If you’ve never heard The Four Lads (or They Might Be Giants) sing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” you’re missing out on a great swing song. The lyrics basically dance around the fact that Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, but also how even New York was once New Amsterdam, saying things like “People just liked it better that way.” and “It’s nobody’s business but the Turks.”
Eventually you’re going to look at your website and think that you need to redesign it. In ages past, I would say things like ‘What would Amazon do?’ to indicate how people generally should not redesign their entire site. But those ages are long past and now, if you want to redesign your website, it’s an accepted standard of life. Both the code running your site and the look and feel of it have to be updated more than with just a slap of fresh paint.
Now that everyone’s accepted the fact that sites will update and change, the trick is how to make a change without forcing people to wonder why Constantinople got the works!(See? The song title had a point.) You can’t just assume your user-base is going to magically divine how everything works and know where to go to do things, after all.
Obviously you can make a blog post that explains where everything went, but eventually that will fall off your front page. So you could also make a new ‘page’ for your site features, and hope people saw that. Toss in some customization on your 404 page (and maybe some clever .htaccess redirects to send people to the right place), and you should be okay.
Should is the key-word there.
Science has proven to us that people like what they like, and changing it is a sure-fire way to cause problems. And once people make a decision that they like something, they will grow to actively dislike anything else. That’s why you get rabid Apple vs Windows fanboys. (Read The science of fanboyism by The Tech Report.)
At its crux, that is why bigwigs tell you not to redesign your site. Not because new layouts are bad, but because people are used to your site and, probably, like it the way it is. That tells me that when you make a change, and you will, you need to do it in a way that looks similar enough that while things have changed, the ‘feel’ remains the same.
The feel of a site is a terribly nebulous thing. The ‘feel’ has to be right for you, because if you don’t like your own site, you’ll never use it. The ‘feel’ has to be right for your target audience or they’ll never use it. Anyone who tells you they know all the answers, by the way, is lying. There’s a reason big companies hire folks to do tons of studies before changing the UX (User eXperience) of a site, after all. Generally speaking, as Matt Mullenweg said recently, “The software is wrong, not the people.”
Have you ever felt like a fool because you can’t remember the 16 special clicks and drags to get MS Word to do something? It’s not you, it’s the product. Your website is your product, and if even one person complains and says ‘This isn’t right!’ you need to stop and think about it. I’m not saying you have to change it, but I am saying you have to consider their point of view. Get out of your monkey house.
What it all comes down to is simple. If your site isn’t easy for your intended audience to use and understand, they won’t. If you change your site to something new and different and they don’t like it, they’ll leave. You need to understand what makes your users tick, and cater to them without kowtowing to their every whim. Sometimes learning that balance will make you take the wrong path. That’s okay. Mistakes are things to learn from, so don’t fear them.
On the subject of ‘big’ changes, there is a time and a place for them. When you look at how Amazon, Apple and Microsoft looked in 1999 and compare them to 2011, you feel like they’re the same sites, only grown up.
For the most part, color schemes are the same and so is layout. But if you were to jump from one to the other, it would feel like a big change. In reality, the move from 1999 to 2011 was all done in steps, slowly and carefully, so as not to jar the user too much out of their comfort zone.
This doesn’t just apply to site design. The GAP logo changed recently, and was universally panned. It was so bad that GAP actually had to change their logo back. Pepsi changed their logo and got more hate than Coke did for New Coke. (Actually I don’t know if anyone cared about the Pepsi logo. We drink Coke in my house.)
Some of the changes were pretty bold, and they all drive home the point that you do need to make changes. But they also remind us that the changes must be recognizable. “People just like it better that way.”