The wrong way to redesign a community website

by Martin Reed on 2 January 2008 in Articles

The wrong way to redesign an online community

I have written before about the importance of working with your community members before redesigning your website. By involving your members in any decisions that need to be made over the future direction of your site, you are encouraging their loyalty by making them feel valued.

How one online community failed to involve members

Hot UK Deals is a huge online community – they have almost 80,000 members and 1.3 million posts. For such a large community to consult its members during a redesign process would have been a challenge, but I believe it is one the site should have taken.

I have been a frequent user of the site for a number of months. I have never registered there, but often use the site to see find latest shopping deals. About three weeks ago, the site was completely redesigned without any consultation with its members.

The old Hot UK Deals website

The old Hot UK Deals website (click to enlarge)

The new Hot UK Deals website

The new Hot UK Deals website (click to enlarge)

Of course, the management of the site could never expect to receive feedback from all its members, but by posting information in its own ‘Feedback’ forum, the site could have used the opportunity to strengthen its relationship with its members. When the newly designed site launched, it was a surprise to everyone.

Within a couple of hours, numerous threads and posts were made by members demanding the old site back. It is important to note that community members are very often resistant to change in the short term. Over the long term though, very often members will soon learn how to use the new features and recognise the benefits of a new design (so long as the benefits are truly useful). Such an initial backlash could, perhaps, be expected to some degree – although I would argue that it would have been significantly reduced if members were consulted or at least forewarned of the impending redesign.

A petition to bring back the old site was soon started, and soon saw over 1,200 posts made in support of the motion. Other threads with titles such as ‘admins too arrogant to listen to their public‘ soon cropped up. Whilst the member who started the petition soon changed their mind as they learned how to use the new features, the initial damage had already been done – many members felt alienated and unvalued by the administrators of the community.

Hot UK Deals – The response

It took the administrators of the site a week to explain the reasons behind the redesign. This was a well thought-out post and addressed many of the issues that members were not happy about. It is unfortunate though, that this was not posted at the time of the redesign – one week in Internet time is a very long period.

In their post, the administrators commendably stated that they, ‘… underestimated the scale of change for long time forum users.’ It is a shame that this could have been avoided by simply involving their members in the redesign process or at least advising them of the pending redesign. Ideally, the site could have made the redesign process more progressive by offering both interfaces for a limited time to enable people to learn how to use the new site in their own time.

The conclusion

There is no doubt that Hot UK Deals will continue to be successful – it is already a large site with a strong, loyal userbase. A smaller site cannot afford to take such an approach when it comes to such a significant redesign, though. A younger, less well-developed community could alienate many of its most valuable members by acting in this way. You should always consult your members before significantly altering your community website. Make your members an integral part of your community’s development and you will encourage them to remain loyal members well into the future.

Your thoughts and experiences

What are your thoughts about how Hot UK Deals redesigned their site? Have you redesigned your community website? Did you consult your members before undertaking the redesign? To what extent did you involve your members? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

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Hirsutism January 3, 2008 at 4:12 am

Well I feel it is a mind set, people are used to a particular pattern and they take time to adapt to changes. It’s good to make changes to your site if it benefits the members. But in case of Hot UK Deals, there are so many members, it may sometime become very difficult to get a feed back from so many members. I guess that can be one reason why this site must have not taken a feedback. And as far as small sites are concerned it is easier to get members opinion and advice as it becomes a close community.

Smiley January 3, 2008 at 11:16 am

I consulted members when I changed my design. I gave them 2 weeks notice, and then asked for their suggestions for the new design. How to make it easier. Easier access to the chat etc etc etc.

What they wanted to get rid of, what they wanted to keep. I’m really quite close with the members, I consult them on just about anything and everything I can. The only thing I didn’t was changing the default emoticons, which I wish I did.

Since your logo article, I’ve been really thinking about changing the design again incorporating a logo this time which I failed to do.

I’ll work on it a few months, then consult them.

Amish Made Furniture January 3, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Let me approach it from the user point of view. It would have certainly helped had the administrator just talked about it on a couple of blogs and asked for some opinions. The chances are that about 5% would have responded negatively and about 5% with suggestions. A blog explaining what responses came and what was being done with an explanation for the change would have simply carried the change off without much hassle.

As a community member, I would have certainly been alienated with some unilateral decision that changed the way I viewed and responded to the posts.

Kevin Malone January 4, 2008 at 11:17 am

Good article overall, but I was particularly struck by the point about fostering a sense of loyalty by getting members involved in decision-making.

I haven’t involved my members in the decision to upgrade the forum to vBulletin, though I did get a consensus from my staff before making the change. We often consult members about lesser things, though, such as whether a section should be added, or a user banned.

Nicole Price January 4, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Wow, never thought a site redesign had the capacity to break a business. I personally adapt to changes pretty easily, so I guess I would have been the last one to scream hoarse at the redesign of this particular site. Even though, the site owners could have avoided the backlash by letting their members know in advance, the response of the public was too immature and far fetched. Eventually everyone got around to using and getting used to the new setup. Just crying hoarse without giving it a shot is not right.

Motivator January 5, 2008 at 2:34 am

I totally agree wit hthe previous poster..I am totally surprised that redesigning a site will affect the business.I am a easy goer and I usually adopt to changes pretty much easily though.

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 7, 2008 at 3:40 am

Hirsutism – It is definitely difficult to consult members on a new design when you have a community as large as Hot UK Deals. However, they should have kept the community updated as to their plans and allowed previews of the new design to invite feedback from those who were interested in voicing their opinion.

Smiley – I always strongly recommend a community site consults its members prior to any major redesign, and am glad to hear that is just what you did. Good luck for any future design process you go through.

Ramana – I think Hot UK Deals should simply have invited feedback on their preliminary new design in their own feedback forum. After all, why have such a forum if you don’t even ask your members for feedback?!?

Kevin – I definitely would have consulted my members before changing the message board software; that’s a massive change and if your members hate it you could end up losing them.

Nicole – The response could well be considered to be immature and far-fetched; I think this was a symptom of the way many members felt betrayed and unvalued as the redesign was done without any member consultation. The easy way to prevent this? Consult your members before any major redesign.

Motivator – I don’t think a redesign affects all websites, but when it comes to successful community websites the members feel a sense of shared ownership. If major changes are made without them being informed or asked to get involved, you risk a backlash that could be large enough to destroy the community.

Smiley January 7, 2008 at 6:01 am

Thanks. Hey, you’re a late nighter like me huh.

Just been sorting the site out ready for the new chat software to go up. Switching back to Chat-Forum.

Loads of users were complaining about ChatBlazer being too fiddly. Lag, getting disconnected, not being able to type properly etc etc etc — so I’ve responded to the complaints and told them I’ll switch over to a java chat solution.

I’m nervous about the swap over cos the site was starting to do well until ChatBlazer started kicking people out every 2 minutes and lagging.

Switching software could either increase chat numbers cos of the user-friendliness of Java.. or doom the site because all the regular members are now used to flash.

But they complained about the problems.. I’m only responding to their complaints and acting accordingly.

You’ve done this for 6-7 years now.. I’ve done it 6-7 months and already making these decisions and juggling to keep everyone happy is driving me crazy. I really respect the work you’ve done at JC a lot more!

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 10, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Smiley – Well, I am a late nighter but on the occasion I wrote my previous comment I was in the USA so I cheated a little!

I must admit I was curious to see how your experiment with a Flash-based chat client would work out. I have always found Flash to be not quite ready for use as a chat solution – it simply cannot keep up with the demands placed on it in a lively chat environment.

I am surprised you chose to go back to Chat-Forum, though. In my opinion, their latest version is a huge step backwards, with a badly designed and clunky user interface that looks awful to boot.

Smiley January 11, 2008 at 2:20 pm

Yes, the flash chat client its self was excellent, popular. If it didn’t lag and if ChatBlazer had better servers it would have been quite a success. But there’s still loads of bugs that need ironing out.

Chat-Forum was my only choice at the moment, but I’m still searching high & low for one I like. Parachat is cost effective and popular but wouldn’t be right for such a young site.

Luckily the regulars are still using the chat and warmed up to it once they got used to it so not much damage done thankfully. Bit of customization and it’ll do until I come across something better!

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 12, 2008 at 12:22 am

Smiley – I don’t know why you discounted ParaChat; since I made the switch I have fallen in love with the software. The level of customisation and control is astounding and hugely beneficial.

I am glad to hear your chatters soon got used to the change in software!

Smiley January 12, 2008 at 5:34 am

I tested Parachat, I liked it. But I setup my own community cos I wanted something different … as a new site I really need to look different to the known popular sites in the eyes of my regulars and visitors.

It was simply a matter of being different.

Otherwise if the software is the same, my visitors will get used to the software then bugger off to bigger sites such as yours (please don’t take that the wrong way!!) with the same software cos of the user numbers and I’d never see them again!

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 18, 2008 at 5:36 pm

Smiley – Fair enough, just make sure that as your site evolves you don’t ‘stay different’ by using sub-standard or inferior software!

Smiley May 4, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Forgot about this article. Yes, obviously once the site is established and what I’d call a ‘mainstream’ site, then perhaps I will change software. ChatBlazer is good though, they’re releasing the new version this summer, ironing the bugs out, easier to skin/customize etc.

Only problem is that it’s so damned expensive.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 5, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Smiley – Ah, the price of success, eh?!?

Dan May 10, 2008 at 12:17 am

There you come again raising an issue which is quite hard to comprehend for the “standard” web designers :) No matter how bad a design is, the masses on a community server still would prefer it to a better one, but NEW design. Boy, I’ve had my rants just about changing sizes of buttons or recoloring a side bar… So as you say – a lot of preparation needs to be done before, perhaps even running a pilot (ideally accessible only to power-users, who are the influence makers anyway), lots of explanation afterwards.. and basically being very very cautious about any major redesign.

Said that, I also found that it’s better to do 5 changes at once than over a period of say 5 weeks – constant little changes get people tired..

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Dan – You make a very valid point; you shouldn’t be asking your community for feedback on minor changes every few days – you should only consult them when you plan on making major changes that will directly affect how they use your site.

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