A rock stands on its tip against a gray background

April 25, 2024

Stop overhauling your website

The case for an incremental approach to website redesigns

This piece originally appeared in AllBusiness, see the published piece here.

Shiny and new vs. tried and true

At this point, anyone in marketing has seen (or been the accomplice to) an unnecessary website overhaul.

To be fair, there are very persuasive reasons to burn it all down to the ground. Our culture deeply values the new over the old—particularly in a corporate world where “newness” can get more attention and accolades than the much less flashy “improvement.” The “what sounds better on a resume” question is compounded by clients repeatedly being sold or given the impression that they need to start over entirely to solve their business issues. It’s a chicken or egg question—which idea came first, that website overhauls are necessary for creating change, or that it is easier to sell a website overhaul when it is critical to change?

Why website overhauls don’t work

Here’s the problem: website overhauls don’t work—at least not in the way they’re promised to.

Website redesigns are often initiated because there’s a business problem: low conversions or poor lead capturing mean the website isn’t driving a significant portion of revenue; an under-investment in the website leads to an outdated and out-of-touch image; acquisitions have grown the capabilities of an organization, but those aren’t reflected on the website. The list goes on.

Sure, a website overhaul may solve those problems…in the same way that firing your entire staff and hiring new people may improve employee morale.

But, like that analogy, website overhauls are expensive and hopefully unnecessary. In both the time they require and the financial investment needed, website overhauls demand the dedication and focus of large teams working for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. This time commitment poses problems of its own, adding in a layer of “well we’ve spent so much time on it, now it really has to perform.” In other words, the perfect recipe for stakeholder disappointment, delivered late and way over budget.

It can also create more problems than there were to begin with. From structure changes to broken links, a great deal of complexity is involved in successfully migrating a site without decreasing SEO rankings. Data and content migrations are often underestimated herculean efforts, not to mention external integrations. A misaligned overhaul can also turn users off to the platform, creating frustration or confusion and causing a loss of trust and familiarity.

Finally, it’s just not the best way to work. A website isn’t a static billboard—it’s a selling tool that should be responsive to customer needs. Responsiveness means it adapts as customers or the business adapts. Every month you spend on an overhaul is time that could have been put into making the site 5% better for the customers currently interacting with it. By the time you finish, the insights that you were implementing may no longer be relevant.

A website isn’t a static billboard—it’s a selling tool that should be responsive to customer needs.

Why incremental change does work

When we spread the gospel of incremental change, we cite three reasons to believe: speed, sustainability, and CMO satisfaction.

Incremental change is fast, allowing you to respond to customer needs in real time. Let’s say you have a news website where an increasing number of readers are complaining about readability on mobile devices. Rather than adding this to a potential list of significant redesign efforts, a quick analysis reveals that this affects phones with folding screens. The team can consider how to handle multiple viewport segments on those devices instead of assuming there’s a larger problem.

Just because a change is fast doesn’t mean it can’t have a big impact. You wouldn’t believe how radically different a site can look by simply changing a typeface or how much more engagement you can drive by making minor improvements to a website’s user interface.

An incremental approach is also sustainable. Rather than burning out your teams with a monumental overhaul, short sprints with tangible results keep everyone happy.

Finally, it meets the needs of CMOs today. Top marketers are increasingly reporting that they are being asked to do more with less and prove ROI all along the way. Incremental change is a way to accomplish both. You can make a tangible impact quickly with a nimble team—testing, measuring, and improving as you go.

Top marketers are increasingly reporting that they are being asked to do more with less and prove ROI all along the way. Incremental change is a way to accomplish both.

How to get started

1. Prepare your team for success

Leadership might have concerns. We’ve been indoctrinated for so long that a website overhaul is the only way to remove legacy baggage. So, the idea of forgoing a splashy rollout for minor improvements over time can be a tough sell. When advocating for an incremental approach, answer this question: What is the one change we can make that will prove to leadership that this approach can work?

Another common complaint is that implementation or approval will take too long. If that’s the case for your business, rectifying this is the first step. If an organization cannot quickly and confidently change copy, images, or other basic elements of an experience, it signals internal misalignment about how digital experiences are best utilized. The incremental approach doesn’t work if things don’t keep moving incrementally.

2. Choose to be boring

An incremental approach should also include a commitment to stop chasing trends. While a fashionable typeface, parallax scrolling, or aggressively minimalist (or maximalist) website may seem like a good idea at the time, this user experience quickly becomes outdated because it’s tied to what everyone else is doing, not what your brand stands for.

It also behooves teams to pick boring technology. Industry staples are staples for a reason. Sometimes, a start-up disruptor can bring real value to the table, other times it brings a host of problems and minimal support to fix them.

3. Run short cycles with small teams

Keep your core teams small, ideally only 4-6 people. Choose experts over junior staff that may need a lot of oversight, and reduce meetings wherever you can by using asynchronous communication (like Slack) to keep everyone up to date.

You should also time-box every activity—don’t allow any single effort to run indefinitely. Always have a timeline in any hypothesis, and track it ruthlessly.

4. Know what matters and measure it

Even though you’re running with a tight team, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be getting input from across the organization. A successful incremental approach will be one where there’s buy-in from all stakeholders, and their needs are balanced with those of their colleagues and the audiences. Have listening sessions with different departments affected by the website. What do they wish was different? What are their pain points? This tactic helps you figure out what will have the biggest impact and how to prioritize.

Once you know what matters to your internal and external stakeholders, commit to measuring it meticulously. You should continually assess what works and what doesn’t and prioritize changes that can be measured against some kind of progress metric. If its impact can’t be measured, don’t do it.

5. Stay simple and move fast

As you begin to design, always reduce and simplify before expanding. Prototype with the lowest effort possible to achieve your goals—finding ways to consolidate changes and reduce redundancies in design can have substantial time-saving benefits over the life of an initiative. This tactic will mean starting with components you already have—ideally ones that exist in a design tool—and current code. The most optimized teams can prototype ideas in staging and run no-regrets experiments in production for quick feedback. They also create reusable assets that can be used for final delivery. Adaptable designs will lend themselves to adaptable prototypes and implementations.

When you reach something that feels good, make it happen. Move to the real product as quickly as you can. If it’s better than what you currently have, ship it.

6. Repeat

The incremental approach comes with a hard truth: a website will never be “done.” At least not as long as you’re in business! There will always be new technologies, customer needs, and insights to incorporate into your digital experiences. Always measure, adapt, and revisit previous changes to make them a little bit better. It’s like Boy Scout’s honor: leave it a little better than you found it.

Thaddeus Ternes

VP of Technology

Thaddeus Ternes is responsible for expanding VSA’s technical capabilities, as well as developing new experiences with emerging technologies His human-centered approach to building technology with purpose ensures experiences are accessible, valuable, and intuitive. His past work includes designing Smart Cities digital services, developing intelligent logistics operations systems, and delivering connected experiences for some of the world’s largest Smart Home and Connected Fitness brands. His technical expertise spans from scaled cloud services to resource-constrained embedded systems and all traditional computing interfaces in between.