Library Website Update: Rebuild, Redesign, or Refresh?

Website Update Approaches

A website consists of three aspects: the content, the organization, and the design.  With few exceptions, the content of the website is its most important trait.  It’s the essence of what you want to present, advertise, or sell to the website visitor.  The content might naturally drive the organization of the website if it falls into clear categories—audience, departments, product types, etc.  Otherwise, the website developer creates functional categories.  These categories translate into menu items, subsections, and often subdomains or subfolders.  Likewise, the content and the organization might suggest a certain design.  In addition, the website developer looks to audience, purpose, and branding to create a positive user experience for the website visitor.

While website content is not usually affected by changes in Web and browser technology improvements, website organization—whether static or dynamically created—could be, and design most certainly is.  We have seen websites evolve from simple HTML, to the separation of design from content using CSS, to responsive design, and finally to modern design frameworks.  Website construction went from coding individual pages, to using includes to share components, and then to complete content management systems.  Web technology continues to improve, making design easier and features more robust.  In order to take advantages of new Web technologies, periodic website updates need to be undertaken.

When should website updates be made?  If you have a website that has gone unchanged for two to three years and you want to know whether you should update it, what factors should you consider?  To what extent should you look to make changes?

There are three routes you can take:

  • Rebuild the website.  This means tossing out most of your current site—content, organization, and design—and essentially starting over.
  • Redesign the website.  This means making some changes to the content and organization but changing most of the look and function of the site.
  • Refresh the website.   This means keeping most of the content and organization and making minor—but noticeable—changes to the site design.

Website Update Considerations

Let’s consider the factors that determine whether you should rebuild, redesign, or refresh your website.

Institutional Changes

The first factor has nothing to do with Web technology.  If your institution has seen important changes since your last website update, this factor alone might require a website change.  If it has moved, reorganized, expanded, changed its mission, or simply updated its branding, you’ll want to make changes to your website to reflect that.  For example, if the institution adds new locations or departments, you will need to update your website’s organization to match. 

New branding will dictate a website refresh, at least, with a new logo and color scheme.

Time Since Last Update

Like most technology, Web technology changes rapidly.  If your last website update was more than three years ago, it is possibly using older—even outdated—technology.  Web standards change often.  After years of interacting with popular websites like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix, savvy users expect a modern design with robust functionality.  If your site is still using basic HTML and CSS, your design and functionality is almost certainly outdated.

We’ll look at specific website questions that will indicate the extent of updates needed.

Website Technology

Is your website using current Web standards?  If it was built on old HTML, CSS, or JavaScript versions then it is time to rebuild your site using current versions that are simpler, faster, more feature-rich, accessible, and secure.  Make sure your new site uses HTML5, CSS version 4, and JavaScript 1.8.5.

You can go further to add modern design features to your website using a webdesign framework, a package (or library) of structured HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.  Frameworks typically provide a grid system and an easy way to add features like buttons, forms, and even photo galleries.  Bootstrap is the most popular free framework.1  It is used by Springshare to structure its page templates.2

Some previously popular Web technologies are being dropped.  Once a widely used multimedia platform, Adobe Flash is no longer recommended due to its issues and security risks; Flash is not supported by the iPad and most mobile devices.  If your website depends on Flash, it is time to redesign your site using HTML5 to give you the same features. 

Finally, if your website is not secured using HTTPS you will want to update the site to take advantage of encryption to protect user’s private data.

Is the Website Accessible?

Making your website accessible to users with disabilities has always been important.  Accessibility standards change so you should make sure your site meets current standards.3

Is the Website Mobile-Friendly?

Recent studies show that mobile web usage has overtaken desktop usage in the last few years.4

Having a mobile-friendly website is now imperative.  Users expect to be able to get all the features of the desktop site on their mobile device.  The easiest way is to make your site responsive, which means “using HTML and CSS to automatically resize, hide, shrink, or enlarge, a website, to make it look good on all devices” (desktops, tablets, and phones) according to W3Schools.5

As of July 2018, Google was down-ranking websites in its search results that are not mobile-friendly.6

In fact, mobile is now so important most website developers recommend a mobile-first design approach.  This means optimizing the content and design primarily for mobile devices.  Now visitors using a desktop often get a very similar experience as mobile users.

This means that if your website is not mobile-friendly, you will want to rebuild your site using a responsive design, preferably with a mobile-first approach.

Website Construction

The days of hand-coding websites are over.  Nearly all modern websites are built using a content management system (CMS).  The CMS takes care of laying out the content, organizing the site, creating navigational menus, providing the design template by using a theme, and publishing the pages.  It may be responsive and include a framework out-of-the-box depending on the chosen theme.

Popular CMS include WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal, and Joomla.  Springshare LibGuides CMS is a good option for building entire library websites.

If your website is not using a CMS and you plan to move to one, you will need to rebuild your website.  Also, if you are moving your website from one CMS to another—whether by choice or out of necessity—this would be a great time to redesign your website.

The Redesign Process

Only in extreme cases—a major institutional change or a severely outdated design—should you rebuild your entire website from the beginning.  One exception is if you move from one CMS to another, especially if the design can’t be easily carried over.  Most experts agree that a redesign is preferred to a complete rebuild.7

Once you determine that your website needs an update (rebuild, redesign, or refresh), here are the steps you should take.

Institutional Analysis

Before you can begin to make your website align with your institution, you need to understand the institution’s structure, mission, and goals.  Take time to analyze these important aspects.  Often the structure of the institution will drive the organization of the website.  The mission will help determine the audience.  The goals of the institution will influence the features and functionality of the website.  Real world services might need to be translated to online services.  Institutional knowledge will give you a solid base on which to make website design decisions.

Determine your website’s stakeholders.  These include actual users or others affected by the design of your website.

Website Analysis and Usability

Critically read the site’s content.  Correct mistakes immediately, but also consider what comprehensive changes or additions need to be done.  Content is the most important aspect of your website and should be your starting point.

Analyze your current website.  Map out its organization to see if it still matches your institution.  Gather usage statistics to learn what pages are most and least popular. Find out where you users are coming from (direct links, search engines, and social media sites).  Determine the breakdown of users, devices, and operating systems.  Note the time spent on your site and the bounce rate.  List the most popular website search terms to understand what users are seeking.

Perform a website usability study.  Determine the most important elements of the website, then design questions to test whether users can find information or properly use features and functions.  Test with eight to twelve real users.  Analyze the test results to determine areas that work well and areas that are difficult to use.

Look at fellow institution or competitor websites.  What do they do well that you can copy?  What are they missing that you can improve upon?

User Identification

Identify your website users and their needs.  Create personas of your typical users.  Understand their different problems and what they want from your site.


Begin the website construction process.  Create your content first.  Be concise and focus on solving the user’s problems.  Website content guides site organization and design.  Build a sitemap to visual site organization.  Map a user’s journey from start to solution for important tasks.  Minimize URL changes when possible.

Begin the website visual design.  Create wireframes and mockups to work out design ideas.  Apply the institution’s branding and style guide.  Ensure the website is accessible.

With content, organization, journey maps, and design initiated, present the website to the stakeholders for feedback.  Make revisions and repeat the process until all stakeholders are satisfied.

If possible, perform a usability study on the new site.  Compare performance to the current site and go back and make revisions if the results are not better.  Preview the new site and get feedback from users for final modifications.  Plan the launch for the least disruptive but most useful timeframe.

Launch and Follow-up

Launch the new website along with any written help pages or video tutorials to explain the changes and new features.  Make sure to follow-up with additional user surveys and usability testing after the site has launched.  Websites are always a work-in-progress and should be kept timely and fresh.

Redesign vs. Continuous Improvement

An alternative to periodic website redesign is the approach of continuous improvement.7  As discussed above, sometimes rebuilding the entire site makes sense.  However, if your site isn’t changing platforms and its technology is up-to-date, consider a refresh (if needed) and a continuous improvement approach.

Continuous improvement, sometimes called evolutionary site redesign (ESR), means implementing small, incremental updates to fix or optimize parts of the website.8  Think website evolution—slow user experience improvements to update content, add features, increase performance, and keep the design in line with your institutional goals.  This the approach used by big websites like Amazon.

The continuous improvement method has many benefits over a website redesign.

  • Incremental changes are much less disruptive; your users only need to adjust to a new feature instead of learning an entirely new site.
  • Site improvements can happen sooner, as needed, rather than waiting for the longer process of a complete redesign.
  • Small changes can reduce the time and effort required by stakeholders compared to that of a complete redesign.
  • Individual changes can be isolated and assessed to determine if they are successful.

Companies and institution using the continuous improvement (or ESR) method include Amazon, eBay, Google, and Princeton University.



Further Reading

  1. What Should a Website Redesign Process Look Like?
  2. Never Redesign Your Website Without This Strategy!
  3. How to Continuously improve your school’s website with Evolutionary Redesign