I was asked about the refresh on Digg’s site as opposed to Facebook. Both had redesigns that people hated, but differ in that Facebook users are not leaving whereas Digg has lost about a quarter of their users in the US and roughly a third of their users in Europe. What went wrong and will it last?
On a broad sense there are a few things that makes a website a website. Handling these elements are essential to web development. A site has an audience, a core, and a supporting cast.
An audience happens regardless of what the developer does. However, the developer has to figure out what their audience wants and to either cater to that audience and adapt the site accordingly or find a new audience. Most websites do not actively try to figure out who their audience is and what that audience wants. This is unfortunate because most sites have multiple forms of audiences and the developer may understand one of those audience types, but may fail to recognize the audience viewers that really matter. It’s no different than identifying marketing messages, you may have banners that get a great deal of visitors but they may not convert. Conversely you might get very few visitors from a banner, but have a high conversion rate.
In order to master the audience aspect of a site, the website first needs a way to track the audience, determine what they want, where they go, where they come from, and lastly how to tune the site to better help that audience. Sometimes you can help every aspect of each audience and sometimes you have to sacrifice one audience’s comfort for the comforts of another.
By core, I refer to the handful or less things that makes a site unique. The core is the reason why that site is around. For Facebook, the core would be getting in touch with other people. The purposes of this outreach differ from person to person (for instance, for business you may want to get in touch with people to extend your contact list or provide a line of communication, whereas for personal reasons you may just want to stay up to date with friends). Digg’s core centered on a site that provides alternative informative and even entertaining.
The supporting cast is essentially everything else. The trick however is identifying what is the core features and what things are merely supporting and ensuring that your support elements don’t end up removing your core features. For the purposes of the Digg to Facebook comparison however, supporting features are not relevant.
I think you might be already seeing where I am going with this.
Through each new version and addition of each new feature, Facebook’s core never changed. They preserved the ability to find people and in fact a lot of the newer features brought traffic to the site to ensure that there would be plenty of people to find. Also Facebook understands that there is very little in the form of alternatives. When it comes to a user base, nothing rivals Facebook. So people may grumble and complain, but at the end of the day, the changes are not so bad that the reason for using Facebook is removed, nor are the changes unlivable. To Facebook’s credit, most of the changes have happened fairly pain free considering the massive havoc that could have taken place.
The Digg redesign on the other hand has none of these traits. First off, Digg’s redesign flew in opposition to their core. The new site serves as a personalized news aggregate as opposed to a site where you can find the most popular things (news, video, blog, silly saying, whatever)on the Internet. By changing its core, Digg lost the thing that made it unique and entertaining.
Then Digg’s new version did something even worse, it alienated a faction of the audience. All things considered, it looked like Digg was going for some major changes with the audience. I imagine a lot of the changes were to give it much broader appeal, more open moderation, and a chance to get more mainstream players involved in order to broadcast the site to newer audiences. Instead of merely increasing the audience appeal, Digg traded the old audience (especially the power users) for the possibility of a larger, newer audience.
If Digg was a rock band, this sort of strategy could work. Rock bands sell out all the time but can still manage to keep or expand their audience. Digg is however a social site and as such is based on trust. After what they did to a very loyal audience, it will be hard for people to trust them. Digg will probably gather an audience, but I seriously doubt they will ever be a loyal audience and I really don’t think the size of the new audience will match what the designers had wanted.
If there is anything to take away from this it is this. Never alienate your current audience, even if you have to do a radical change do so with as much user involvement as possible. That way, even if the new site falls flat, you audience may still applaud your efforts. If you have a good niche or a powerful feature (or features) that is better than comparable sites, do not change or water down your core. This is a basic rule of marketing really, just in that instance, you never want to water down your brand.