Redesigning your website: the psychology of change

You’re sick and tired of your website. What used to be a clean, lean, fighting UI has become a convoluted, hodgepodge of good intentions and workarounds. Before you consider a complete redesign, it is important to consider your users’ psychological point-of-view, particularly if you have an established user base.

Marks and Spencer website

For example, back in 2014 Marks and Spencer (M&S) spent two-years and £150 million redesigning their website. It didn’t go well. Following relaunch, there was an 8% decline in online sales, and a fierce back-lash from angry users. Changes in the back-end meant that six million customers were forced to reregister. What’s more, the company’s established user base hated the changes in the design, in particular the new navigation.

Having frustrated users is expected, particularly older individuals (see below). People take longer to react when coming across new experiences than ones they have come across before – trying to assimilate information in their existing ‘mental model’ is difficult, particularly if there are multiple changes.

This does not mean that all change should be avoided, even if you feel you need a complete rather than incremental redesign. However, there are key factors that you should think twice before changing.

Navigational structure – Keep the lay-out similar

There is strong evidence that, even at an unconscious level, keeping visual information in the same spatial configuration / lay-out helps people’s ability to select the correct information. Therefore, switching the position of all navigation of the original site, for example, may not be a good idea.

When Apple redesigned their site, they did a good job of keeping a consistent navigational lay-out. Although they moved from skeuomorphism to a flat design, Apple kept the main navigation consistent and focussed on products and support. These give users familiar touchstones to anchor themselves to and cope with the other changes. - Before – Before - after – after

Visual design – Colour is key

As well as being essential for branding, consistent colour use across the redesign could lessen the effect of the change. Humans can easily attend to items of a particular colour, and preferentially use it when making sense of complex visual environments. Therefore, if they already know and expect certain key parts of your website to be a particular colour (shade is less important), then it is best to keep this consistent.

When the Yellow Pages redesigned their site, although users were faced with a large upheaval, the trademark yellow remained and indicated where users should start their path through the website, as it did before the redesign. This is a good example of using colour to aid navigation when the position of said navigation is changed.

Yellow pages - Before

Yellow pages – Before


Yellow pages - After

Yellow pages – After

Functionality – keep it consistent

As well as considering consistency in the visual nature of your website, be careful when changing its functionality. Users like familiarity, whether it is within your website or across the web. If you are changing the affordances associated with specific buttons, make sure there are signifiers indicating what you the user can do. Adding another layer of security? Be explicit as to why you are doing this. Users are particularly sensitive to change when there are security and privacy issues involved. During the M&S debacle outline above, one of the major changes that freaked users out was the change in the registration process.

Content – keep the same style

Although I am sure Shakespeare has many similarities to Jackie Collins, you would not expect one to sound like the other. Similarly, if Lloyds started giving bank advice in the style of Innocent Smoothies, eye-brows would be raised and users would be worried. Can we trust the site? Has it been hacked?

Just as keeping some things consistent when you redesign, keeping the tone of voice on your website is also important if you want to minimise the trauma of the redesign on users. Indeed, almost all respected magazines and newspapers go to the extent of having a house style, a lists outlining not only the tone but also the spelling and grammar of their content, both offline and online. This tool aims to engenders authority and authenticity in users, something essential in the content free-for-all that is the modern web.

Users – Consider the nature of your audience

When it comes to the world of websites, a word you have probably not come across is perseveration. Essentially, it is the inability to change your behaviour in response external change and it particularly affects older people. This means that older users may struggle when dealing with the rapidly changing online environment.

From the data, it does seem that the web is slow to cater for older individuals. According to the Office of National Statistics, although more adults aged 75+ are using the internet, they do not necessarily continue using it once they’ve tried it, with this age group having the highest rate of lapsed users.

The take home message is, if you have an older user-base (e.g., Marks & Spencer), you may need to consider the above factors more carefully before you redesign. Your users may take longer to adjust to your new website. Or may leave it all-together (I’m looking at you M&S).


In summary, whenever making any changes to your website, think about the problem you face and consider if it is the solution itself or if the user will understand how to use the solution. Validating ideas with users can save time and money, as well as encourage redevelopment of necessary content or services.