In Defense of Redesigns


Every time a site updates it’s design, it seems like the internet comes together to unanimously complain about it. And mostly, these complaints are justified, after all, redesigns completely disrupt normal usage. But are the users right and should we stick to the old designs?

And to get the conclusion out first: Complaining constructively during the redesign phase is the best way to get heard. However, some of the more common complaints will be ignored, and here I’ll go through the why.

“It looks like a mobile app!”

This is intentional. The goal with most redesigns these days is to make it so that you can seamlessly switch between devices and still know how everything works from one device to another. This is hugely beneficial to new users learning the ins and outs of the site. After all, learning it once and applying it everywhere is easier than having to learn how the desktop site, tablet, mobile and TV apps work if they all have a very different UI.

That said, it absolutely is possible to fuck this up. I sometimes see sites with a hamburger menu that overlay the entire site once you click on it. This never is necessary on desktop. Using a dropdown, or, if the menu needs to be more persistent, a topbar/sidebar is better in these cases.

“There’s too much whitespace!”
“The buttons are too large!”

Whitespace, colors and images are a deliberate measure to make an information flood more manageable. As an example for this, compare these two scans of newspapers, from 1973 and 2011

1973: 10 headlines, tiny news index in the bottom center, columns separated with lines (except bottom right), relatively small images
2011: 6 headlines, news index takes up the lower 15% or so, columns separated with whitespace, sometimes lines and whitespace, top image primary eye catcher

Whether you use a line or whitespace between columns doesn’t matter if you really want to read an article. But it does really matter if you don’t want to feel completely overwhelmed by everything presented at once on a page. And this holds true not only for newspapers, but also for websites: A newspaper only allows you one function: You can read it. But god knows how many things you can do with a website.

So again: The point of the added whitespace and larger buttons is to make it easier to use the site for new people.

“They removed customization!”

Customization options always have two issues: For one, every option doubles the number of ways a thing can break, and at some point, it’s a bug bonanza. For another, deep customization makes it difficult for new users to find their way around the site.

For example, imagine a “follow” button that can be customized in appearance and position. If it sometimes is a green button in a corner, a red button sticking at the top of the screen, and sometimes an image saying “subscribe”, the simple task of clicking the follow button devolves into an extensive hide-and-seek game with a digital chameleon.

aside: about HTML customization

Regrettably, customization via HTML and CSS these days isn’t as easy as it used to be. Back in the day, you’d put <tags> around things to do something for you. Back in the day, everyone was on 1024×768. Back in the day, there were no smartphones. This meant that you could easily learn a “streetHTML” that did the things you wanted, tested them on your computer, and had a thing that would be roughly consistent with how everyone else saw it.

That isn’t the case anymore. streetHTML gets more and more broken by the actual standards, which have you put <tags> around things that do nothing, only to then specify somewhere else in CSS what those tags do. As for screens, not only is there a wider range of monitors around these days, but some of these monitors are an entirely different orientation usually – phones. And hobby coders tend to do things with a “works for me” attitude: Willing to make things look good for them, but not even considering the option to test on a phone, because, who uses a phone to browse that website anyways?

Usually, the answer to that question is: Half of the viewers. So, as a website owner that offers HTML/CSS customization, you now facing the choice between having a thing that may turn simple things into hide’n’seek games, potentially look awful for half the viewers, and has gotten a lot more difficult to use since you first implemented it in 2004 — or simply axing it.

There is only one sane option here, even though it unfortunately means that you are losing what makes the internet interesting, as well as a tool that teaches kids how to code (Neopets was more effective in getting girls to code than any government-sponsored thing, I dare say).

“Make the new design optional!”

This means that the developers have to work twice as much to keep everything not-broken, while also having either version used half as much as the userbase splits into people who use the new vs old design.

Maintaining this is possible. For example, Wikipedia still lets you choose it’s old “Monobook” design, or some more exotic ones. But even Wikipedia removed all designs except one from its core, kept a few bundled as long they were maintained by external volunteers, and completely killed off some designs.

Overall, the more different designs the site has to maintain, the harder it becomes to quickly develop new things that actually would be beneficial to everyone, so typically, after a transition phase, the old design gets axed.

You may have noticed that a lot of these explanations boil down to “it’s good for new users”. But what about old users? Users that have been on the site for long, have created the content that brought the site to where it is today? Shouldn’t the site cater to these people first and foremost?

The answer is no. If you have a site consisting of a bunch of long-term users, but which doesn’t attract new users because of its design, the site will stagnate. Which in itself wouldn’t be much of a problem; being level means you can continue operations as-is. But these long-term users will move on eventually. Either because their interests shift, because their new job no longer grants them the time to contribute to the site, or because they die. At which point, the site will slowly shrink and die as well, especially if it has large enough server cost due to hosting a decade worth of image and video content.

This is why redesigns are necessary. This is why some complaints never are heard (or at least never acted upon). And this is why long-term users don’t get the attention they’d deserve. Website owners must attract new users, else the site dies.

All that said, there’s one thing which I’d like to say to any site owner redesigning their stuff:


If you don’t want to piss off your existing userbase, you have to communicate your vision with the redesign. And I’m not talking PR-bullshit here, you won’t win people over with a sugary landing page on how this new design gives endless possibilities when you are taking customization features away. No, a redesign requires a level conversation with your userbase that makes it clear what you’ve been working on (changelogs), what you will be working on next (roadmap), what the overall goal is and most importantly, being human about it.

And Users:


The following:

“please bring back x”
“make it look y”
“I hate this”

aren’t helping anyone. They don’t help you because there’s no chance that the redesign won’t be happening, and they don’t help the site developers because they’re missing crutial information:

  • What are you trying to do on the site?
  • Why? and
  • How are you currently doing this?

(from Never Ask What They Want — 3 Better Questions to Ask in User Interviews)

If you can answer these questions in your feedback, it becomes so much more actionable than “please bring back this feature”.

For example, imagine a site that used to have a pop-up which you closed by clicking on a triangle to the left and dragging the pop-up-slider down.

from Tantacrul’s Music Software & Interface Design: MuseScore – A good video. You should watch it.

Imagine now that the redesign no longer has the little triangle. If you say “please bring back the triangle”, you may or may not get it back, but the devs won’t be any wiser as to why you need the triangle.

But if you instead say:

“I’m trying to close that popup as quickly as possible, because I want to look at the content and the popup isn’t relevant to me. Before, this was done using the triangle and pop-up slider”

the devs now know what you want to do and why you want to do it, so they can build a new feature for it (maybe that x shouldn’t be just decorative?), but also know how you did it before, so they can check whether or not the old solution is sufficient.

Of course, this popup example is trivial. But most things are more complicated than this and really benefit from constructive criticism. So:

Users: if you want a redesign to improve, do keep your criticism constructive.

Website owners: if you prefer constructive criticism over endless shitstorms, listen to the criticism and be transparent about your actions.