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Stop Redesigning And Start Tuning Your Site Instead

In my nearly two decades as an information architect, I’ve seen my clients flush away millions upon millions of dollars on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this1, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void Link

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At Link

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics2: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank Cumulative % Query’s frequency Query
1 1.40% 7,218 campus map
14 10.53% 2,464 housing
42 20.18% 1,351 web enroll
98 30.01% 650 computer center
221 40.05% 295 msu union
500 50.02% 124 hotels
7,877 80.00% 7 department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website3, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It Link

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it4. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy Link

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…


… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:


In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate6, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:


That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research8 is out there9 to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff Link

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations Link

Eva-Lotta10 is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes11 at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book12. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.


Footnotes Link

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Louis Rosenfeld wears two hats: he works as an information therapist for large, messy organizations with findability problems, like PayPal, Lowes, and Ford; and he’s founder of Rosenfeld Media, the user experience publishing house. A librarian by training, Lou is co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O’Reilly; 3rd edition 2006) and Search Analytics For Your Site (Rosenfeld Media; 2011), co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and a former columnist for Internet World, CIO, and Web Review magazines. He blogs occasionally and tweets (@louisrosenfeld) frequently. If you liked this article, you really should attend Lou’s workshop on adaptive information architecture.

  1. 1

    I understand the point of this article but can not disagree more. This does not apply to every business or website across the board.

    Are you to tell me that a website that has not been redesigned since 2001 only needs to be tuned? There are many clients who’s sites must be redesigned. Of course you can go from there with making it a better site and setting up for future “tunings”.

    But to say this is a black and white area for every site out their is comical.

    I redesign my site every 18 months. Not because it has issues or problems but because I like to keep it fresh and challenging.

    It should be noted that redesigning a site is not always do to issues, bugs, keeping up with trends or problems. Some people just want to be able to do it.

    • 2

      Agreed. I’m an IA at one of the Fortune 100 e-retailers on the web and I can say this method would never work for us, nor would we be able to approach it this way. There are literally hundreds of people in our IS Dept and several projects going on at the same time (which is also a problem in itself). So in very large-scale operations such as ours, “fixing it for good” is a good thing because it solves all the little problems that may have occurred as a result of collateral impacts from interrelated projects.

      I do however see a number of benefits from implementing some of the methods in this approach for smaller companies/websites.


    • 3

      David Prince

      May 17, 2012 8:30 am

      It’s very clear that the author is referring to an organisation’s website. If you want to redesign a personal or portfolio website every few months then all power to you.

      However, a website redesign is a costly exercise, and Rosenfeld is right in his assertion that design is a problem-solving exercise. The problem could be one of attracting new business, keeping in touch with or supporting existing clients, recruitment, attracting finance or a myriad of others.

      It is (business) folly to simply redesign because you ‘just want to be able to do it’. A business’s approach to its online presence should be tied to its wider strategies. Redesigning after an arbitrary 18 months is *not* a strategy and appears to be self-indulgent whimsy. By all means redesign as a hobby, or self-improvement task, or for art (art != design), but don’t kid yourself that this is a hard-headed commercial decision.

      Perhaps there is actually some strategy behind your thinking; if you are a freelance designer, for example, there may be the requirement to use your folio site to showcase your skills in cutting-edge techniques and technologies. If this is indeed the reason, then you might actually be closer to Rosenfeld’s stance – that you are evolving your site after looking at your commercial requirements, and changing the look-and-feel or taking advantage of newer techniques will help demonstrate your skills to prospective clients. However, ‘just wanting to be able to do it’ doesn’t sound like that :-(

      It costs thousands of £/$/€ for a company to redesign even the simplest of sites when you take into account everything – designer fees, IA, project management, photography, copywriting, procurement and so on. You can do this if its your own site in house and give just your time – but how much business are you missing out on by doing this? It’s the same with clients – even if they do copywriting in-house, they must factor in their time as a cost.

      Rosenfeld hit the nail on the head when he stated that most website problems do not require a redesign to solve. It makes far more sense to solve a problem with (say) $500 worth of analysis and small-scale work than a $30,000 redesign. And when this is the case, you are doing your client a disservice to recommend anything else.

  2. 4

    I’m happy to say that I’ve implemented this method on my employer’s websites. We broke out the keywords and identified the ones that resulted in the most conversions. The result was a slight drop in traffic, but the quality of the traffic improved significantly with our online sales increasing over 30% from last year.

  3. 5

    Graeme Reed

    May 16, 2012 5:52 am

    Excellent read! A redesign can create so much unnecessary work, and without a strategic plan of the clients true needs, is usually just going to end up being counter intuitive and unfocused as the original site; Its just wrapped in a shinny new bow, and maybe comes with some dancing dogs and pony’s…lol

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    Rachel Nabors

    May 16, 2012 6:28 am

    I love the use of illustrations in this article. Absolutely adorable and more importantly, engaging. I can tell what this article is about just by skimming through the pictures and decide whether or not I should read it.

  5. 8

    Thanks for the article, Lou.

    One additional detail I would add about using the short head is that I’ve found it’s not really as “short” as one might like on an intranet search (which may be different from an e-commerce site).

    But if you take the short head and add in additional metrics about the terms from your search log, you can still focus on particular terms that require improvement. One metric I use is the average # of pages of results a user looks at for a particular term. If particular terms in your short head have a high ratio of that (“high” in relation to either the average or in relation to a universal desired goal you could set), you can focus on the more problematic terms.

    There are many other ways to focus your attention but doing that will help focus your efforts even more, which is necessary when you realize you need to do this kind of analysis repeatedly.

  6. 9

    Using content views and search is a very good idea. Such a good idea that I am not sure how people would NOT use it when factoring content during a redesign. Content views that come from non-search sources need to be approached carefully.

    For instance, optimising your front page for the top 25 relevant most browsed sections makes sense yeah? Not if the users are not able to access an important section of your site that they want to find. Search may uncover these sections, but at the same time may not.

    An example, in a redesign around 3 years ago my employers site the FAQ link was moved. The FAQ was one of the highest viewed pages after product categories. Of course this redesign took place without consulting stats. The FAQ was moved somewhere really bad like the footer. Views on the FAQ fell through the floor and phone calls logged for questions like “How much is shipping”, “Can I pickup from your shop” spiked.

    Obviously this is what this article is pointing to, however you need to use your brain here. If the FAQ had always been where it was moved to it would have been ignored during the redesign, even with statistical analysis. So blindly going after the top 50 items of content is a bad idea, because in my example an important page would have been ignored.

    Head results are interesting for on-site optimisation for navigation and UX but longtail is what most companies should be aiming at for SEO. Do not confuse the two or walk away from this article thinking that head terms are the most important things ever.

  7. 10

    Niels Matthijs

    May 16, 2012 7:01 am

    Tuning introduces its own kind of overhead though. Making many small changes will eventually lead to a very messy implementation that nobody will be able to oversee. For the implementors, you’re spreading the focus around many different projects and you can be certain that the overall quality will suffer because of that.

    Of course it’s not a given and there are ways to counter that, but you can’t just switch from start-to-finish projects to on-going projects without any major organizational changes (on the developer’s side). At our company we do both kind of projects and you need a very different mindset and approach for “tuning”. I myself am a fan though, I’ve been keeping my blog like that for almost 5 years now and I’ve always build on top of previous versions. It’s fun, productive and you learn a lot about robust and future-proof coding that way.

  8. 11

    Wonderful images! :)

  9. 12

    Of course, the opposite may also hold true. Once one may have dealt with a huge amount of performance issues (in terms of usability, speed, cross platform—both mobile and large screen— compatibility, and even maintenance), then it might be time to reconsider some exciting new designs, based upon what one may have learned. Tail wags dog.

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    Jared Comis

    May 16, 2012 7:58 am

    I’ll be saving this one. I see useless redesigns happen all the time. Usually the plan amounts to “maybe this one will get it…” which is maddening. Thanks for this article. Great illustrations too

  11. 14

    Dominic Brenton

    May 16, 2012 8:08 am

    Tuning a website is indeed very important but if you’re running on a platform that can’t talk to other systems in your organisation, it’s time to change it – and perhaps take a hard look at your other ‘closed’ systems, too. Get the system foundations right, get the content right – by which I mean properly user-focused content – and only then worry about the colour scheme.

  12. 15

    I’m reminded of the Redesign vs. Realign debate a while back.

  13. 16

    Timely & useful article for a group I’m working with right now. Thanks!

  14. 17

    Will Martin

    May 16, 2012 11:41 am

    The basic point that it’s helpful to analyze your top search queries for patterns you can address is sound. But I’d like to point out that it also has distinct limits.

    For example, I just did a quick analysis of all the search traffic on my site for the last month. The top query in the past 31 days was “No Child Left Behind”, accounting for just 36/14,064 (0.25%) of this month’s searches. The month before that, the top search was “effects of salt on plant growth” with a very strong 98/21,695 (0.452%) — and “No Child Left Behind” didn’t make even the top 100 with just 9/21,695 (0.042%).

    My site is likely to be something of an outlier — it’s an academic library. Search is pretty much our raison d’etre, but the topics being searched for vary wildly depending on what assignments the faculty hand out. And of course a lot of these things don’t have definitive answers. If 27 people search for “employee retention”, the resource that’s perfect some will be exactly wrong for others, depending on what they’re trying find out and why. And without knowing what they’re trying to find, it’s pretty hard to tune the web site to give them exactly that.

    It’s a good technique; I keep an eye on my search logs for that very reason. But once you’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, it gets less useful quickly.

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    Sarah Bauer

    May 16, 2012 3:14 pm

    The diagnostic phase really is the tricky bit to get past for some clients, isn’t it? Assessing the content in a bare-all context and realizing just how much improvement it needs. Like getting going on a big spring clean, it can be intimidating, but well worth the effort.

    Refreshing article here, I appreciate the perspective of an information architect.

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  16. 19

    Love the use of illustration.. very nice..

  17. 20

    Nice works.Thanks a lots.

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    Marco Giammetti

    May 16, 2012 11:20 pm

    “Your Website Is Not A Democracy” is one of the best line ever. Awesome post and great illustrations, thanks.

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    Marin Crnković

    May 17, 2012 12:16 am

    Excellent article, great illustrations, bookmarked

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    I would guess that those things are on the front of a University website because they are more focused on potential students rather than current students. The goal seems to get them excited and feeling like it’s a community. Now I could see having a student portal that had immediate access to all those other, more important things.


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