Extending your digital ‘shelf-life’

posted on 22 March 2016 by Jim Rawson

Well It Depends

Just like physical products, websites, systems and apps are created (and changed) for many different reasons – and the underlying ‘why?’ is key to determining a digital product’s ‘best-before date’.

While ‘sustainable design’ is a more frequently cited concept in architecture and product design, I can’t see any reason why, approached in the right way, it can’t be applied in the digital world too.

One of the most common reasons for a design refresh that may be cited by clients is aesthetics. In this scenario, they may say things like, “We really need our website to live and breathe our brand”, “Our homepage looks a bit dated,” or even, “We want it to be sexier,you know, like Apple.”

Redesigning for aesthetic reasons can be valid, impressive even (the designer Philippe Starck famously said, “My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations”), however as the web industry has matured from the early days of the dotcom boom, there is still a pitfall in the digital world that cosmetic updates such as moody photography, eye-catching animation or tasteful colour-washing can be presented as solutions to problems that either don’t exist, have been overlooked, or have not been fully understood.

On his blog, web designer Cameron Moll calls this the ‘re-design vs re-align’ problem.  “The desire toredesignis aesthetic-driven, while the desire torealignis purpose-driven.”

A purpose-driven reason for design change can genuinely give your website, app or system an extended shelf-life by aligning customer needs with business objectives and lasting way beyond the latest trend – provided the organisation can identify the purpose, and accept that the designer who can single-handedly second guess a business’ objectives is a rare one!

Perhaps the strategy of your company or organisation has changed, new products have been introduced, or market trends have shifted. Targeted research with even a small number of users – ideally customers, or other people outside of the organisation - can help record any significant problems, and any correlation between business goals and user expectation ‘fails’ can be identified.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. A (somewhat idealised) real-world example might be: “We want to increase online bookings by 10% this year, but the numbers are actually going down.” - a clear business goal. While an example of user testing feedback might be, “After I finish entering my credit card details on the booking screen, the screen goes to a blank page and I don’t have any way of knowing if my payment was accepted or not.”

Making the decision to resolve issues raised by user feedback should be an easy one, but it is surprising how many high-profile organisations lack empathy. Even Apple, once the arbiters of good design, have come under fire recently for moving away from their longstanding user-centred design approach.

Plans to remove the ubiquitous headphone jack (which has been around in one form or other since the mid 19th century) from the iPhone7 are surely the opposite of ‘sustainable’. Ex-Apple employee and design guru Don Norman even goes as far as to say ‘Apple is destroying good design’ with its latest product releases and iOs, which break many of the established rules of human computer interaction.

Keeping up with technology itself is the one final ‘freshness factor’ in the longevity of a website. Google’s current ‘search console’ tools for web developers makes it pretty clear that mobile optimisation, structured data and minimised page load times (aka fast-loading websites) are going to be significant factors that affect page ranking in the months ahead.

Unlike the design of physical products, designing for the digital world may be best done in careful, iterative, purposeful ‘re-alignments’, in step with technology changes that are out of the designer’s control. Put into business terms - It may be better to spend a little, often, to keep your online premises clean and tidy. Think of design as an ongoing process, not a one-off job.

In addition to a ‘designer’, the most successful redesigns (or should that be ‘re-aligns’) tend to involve a number of appropriate specialists on both supplier and client sides - marketing strategists, information architects, copywriters, visual designers, usability analysts, web developers, photographers, eCommerce consultants, infrastructure technicians and project managers can all contribute to the quality and longevity of a ‘user experience’.

All of which makes it easier for me to justify and elaborate on my answer, ‘Well, it depends…’ by adding simply, ‘Why do you want to re-design?’

Business 365_march 16