Monday, 12 December 2011

Web Design: what to consider when re-designing a web site


I've been recently asked to re-design a web site. I had to meet some people and talk about it. The company wanted a completely new web site, while the engine behind (SQL database) should have stayed.
As you may understand, that is a completely different situation compared to the development of a new web site. There are some things to be considered when approaching a totally new site that do not apply in a re-design. I'm talking about technical things like domain management, web site hosting and platform used; or marketing stuff like commercial targets, brand awareness program and other boring things.
In our case the story is different: many of the above questions have been already asked and settled. For this reason, I have created a list of matters that needed to be discussed and that I think might be useful to all those developers in the same situation.

So, here is my list of practical things to consider (and ask) when re-designing a web site.

First of all, let me stress out that the following list hasn't got an order of importance, because a matter might have different significance and consequence according to which objective we want to achieve. I say "we", because I believe that the designer has to step into the decisions making process, even if the web site owner has a strong will and is a decision maker.
At the same time, the following list is not to be considered complete. Different situations might require different topic to be explored.

Colour palette
Because we need to re-design the web site, we need to know which colour palette we are going to use. The colours will have a deep impact on the overall web site design.

General layout
The web site structure is another big issue. Should we use a static, a fluid or a mixed layout? It's not a free choice and the chosen structure will determine not only the web site basic architecture, but the amount of coding work needed as well.

Border radius
It seems trivial, but today it has its importance. Do we prefer rounded or sharp corners? This is probably an ongoing argument. Whatever we decide to use, it should be considered at the beginning, because for example, rounded corners will have a considerable effect on development time and cost. As a side note, here you should discuss box shadows as well. The discussion might lead to browser compatibility, but do not go astray, stick to the topic: we will discuss compatibility afterward.

Sectioned layout or not
The moment we decide the overall layout of the web site, we need to consider where we are going to insert content. It is difficult to pre-determine how we are going to display the content, but we should start to brainstorm on the way we are going to organize it. For example, we can propose a tabbed solution, or a columns layout, or, again, a not restrained layout. See what the other think about it and start imagining it as soon as you can.

Header and footer
The issue comes directly from the previous point. We will probably focus more on footers than headers, however it is better to define what we need and start thinking about how to develop the chosen solution.

Whitespace might sound like a technical problem. The people we are talking to, probably will not understand what we are saying, however it is important to explain the whitespace concept to them. Why? A balanced whitespace encreases readability and improves the user experience. Considering that people tend to express some sort of "vacuum fear", we surely need to immediately stop them from filling every possibile blank space.
That is because we need to explain the importance of whitespace.

Main menu elements
Because the web site is already there, we can discuss menu elements. Should we keep them all or some elements are not necessary any more? Should we re-organise them?
I think you got the point.

Menu elements order
This is probably more a subsection of the above, however, we should consider re-ordering menu elements. The importance of one element might have been decreased in time and now we need to re-consider what was the first choice. Remember that elements should go from the most important to the less important.

Main menu style
Again on menus! Yes, we need to decide how the menu will look like. Horizontal? Vertical? Structured? Circular? Well, here the choices are many. Discuss the menu style and its placement in your structure.

Images are always important in a web site. Icons too. And we can use icons in menus as well. We should talk about the style of icons, how should they look like and (even if it seems trivial) how big or small they should be. In my experience, we end up trying to stop others from filling our homepage with icons (see "vacuum fear" again!).

Yes languages! We need to determine how many languages the web site will support. If originally, there was only one or two languages, the problem is not that big. However, we should consider how to deal with regional and language settings and changing. For example, we need to take into account how the user will be able to select a different language: from the main menu? Will there be a separate menu for that?
Ok, you got the point, I believe.

Now... this is big! Typography is a huge issue in web sites and web designers are well aware of that. When we talk to deciders, they probably do not understand what's behind font management. However, our main task is to minimize the number of proposed fonts and we should immediately try to eliminate non standard typography as much as we can. I know there are situations where we do need to use non stardard fonts, but keep in mind that it will make our work more complex and time consuming. Most of the times, with little benefit.
Anyway, we should choose the right set of fonts, the style that we will apply to headings, text and so on.

Target devices
Another big issue! We need to understand which are the target devices. They will probably answer: "All of them, including smartphones and tablets". Well, good luck! I think that a good explanation on the matter is needed. For example, it should be clear what a cross device compatibility means in term of time and cost. Because the old web site was surely not meant for new generation devices, we should explore the real need for a full compatibility. In this case a good web site statistics report can help us in determine if the site has visitors using such devices. If not, consider avoiding the - probably - unneeded overwork. Or, maybe, you really need to create such cross device compatibility, just because the company really wants to.
In any case, we should discuss it, explain it and take a decision about it.

Required compatibility
Again a big issue... and a technical one too. This will be difficult to explain, but we need to stress out the difficulties of a complete browser compatibility.
First of all, remember that a web site won't look the same in any browser. We need to determine which browsers, which versions and which screen resolutions we will support.
The company will probably ask for a full compatibility: it is your task to make them understand what that means in terms of cost and time. Believe me, this will be a very difficult task, however we should be clear on the issue from the beginning, because not considering compatibility will lead to complaints.

RSS and social networks
This topic is the new fashion, especially when talking about social networks. I believe you understand what I mean here. We need to decide if we need a connection to social networks or not. I am sure that in most of the cases we do need to create a bridge between the web site and places like Facebook, Twitter and so on.
The work behind it could be huge, but we need to explore the issue at the beginning of our re-design plan.
That could lead us to open a fan page on Facebook, or create a company account on Twitter, or not, however the issue should be fully explained to the company. I understand I could write a whole article on the matter, but it is not the topic of this post. However, keep it in mind: it is very important.

The above topics are the ones I usually discuss with the company representatives.
  • Everyone will put ideas on the table. 
  • With someone we will talk easily, while someone will try to embarass us with - usually - stupid questions disguised as very geeky issues. 
  • Stay calm and quietly explain your points. 
  • Ask questions. 
  • Provide strong answers. 
  • Be prepare to stand for your ideas and to accept not-so-welcomed decisions.
  • Write down reports of meetings and distribute a copy of them to all participants. Ask them to provide insights, comments and questions.
It will be a fight, but you will win and a new shiny web site will born.

Let me know your experience, as usual: I will deeply appreciate it.

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