Every so often I get approached by someone who wants me to redesign their app / website thinking that will be the solution to their problems. They’ve gotten as far as getting their idea realized, launched and it’s tumbleweeds. Nobody uses the app; nobody cares. They get frustrated and think a fresh new look will draw in the crowd. More often than not, it’s mostly a cosmetic redesign – or pretty-ing it up. I hate to break it to these people, but for most cases, a new design will not do much.

The reason it will not do much is because usually the problem doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not people think the app looks pretty or not. It’s usually a more fundamental problem than that. If you were to judge a site like craigslist, reddit or lolcats by their design, they would fare pretty poorly but they are all top sites.

When nobody uses an app, it comes down to several issues, none of which have to do with design. The number one reason is it doesn’t sufficiently solve a problem. Maybe the problem isn’t big enough or painful enough. Maybe the app doesn’t provide enough delight. Also it could be that the app isn’t that big an improvement over existing solutions. Once people get into a habit of using something, it’s really hard to dislodge that incumbent unless it’s significantly better.

Another reason is maybe not enough people know about your product. A fresh new design will not help with that either. You actually have a marketing problem, not a design problem. There are so many web and iphone apps out there now that it’s just noise to the common person. There are actually over 500,000 apps in the iPhone App store right now. That makes it really hard for your app to rise above the rest.

If you get past all this and still nobody uses your app, maybe you do have a design problem and a fresh coat of paint isn’t going to help either. Maybe using your app is too painful, meaning there are too many steps, too much friction. By that I mean maybe your app makes the user jump through hoops to derive value whether it’s to produce content or consume content. In this case, in order to solve the problem, we really need to understand user behavior first and foremost. What are users actually doing on the site or app? Where are they giving up on your app and dropping off? If we don’t understand and know this for a fact, we really don’t know what we are solving for or how to fix the problem. What you need here, is not a new “design” but data and lots of it.

One of the first things I recommend doing is gathering intel. Figure out what users are doing. You can do this several ways. Install a tool like Olark and talk to your users. You will learn so much. Pain points will crop up over and over. Observe your users. Do this by simply asking people to test your software and stand behind them watching what they do. Resist the urge to guide the users or tell them what to do. Let them figure it out or struggle. Look at the analytics. See where people are leaving your page / site. Use tools to figure out if people are performing the desired behavior on the page they are on. If people leave, figure out WHY they left. Did they find what they needed and leave? Did they give up in frustration? Did they find out that this wasn’t what they were looking for?

Let’s illustrate some concepts with an example. I’ve changed the topic of the site to protect the innocent. There’s a certain recipe site a client wants to improve. People don’t seem to be spending too much time on the site. People browse recipes, find something and leave. Looking at the recipe page itself, it’s easy to see why. They have one call to action – add recipe to My Recipes. That’s it. People look for something they want, find it, get what they need and leave. One of the first thing I suggested is to take a page off Youtube. On the right hand side, they have recommend videos or related videos. Perhaps the recipe site should include recipes that go with the recipe they are on. Or maybe show other recipes based on similar ingredients on the side. That way, when users come in, see what they want, they might see something else they might like.

Another reason why the recipe site is languishing could be because they also only have a few recipes. Maybe people come and cannot find what they want and leave. There’s just not a lot of content there. It’s like going to a party and seeing nobody there. A redesign would make it much worse – now you have a fancy party that looks dead. Look at the analytics; what happens when they search? Do they search and leave? Do they search and try to look through all the search results? In this case, their efforts would be better spent seeding the site with more recipes.

If you require your users to sign up, how many are abandoning the sign up process? Perhaps you need to rethink the sign up form. Figure out what’s the bare minimum information you need to create an account and then let the user play with your app ASAP. Maybe you can even switch it around and let the user play with your app before ever needing to create an account.

In short, when wanting a new design, it’s important to understand why you need that new design and whether or not that will actually solve your problem. The solution could be as simple as moving things around or adding some relevant content to keep the user engaged.

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