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Refresh or Redesign? Picking the Right Path for User Interface Updates

Ayana Campbell Smith By Ayana Campbell Smith // 11.10.2020

User Interface (UI) updates present an exciting opportunity for design teams to reinvigorate stale experiences, address issues, and explore future iterations. But these types of updates are also an involved undertaking, compounded by the size and reach of the interface in question. This fact can make organizational support of these efforts hard to come by.

“Why do we need a UI update? It’s working just fine.”

To avoid a wasted effort on your interface redesign, it’s important to be realistic about what makes sense for your team and what’s actually possible. Let’s take a look at the important factors to consider when determining if and when updates are necessary and the pros and cons of the available paths forward.

How to Know It’s Time for an Interface Update

Any platform with longevity is bound to need updates at some point. Just imagine if Amazon never updated. We’d still be trying to use this:

Moral of the story: It’s never a question of if interface updates will be necessary, but instead, when. However, determining the correct time to update is the real trick.

For starters, interfaces must align with established brand guidelines and support company values. A shift in either, whether due to a rebrand, acquisition, market pivot, or leadership change, serves as the perfect jumping-off point for update discussions.

Beyond these more obvious indicators, consider the following questions to determine if now is the right time for UI updates:

Has your user base changed since launch (or your last update)?

Never assume the users who populated your platform at launch are the same that exist there today. As your base grows and evolves, interfaces must do the same because different users have different needs.

Facebook provides a great case study on flexing to accommodate ever-evolving user types and their diverse needs. At its inception, the platform was a virtual meeting place for tech-savvy college students. Creating profiles, making connections, and forming groups served as its core offering. Since then, the platform has welcomed new user types including students of all ages, parents and grandparents, businesses, and even celebrities. And with this shift came a greater emphasis on photos, events, and news optimized to each user’s unique preferences.

Facebook 2004 vs 2020

What insights are you able to draw from your analytics?

Real user engagement provides an invaluable resource — usage data. When reviewing analytics, keep an eye out for telltale signs that UI updates are in your best interest. Red flags worth investigating are low engagement, decreased user acquisition or retention, and increased failure rates.

What common issues are your users facing?

Are your users repeatedly getting stuck or completely abandoning tasks? In addition to reviewing analytics, looping customer service reps and support desk personnel in to update discussions can provide valuable insight. It’s easy to make assumptions about why users experience certain issues, but these key players hear straight from the source.

With a clearer understanding of the problems your users face, you’ll be better able to make more informed decisions about updates that will be most impactful.

What’s working well?

UI updates aren’t just about fixing all the things that are wrong. Taking inventory of what’s working well is just as important. The benefits of identifying the good parts are twofold. First, you’re able to ensure these features safeguarded against unnecessary changes during the update shuffle. And second, you’re better able to prioritize efforts and make decisions about improvements. The important question to answer here — how can this be enhanced without jeopardizing the aspects that make it successful?

How will the updates impact your users?

Consider the motives behind your UI updates. Do you truly have your users’ best interests in mind or is this merely an effort to appease stakeholders or meet revenue goals? Although all are valid reasons for updates, the latter options can lead to unintended consequences if they’re your sole source of motivation. Just ask Snapchat. 


When the social media giant rolled out the first-ever redesign of its flagship app, the fallout was swift and far-reaching. Stocks plunged, usage decreased, and a petition to reverse the updates amassed 1.2 million signatures from unhappy users across the globe. It’s speculated that the redesign was in response to disappointing numbers and a strong desire to remain relevant in a quickly evolving industry. Unfortunately, the solution backfired and Snapchat eventually released additional updates to address the most pressing user concerns. 

When will you roll out updates?

Aside from the actual update process, your release timeline should also be carefully considered. Nothing is more inconvenient than an app not working as expected when you need it to most.

When planning release timelines, be mindful of the ebbs and flows of your industry and how some interface updates may have a more significant impact. For example, rolling out the revamped version of a US-based tax preparation software on April 14th probably isn’t the best idea.

Who are your competitors and are their solutions better than your current offerings?

In the fast-paced online landscape, an outdated design is a competitive disadvantage. Aside from having a better experience, competitors can win customers over simply by offering something flashy and new. Remember HipChat? Slack does.

Competitive analysis is the name of the game in addressing this potential threat. This isn’t about copying your competition, but instead using the insight gained to make informed decisions about ways to enhance your own platform and remain relevant in the marketplace.

Available Paths for UI Updates: Refresh or Redesign

If a friend were to say “I’m updating my kitchen,” what do you envision? Are they refreshing things with a coat of paint and an updated backsplash or redesigning the whole thing by gutting it and rebuilding from the ground up? This disparity illustrates the spectrum upon which UI updates exist.

Once you’ve concluded that an update is indeed necessary, it’s time to decide between a refresh or a redesign. Each path comes with its own pros and cons, requirements, timelines, and budget implications. Let’s explore each approach.

UI Design Refresh: A New Coat of Paint

A design refresh involves style updates that don’t impact the underlying structure or functionality of an interface. Think updated font stacks, revised color palettes, or a new style direction for supporting assets. These types of changes breathe new life while still maintaining familiarity with your users. 

Take Duolingo’s 2018 refresh. When app screens are compared side-by-side, the subtle updates are apparent. By brightening the palette, addressing inconsistencies, and refining the illustration style, Duolingo achieves an elevated look and feel that still retains the brand’s playful essence.

Brighter color palette, refined illustrations, and addressed inconsistencies

Despite being a simpler approach to updates, a design refresh offers more bang for your buck than you might initially expect. For example, an updated color palette not only reinvigorates a potentially stale experience but can also address accessibility concerns and the usability issues that occur as a result. 

Compared to a complete redesign, a design refresh offers quick wins in the form of lower costs, faster implementation, and the option for changes to be rolled out incrementally with little to no impact. As an added benefit, a front-end developer and designer could handle the updates which would eliminate the need for back-end support and keeps teams lean.

UI Redesign: Starting From the Ground Up

Has your application fallen victim to Frankenstein Syndrome? It’s that sneaky thing that happens after launch. You draw usage insights, gather user feedback, and address additional feature requests. And as a result, temporary fixes and half-baked solutions are tacked on with promises that they’ll be revisited and ironed out in the near future. Except the near future never arrives and before long, you’re left with an abomination of what once was.

Sound familiar?

Try as you might, some issues just can’t be solved with a fresh coat of paint. In scenarios where cohesion has been compromised, a redesign is the best solution.

Redesigns involve a more thorough update process in which the foundation of the whole system is reevaluated. This approach isn’t so much about updating colors and fonts as it is about rethinking how all the pieces of your application puzzle fit together. It’s an opportunity to bridge gaps between where the application started, its current state, and visions for the future.

Dropbox is a far cry from its humble beginnings back in 2008. Although it remains true to its core functionality as a cloud-based file sharing service, the platform has evolved to better support its users and the ways they work. Its 2019 update was a complete rethinking of previous iterations with a renewed emphasis on interaction around files. By simplifying navigation, updating toolbars, and promoting collaboration, Dropbox succeeded in creating an intuitive team-first focused experience for all.

On the plus side, redesigning from the ground up offers a completely fresh perspective. You’ll benefit from the freedom to explore and implement the best solutions for the problems being solved without the constraints of having to work within an established system.

The drawback, however, is that redesigns are more involved processes overall. A successful outcome requires input from more team members and stakeholders and longer feedback loops. As a result, expect more cross-discipline collaboration, increased budgets, and lengthened project timelines.

Tips and Process Recommendations for UI Updates

The following are useful tips for getting the most out of every phase of your update process.

Before

Define Goals, KPIs, Success Metrics

What factors will make your UI updates a success? Increased engagement? A reduction in support desk tickets? Releasing it in a timely manner? Without clearly defined goals and success metrics, it’ll be difficult to determine if the effort was worthwhile. Make it a point to define these upfront and use them as a guiding light throughout the update process.

During

A/B Test and Iterate

Save time, money, and headaches with insight-driven implementation. Smaller releases that can be A/B tested and iterated upon are a much better alternative to dropping a major update and hoping it’s well-received. This approach provides ample opportunity to warm your audience to upcoming changes, gauge initial reactions, and gives greater leeway for addressing issues as they arise.

Keep Users in the Know

Transparency is the best policy. Release notes, blog articles, and social media posts are all simple yet effective ways to keep your users clued in to goings-on behind the scenes. Use these tools to acknowledge that feedback has been taken to heart and detail the ways it’s been addressed or will be addressed in future releases.

Dribbble’s blog post about their improved shot pages hits all the marks. Their main objective is clearly stated — How can we help make designers better at what they do? They call out what changes have been made and why with clear visuals. And they succeed in piquing user interest by dropping hints about additional features on the horizon. This level of open communication goes a long way to solidifying user trust and drumming up excitement about what’s to come.

After

Be Receptive to Feedback

Refreshes and redesigns are polarizing topics. With any release, feedback should not only be expected but welcomed. Encourage public discourse by creating a safe space for gathering thoughts and opinions post-release. For example, Duolingo used their public forum as a sounding board after their 2014 redesign with a post kicked off by the CEO himself.

Whether addressing user issues, enlivening an experience, or expanding on existing features, UI updates are a necessary process for maintaining great products. By knowing your users and asking the right questions, you’ll be better able to choose the most appropriate path forward.


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