Evolution vs Revolution – changing your site’s design

I tend not to talk much about web design any more, but my attendance at IA Summit 2009 brought a thought to mind. I sat in Jared Spool’s talk on “Revealing Design Treasures from the Amazon” where he pointed out what others can learn from Amazon’s design decisions.

Among his points is that over the last 15 years Amazon has never “redesigned.” They’ve evolved and tweaked their design so that today it doesn’t really look at all like it did a while ago, but there was never a glorious unveiling of a whole new design. Jared’s been arguing against large-scale redesigns for a while, so this point didn’t surprise me.

What Jared neglects to address is the context in which these design changes take place. Because I’ve seen wholescale redesigns work (I lead one at Epinions), and I also know of many services that currently require a fundamental redesign. Amazon has never warranted a wholescale redesign because Amazon’s basic value proposition has never changed: they sell stuff. And it’s business model hasn’t changed — they make money through selling stuff.

But look at a service like LinkedIn. LinkedIn has done what Jared suggests — many changes over time. The problem is, LinkedIn is a mess from a user experience point of view. I know there’s heaps of value buried in LinkedIn that I cannot realize because I can’t figure out how to use the system. The difference with LinkedIn (compared to Amazon) is that its value proposition has evolved, the services they offer are radically different than what was available at their outset, and their revenue model has also changed. What a site like LinkedIn needs to do is step back, assess who they are *today*, and go back to first principles and design a site that matches their current reality, not a cobbled-together experience that has accreted over time. (And don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of LinkedIn, and use it frequently. That’s *why* it frustrates me so much, because it’s so incoherent.)

Anyway, my point is that, well, sometimes you do need to blow up what you’re doing and approach your site’s design from whatever fundamentally new position you find yourself. Don’t be locked in to old ways just because they made sense once.