by Nick Clark, executive creative director at Superunion
While Reddit may be an extreme example of a redesign and repositioning, there are takeaways for every designer faced with the challenge of satisfying a passionate audience.
Since its inception on a college campus, Reddit has gone from subculture bulletin board to a crucible of invention for the web valued at almost $2 billion. It’s a strange miracle that, even under increased scrutiny, it somehow retained an essential raw clunkiness that makes visitors feel like they are at the coalface of the internet. Reddit has always thrived because its energetic users and user-generated content provided a customizable, fun and exciting destination for discovery, even as brands found it a tricky proposition.
So when Reddit announced an upcoming sweeping redesign, ostensibly to make it more friendly for new users and potential advertisers, it gave me pause. How could they possibly not screw it up and lose what made it great in the first place? The risk with any site redesign is that in a quest to open up to new users and advertisers, the soul of the original experience is lost. This is doubly true for a site like Reddit, which is entirely dependent on the outspoken voices of the community, so anything that affects that in a negative way would be a catastrophic mistake.
Ultimately, these kind of platform redesigns are a tremendous balancing act, with success hinging on an ability to identify a brand’s experience, to determine what essential attributes deliver on that experience, and to find a way to enhance or even to amplify them. While Reddit may be an extreme example, within their efforts to redesign and reposition their brand are lessons for every designer with the challenge of satisfying a passionate audience.
1. Know Your Goals and Rules
From the outset, create a clear plan of what you’re trying to accomplish with a redesign and the rules to get there. That way, if the heuristics of a site suggest a well-lit, organized space that is open for genuine debate and is welcoming to all, you’ll have a well-considered path to that result. Maybe, from an advertiser point of view, being able to offer high-fidelity transparency, accurate targeting and trustworthy measurement is key. Defined community rules, along with strong moderation and higher quality design, can discourage potential trolls and abusers, leading to less concern from brands that their content will be seen next to noxious material.
2. If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it
Design must only enhance the experience, not impede it. Whether it’s the look and behavior of the site, or the rituals and actions that are familiar to users, tinkering with these should be done with the utmost care. If you’ve ever cooked in someone else’s kitchen, then you know the frustration of having to learn things anew. Too much change and the existing community will get upset, and they’ll be very vocal about it. Before any design decisions are made, decide what makes your platform unique, and focus only on the bits that exemplify and support that definition in the experience. Make them as good as they can possibly be, then junk anything that gets in the way.
3. Involve Your Audience
If the idea is to retain a core platform audience, it would be wise to avoid sudden and unwelcome surprises by involving core users along the way. The beauty of an online community is that they are engaged and can be involved in changing the site. This doesn’t mean that an audience should have absolute control. After all, too much reliance on what has gone before and there’s a danger a redesign won’t go far enough to attract new users who are less invested in how the site used to feel and function. It’s a question of striking the right balance between the audiences and developing a strategy that builds toward retaining and attracting the most valuable users. And, as with Reddit, the most valuable users might change dramatically when thinking of the potential value of advertising.
4. Create Something Sustainable
Building a brand or platform in the sometimes unpredictable digital world is really about sustaining it, both through its design and its community. Brands that forget this step don’t last long. Remember Myspace? Defining and publishing a set of beliefs that drive a site as an idea would be a good thing to have. This can always act as touchstone for brand building, and keep the site, its moderators and its users focused on what makes the platform unique. With both Facebook and Twitter stumbling in staying true to their original ethos, lessons on discipline and over-stretch should be taken to heart so that a brand can achieve sustainability. Once you understand how to sustain, then you can build.