So, you’ve been asked to revamp a website… here’s the best way to start

You’ve likely heard the proverbial phrase, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” more than once in your life.

What isn’t said nearly as often though is that somewhere, right now, there’s a manager throwing money at a new set of features or a “snazzy” new UI all because they feel like it’ll be good for business (…okay, I’ll admit, this doesn’t roll off the tongue as well as quipping that it’s never too early to have a beer).

However, this is where the beautiful synthesis between user experience and business strategy can literally save the day, and the next, and the next.

Below is one such example where a fellow UX designer had been tasked with “improving” an apparently ancient site. With seemingly no further strategic direction than that, this practitioner decided to ask one of the design groups I’m in for our thoughts and guidance.

The problem scenario

My client has a very old dinosaur of an online booking website and wants a revamp, but doesn’t know what to revamp. What is the first thing you would do? 
1) Hold a design thinking workshop? 
2) Hold a usability study? Or, 
3) Look at analytics and use the heuristics / benchmarks to redesign the key transactional flows? 
What is the most effective thing to do?

This community question was immediately familiar to me because for the past year and a half, I’ve been consulting for a national training brand to do just that; to not only revamp their old booking website, but to also broadly explore how we could improve their internal and external customer experiences across all channels (e.g. online, in person, and over the phone).

Where to start

When faced with an open-ended challenge like this, the first task I see is not to question which ideation, data-driven analysis, or testing method to use, but to instead ask the business, “Why?”

Every project needs to have at least one high-level defined goal. If they don’t know what theirs is yet, then ask them what it would mean to be successful. Better yet, determine what it means to be successful from the customers’ perspective.

In this case, after digging deeper into the client’s perceived problem, hopefully they will come back with a more understandable aim like, “We want more people to book with us, and I don’t think the current website is doing it well enough.” If you’re lucky, they’ll be extra specific, like, “We want to do 20% less bookings over the phone, and drive those 20% of bookings through the website instead. Our online conversion rates need improvement.”

For the sake of this example, let’s assume that this UX consultant was only told the vague, but true, “We want more customers booking with us” driver. This flexible scope may feel like quite the challenge, however, I’d encourage them to see it as liberating.

Often times, people get attached to one problem or solution, and fail to see the other critical issues lurking outside of their focus. A new website sounds grand! But, what if a wholesale design revamp is not, in itself, what would drive additional customers to or away from completing a purchase?

The trouble with solution-first projects

Say you had trouble sleeping every night. And, after the hundredth restless night, you were reluctantly ready to shell out thousands of dollars for a new mattress that’d surely do the trick. A new mattress is one potential, but very costly, solution.

Now, what if the mattress wasn’t the root problem at all? Imagine how you’d feel if after all of that money spent, you still found yourself tossing and turning every night?

(Photo credit: CDC photo labeled for reuse)

We all need the occasional reminder to take a step back and look at the big picture of our problem at hand. After observing and recording our day-to-day behaviours and activities, we might find that a cost-effect and healthy change to diet, vitamin intake, exercise, posture, screen time before bed, etc actually results in a more satisfying, deeper sleep than a mattress alone ever could.

Learn from and about your customers

In relating this sleepless dilemna back to the stated need to revamp a booking website’s design, the first place to look is beyond the obvious “old mattress” and into the existing goals, motivations, pains, and behaviours of this client’s customers.

Start out by requesting and reviewing what qualitative and/or quantitative customer data the client already has. Once the gaps in understanding have been identified, go out and start those interviews, contextual observations, or whatever other methods will help answer your questions to fill those gaps.

Learn what the customer wants to do, why they want to do it, how they’re currently accomplishing it, how they feel about it, and what is impeding progress.

Create a customer journey map

Next, map out these gathered insights and yet-to-answer assumptions visually, even if it’s in nothing more than a sticky notes on the wall or a linear spreadsheet.

One of my reasons for creating a current-state journey map is so that the business and I are able to step back and get an overall, end-to-end impression of what our customers are experiencing today. Everything we know from the ways they come to realise that this service exists to what happens after they complete their booking and attend their event will be covered on this chart.

One of the simplest, most cost-effect ways I’ve found to map out and share a customer journey, especially if you started with colour cordinated sticky notes. Add as many rows as you need.

Again, just like in trying to improve one’s sleep, what we’re hoping to find early on is where the deepest points and causes of frustration, abandonment, or lack of awareness are so that we may prioritise and target our efforts into fixing those first.

If the booking website’s existing design is the leading culprit after all, then you can confidently tell to the client that you’ve done your due research diligence; it’s easier to address those types of issues where you can point to a website usability test or other feedback insights and go, “There. Fixing that in this way could resolve the 10% drop off when interacting with the field.”

Wrapping it up

So, as a final bit of summarised advice for anyone tackling similar problems, begin with an agreed-upon customer and/or business outcome. Then, look to answer some of the following, relatable questions to get into the groove:

  • Does someone looking to accomplish a simliar goal know that this booking site exists?
  • If so, how did they find out about it?
  • Why did they feel inspired or required to make a booking anyway?
  • What channel have they commonly used to make bookings for other services or events in the past (e.g. do they usually make calls or look online)?”

Start at the beginning of the story, and consider how each touchpoint (or lack thereof) may take a customer closer to or farther away from using your product or service and coming back in the future.

Above all else, focus on that which will result in the greatest, positive impact.

These and other UX lessons can be found on my website, Feel free to share this post, follow along, or get in touch with me on Twitter @geoffwilsonux. Special thanks to Angela Wozniak for inspiring me to write this article, and David Travis for his constant mentorship and input.