Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


I’m usually very skeptical when a client asks for a visual design make-over or what people like to call a “re-skin” of their site or application. “Re-skin” refers to changing the surface appearance of a web site or application with new graphics and style treatment. Re-skins are like a new paint job for your old Corvair—they’re meant to make an otherwise stale-looking web site or application look new, fresh and up-to-date (at least that’s the intention). Unfortunately, just because you paint a clunker red doesn’t mean it’s going to drive any better.

The problem with re-skins is that they are usually a means of covering up more serious problems with the product or service. Sometimes it’s even a last resort: “We don’t know what to do. Why don’t we re-skin it and make it look better?”. Many executives may see a re-skin as a quick way to improve a poorly perceived user experience. It’s not always in the client’s best interest for a designer to accept a project they know is only a band-aid covering more serious design issues. At the very least, a professional should be up-front with the client and let her know what real issues may lie under the hood.

I don’t want to demean the importance of having a good visual design for a product or service. According to the book, Universal Principles of Design, aesthetic designs:

“…look easier to use and have a higher probability of being used, whether or not they actually are easier to use. More usable but less-aesthetic designs may suffer a lack of acceptance that renders issues of usability moot. These perceptions bias subsequent interactions and are resistant to change. For example, in a study of how people use computers, researchers found that early impressions influenced long-term attitudes about their quality and use. A similar phenomenon is well documented with regard to human attractiveness—first impressions of people influence attitude formation and measurably affect how people are perceived and treated.”

But visual design is much more than just a nice paint job. Not only does good visual design help create the illusion of ease-of-use, it also helps promote a positive emotional response and connection to the brand. Marketers know this well and will take every opportunity to try and produce a good feeling in the hearts and minds of their customers. We are sentient (from Latin – sentient: feeling) beings that for good or for bad, make decisions based on our emotions. However, good visual design is only part of what makes a great user experience much like a car’s exterior is only part of what makes a car delightful to own. Not only is functionality important (whether or not it actually works), but so are factors of usability and perceived value. Without a usable interface or a product or service that means something to the user, there’s no point in good visual design—it’s nothing more than cosmetics.

So, the first question a designer should ask a client requesting a re-skin is “Why?” (this is no time to be shy). Another should be, “What do you expect to gain from a re-skin?” The idea isn’t to ridicule the client, just to dig deeper and possibly bring to light more severe problems such as poor navigation, page flow, features, nomenclature, copy, etc. Sometimes the stakeholders have little experience with product design and simply don’t know what makes a good user experience. This particularly occurs with business-focused and technology-focused teams where there is no user advocate.

So, when does a re-skin make the most sense? Obviously, a re-skin is a good idea if a company is changing its brand identity. But even then, a re-skin isn’t just about making it look good and making it easy to use with big buttons and spacious layouts. A designer must ask “For what kind of user am I designing this for?” “What kind of emotional response am aiming for?” Even the visual design of an application like a word processor or email client will elicit some kind of emotion from the user.

Another good time to consider a re-skin is when there are big changes to content and functionality. Why not launch this year’s model with a slightly new look too? Not only is it an opportunity to improve the look and feel and perceived usability, it will also help highlight the new content and features, and if done successfully, boost the chances of eliciting positive feedback from users and customers.

In conclusion, a request from a client for a re-skin should send up a red flag telling you to dig deeper and examine other hidden issues. Not only will this give more importance to your work, it could save your client a lot of time and money in the long run.


1 Comment

  1. 1 Eric Bingen

    I would echo Mr. McKenzie’s skepticism with respect to re-skinning a web site.

    In my experience with three companies at/with whom I worked, a re-skin is a means to either:
    1) Apply a more brand identity quickly
    2) Make incremental improvements to buy time for a fundamental re-design
    3) “Do something” to show “progress” to internal stakeholders

    When evaluating a re-skin opportunity, I would advise the designer to do two things:
    1) Assess as best you can how congruent the current site architecture is with target audience(s) and with the stated online objectives of the company
    2) Assuming congruence is lacking, ask whether a fundamental change such as a ground-up re-design is planned, and if so, by when

    The golden opportunity is when a company is re-skinning a highly congruent web site to reflect a company re-branding

    The biggest red flag is when a company wants to re-skin an incongruent web site to “to something”, acknowledges major usability or other issues with the current site, but no plans exist to re-design the site by an identified target date

    I would rank opportunities that meet neither of the above descriptions somewhere in between the golden and the red flag scenarios just described.

    Top hidden issues to look when evaluating a red flag or near-red flag opportunity:
    1) Resources do not exist for a re-design of a highly incongruent site. This is a hallmark of a company that under-values or even devalues the potential of the Web Channel to achieve their business objectives. What is the long-term value of such a client to your practice? Probably not much
    2) The internal political consensus does not exist to enable a fundamental re-design of an incongruent web site. What are the chances that the same lack of consensus will add to time, cost, and drama when executing a re-skin? Probably high

    Caveat Vendor.

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