1o things I learned while redesigning my website

paint_brush_ Terence J Sullivan

Photo: Terence J Sullivan on Flickr

As you will have noticed, I’ve changed the design of Social Media for Good last week. Here are ten things I learned in the process.

1. Don’t think about your current site

I had my old design since 2009 and it had a few features I really liked. So, when I looked for a new design, I was looking for something that was similar but was also mobile-friendly and had better social media integration. In fact, I was so fixed on some aspects of my old design that I wasn’t able to choose a new one. Only when I approached the process differently and asked myself “If you were starting a new site from scratch, what would you look for?” was I finally able to make a decisions.

2. Buy a theme with support

Social Media for Good runs on WordPress and one of the great things you can do with WordPress is that you can replace one layout (or “theme”) comparatively easy with another. There are tens of thousands free WordPress themes out there, but I would recommend buying a theme – fortunately most of them are cheap and will cost less than 40 USD. The reason you should buy a theme, rather than use a free one, is support. Many designers or companies that produce WordPress themes will only provide paying customers with support when they run into problems during installation and set-up – and you probably will have problems. In the two days that I spent on moving Social Media for Good to the new design, I probably wrote five or six support requests to MyThemeShop, all of which were answered in less than 24 hours. Some of the problems were genuine bugs for which I wouldn’t have been able to find a solution on my own, for example Slideshare presentations were not embedded properly when using the WordPress shortcode. So, when looking for a new design, always take a look at whether the designer/company has a support forum and replies to enquiries.

3. Test the theme on localhost

I can’t afford a development or staging server and it would be completely over the top if I had one. But I have a notebook and installing WordPress locally on your computer is really easy (if you follow these instructions). Once your local site is up and running, you can test everything to your heart’s delight without worrying about breaking anything.

4. Test the design using your own content

While you can use dummy data to test your theme, I recommend doing it with your real content. There are many instructions and plugins for backing up WordPress sites, but I used BlogVault since I didn’t want to deal with backing up databases and all that stuff. BlogVault is a service that automatically backs up my site every few hours on a remote server, but it can also be used for site-migration. Instead of telling the service that I would migrate to a new URL I just had to tell it that I would “migrate” to localhost and then import that into my local WP installation. Ok, it wasn’t quite that easy and I struggled with the process, but that is where support comes in again. BlogVault costs 89 USD/year and when I contacted the programmer, he got back to me within a couple of hours and walked me through the process via a Google Hangout – even though I hadn’t bought the more expensive package with “priority support”.

5. Consider the “All you can eat buffet”

A lot of companies that sell WordPress themes offer two options: a fixed price for one theme or a more expensive annual price for access to all of their themes. I never really understood why someone would take the second option, unless you are a developer or agency rolling out sites for multiple clients. Well, this time I realized that the first theme I had bought wasn’t quite what I was looking for (you normally cannot return a design if you don’t like it), so before buying a second theme, I decided to go for the “all you can eat”-option. I then downloaded six or seven themes, and switched between them on my local WordPress installation. It really made a big difference since I was able to spend an hour or so on each theme, customize it and then move on, if it wasn’t right for me. Once I had narrowed the selection down, I took a couple of screenshots (and remember, I am using my own content on my local server) and share them for feedback.

6. Regenerate thumbnails

WordPress creates thumbnails of your images and uses them on the homepage or archive pages as teaser images for your posts. The problem is, that the size of the thumbnails is defined by the theme. If you switch your theme and your new theme has different-sized thumbnails, you have to regenerate all thumbnails. Fortunately, there is a plugin for that, which is probably the single thing that saved me the most time during the whole redesign process: wordpress.org/plugins/regenerate-thumbnails/. It also shows that it’s a good idea to always create a “featured image” for each post, even if you current design is not taking advantage of it. That way you won’t have to revisit all your posts, if you ever change to a design that uses thumbnails.

7. Do you still need that plugin?

A relaunch is a good opportunity to look at all your plugins and ask yourself whether you still need them. Modern themes and the WordPress Jetpack include many features that used be managed through plugins. Take this opportunity to delete the plugins you no longer need. Remember, every outdated plugin is a potential security risk.

8.Check embedded content

The only posts with which I had real problems after installing the new theme, were those that contained embedded rich media content, such as videos and presentations. Make sure to check all posts that are using embed-codes, particularly if multiple people are posting on your site. There are normally multiple ways to embed content and where one method might not create any problems, a second method might. You don’t know whether you have issues unless you check (or you can rely on your users to report problems).

9. It’s ok to say goodbye

As a rule, I don’t believe in deleting old content from the blog. If I said something in the past and I was wrong, then I can live with that. However, I discovered that many old posts didn’t have images and my new theme requires an image for every post and page. In the end I created new images for about 40 blog posts but I also deleted about 20 posts that I simply didn’t think were relevant any longer, for example the post in which I compared Google Buzz and Google Wave.

10. Enjoy and don’t get too stressed out

Remember, your blog or website is supposed to be fun and choosing a new design is exciting. Take your time and don’t allow yourself to be rushed. If you are using localhost to test new designs and features, there is no need to be stressed out. Instead, play with it and eventually choose a rainy weekend to relaunch your website.

What are the things that you learned when redesigning your website? Please leave a comment below.

  • Some dude

    Yeah – that’s not really “redesigning”. If anything, it’s “installing a new theme”. The points you make are still relevant though.