to make your site better.  Their opinion should matter to you, and if not – why did you hire them?

Know your goals with the site – and the goal of the site is not just “to make money” or “provide ROI.”  Discuss your audience with your designer and ensure everyone understands what it is you want to get out of the design.  Let them know everything from your overall businesses objectives and strategies to specific marketing tactics.  If you can’t trust your designer to this degree, you haven’t chosen the right one.  Your designer should understand the specifics as much as your internal team does.

Your web designer is not your internet marketer – your web designer isn’t going to do SEM/SMM work for you.  They can build you something with the propensity to rank and the content to get shared, but it’s up to you to market it.  I’ve been shocked to hear about these stories happen to friends of mine who are designers (as a marketer, the shoe is on the other foot:  I’m not going to design your site for you, rather I will act as a consult to help it be successful).

Once you’re designing the site, now what?

The answer to that question is simple:  optimize it to accomplish your objectives.

For this blog, my goals were simple:  subscriber conversions and  continue to build community.  I was able to achieve them just by looking at the data and making what was successful from the old design work in the new one.

Make your current site data work for you – there is a reason on this blog the specific social sharing buttons were added – they are consistently the top referral traffic sources.  I looked at the data and it was easy for us to increase the chances for content to get shared by calling out the sites most used by the community.  Note some of my top referring sources, and then the fact that these networks are all now well-represented on pages.

Top referring sources:

Top of posts now call out Twitter/Facebook:

Bottom of posts call out Delicious, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter and Digg:

It makes no sense for me to call out networks a majority of readers aren’t using.  A lot of bloggers call out tons of sites in the post template, but this clutters a design and takes the focus off the important calls to action.  If you ask users to do too much, they’ll do nothing.

Take the elements working in your current design – I had good data backing up leaving the subscribe CTAs at both the bottom of each post here and at the top of the right sidebar were already in the right spots.  Daniel at Daily Blog Tips has data on this too.  I’m not going to run the numbers, but I’ll let the growth trend speak for itself.

Seems like obvious decisions, but the fact that I already had my finger on the pulse of my site analytics helped us create something effective quickly.

image credit: various artists/photographs from Shutterstock