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I've recently been challenged with a very hefty redesign for a major financial tool. Most everything about this application is a mess. (They've been building it for the last 10 years, and I'm the first designer they've hired.)

The logic is very complex, nothing is organized, and nothing is standardized. There are so many problems to fix, it's hard picking the worst one. (There's no help system, no navigation system, and there are a TON of ugly/unusable forms.)

So, my question is this: for large / complex redesigns, where do you start? Any useful tips for planning a major redesign?


Edit: For my specific case, end users are out of my reach. (I work in banking -- security issues...) I'd prefer to keep answers general, but it would also be helpful to touch on what you guys would do if you couldn't access users directly. Also, this is a back end system -- not a consumer facing website. It's only used by high-profile companies / bank account managers.

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I'm not sure if one designer alone is able to manage this. I'd recommend to look for "allies" among the development team. Are there anyone except for coders? It can be hard to argument alone against a group of "we always did it that way". – Alexej Froehlich Sep 6 '12 at 14:09
Do they understand the value of a good UX or do you still need to sell this? What did they ask you to do? An entire redesign or just make it a bit nicer? Do you have insights into the business numbers, like what area/product is successful or not? – greenforest Sep 6 '12 at 14:15
agree with @AlexejFroehlich you need to get people on board. You won't have all the answers. – Wander Sep 6 '12 at 14:20
Would you consider the users 'expert'? as in they spend a large amount of time using the tool? – Wander Sep 6 '12 at 14:25
Everyone here is pretty on board with the UX redesign. Everyone here is support. (All the coding is done offshore...) I've been talking with staff to get a sense of what's valuable, but unfortunately numbers are out of my reach. Some users are experts, others very beginner. There are about 15 major personas I've found and about 10 minor ones. – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 15:30

In my primary dayjob such projects are usual. And they are really the mess, and the experience is worth a book :) But I'll try to be short.

At first accept in your mind that huge projects can't be perfect when you are alone warrior strugling. This will save your spirit from depression and months of nightmares with ugly controls and prototypes (I had). But you can make it a lot better.

Then try to get as much information about subject of matter as possible. Read books, ask experts and so on. For some projects it took more than month of immersion. Parallely, try to understand how the application works, sometimes even non-task-based documentation can give info about application tasks. Try to read between lines — why it was implemented? which goals it helps to reach?.

Write every supposition. Try to organize all your thoughts to structure and discuss it with participants. Techsupport usually can tell you a lot — not in direct way (all feedback will require interpretation), but you may get info about user's requests and reclamations.

Usually huge projects suffer in taxonomy, integrity and local (concrete intertfaces) solutions. This is where you can do a lot even without information about priorities and conceptual disadvantages of the system. So recombine, unify all interfaces, make simple solutions, hide all complex and individual solutions. It is possible to make concrete form implementation and navigation model better and simpler.

Also it is very important to make good relations with the team. If they are good enough, you may ask sales (or techsupport) department to send to clients short questionaire with open questions about application.

One important feature of huge professional projects is that they are function-based, not scenario-based. It is normal — MS Word is used by almost all users— and it is not possible to find personas and scenarios for all groups of them. And MS Word is not bad (but not ideal). So most of your attention should be payed to make any task as easy and automative, as possible, and navigation through all functions — as obvious as possible. But it doesn't mean that there are no vital sceanrios — try to search for them and you'll find them. But don't try to describe every – it is unreal.

Pay attention to competitor projects if they exist. If there are no subject matter straight competitors — there always do exist unobvious analogues similar in complexity and approach.

So, in sum, be detective — research unobvious, make suppositions, simplify & unify — and iterate, iterate, iterate.

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Awesome -- thanks for the advice. It's so good to hear that I'm not the only one! – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 17:08
+1 for "One important feature of huge professional projects is that they are function-based, not scenario-based." – Wander Sep 7 '12 at 8:20

Before you start to work on a solution, you need to fully understand the system and truly what the issues are. There will be users with years of experience it would be worth getting their input. I would take some time to immerse yourself in the program. Perhaps get someone to give you some scenarios?

I would recommend you create a survey which a large amount of users can complete easily. Look for patterns in the results. You could do more specific usability testing too. Do a heuristic evaluation of the current system, both from a page level and flow level. Try to establish use cases and types of users. From there I would create some personas and design around these.

You may find you actually have to changes incrementally, by the sounds of it you won't be able to just release a new version that is totally different, it doesn't work like that.

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Thanks -- good call on the survey. I think I'll try that. And yes, It'll probably be an incremental release over the next couple years. – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 15:37

If possible, start with user research. Develop personas, scenarios and other artifacts first. This will help you discover which areas are the highest prioirty.

Take a look at About Face 3 by Cooper et al. (ISBN 0-4700-8411-1) Cooper's Goal Directed design works pretty well to tackle user interaction and design projects.

Also, take a look at "process" on the IxD forums, here on, and on sites like UIE Brain Sparks.

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Agree with the rest of the answers. One benefit you have with redesign is that you have and existing user base you can work with to figure out what user needs are, what they like/hate in the current system. We worked on a big redesign project and started with interviews and observing users using existing system. Observations were extremely useful since it gives you a true picture of how users address a problem. Observation allows you to find opportunities for design improvements and shows you things that would be hard to get from interviews ( e.g. users were copying information from our site and pasted it in another system; we learned that our site should support easy copying). After you do the research you can create a list of task that users need to accomplish using the system. Then you and your team can priorities the list and tackle what you believe will give you the biggest ux wins.

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I totally agree with your answer, but unfortunately I can't access my end users for security reasons... (I made an edit that points this out.) How would you suggest I go about this without actually talking with users? – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 15:44
Do you gather any usage statistics? Are there any logs? That could give you ideas which features are used by users and how often. If you have any tech support employees that worked with the users you may want to talk to them to gain some knowledge. – Anna Rouben Sep 6 '12 at 17:15
Unfortunately, nothing has been logged. I would love some usage data, but nothing is in place to track it... And yes, I'm talking with them now.. – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 17:16

Is it possible to redesign in smaller chunks. Rather than risking everything on one large redesign pick off the a quick win and get some runs on the board.

It is always critical to start getting some runs on the board. If you can start showing some value being returned to the business you may be able to start pushing for extra resources and even the hallowed ground of user testing!

I understand you don't have access to users at present but if you can start showing progress you may be able to soften the ground.

It will be critical to evaluate each chunk being redesigned and weighup it's value in a business sense and a user sense. The only wayto really ascertain user value is by knowing your users.

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Thanks Corbijn, that's basically the approach I've taken. Showing value is important -- I think this is good advice. +1 – Loren Rogers Sep 13 '12 at 13:22
It can be hard being a "team" of one, but always keeping an eye on value can certainly help build support. Good luck! – corbijn Sep 14 '12 at 10:44

How is talking with them a security issue? I can understand not being able to shoulder surf when they're using it with real data, but not being able to talk to/email them is a recipe for disaster. The odds of being able to get requirements good enough that your redesign doesn't end up breaking one or more typical work flows without any communication is near zero.

If it truly is impossible for you to communicate with users I'd strongly advise against making any changes that remove data on forms or navigation routes between them. Make the styling consistent, fix layout problems, add a new navigation system on top of whatever the current ad-hock mess is; but trying to do anything more will end up blowing up in your face eventually.

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Talking with a user is not an ideal way improve UX. Far superior is to watch users. Watching real users (via metrics, video camera, etc.) is unlikely to be permissible in the case of a banking website, even if done in aggregate. – Brian Sep 6 '12 at 18:00
@Brian agree. But it's better than nothing and I can't think of any rational reason why that should be prohibited; while shoulder surfing has legitimate concerns. Some form of communication is absolutely needed and talk/email is the lowest common denominator. – Dan Neely Sep 6 '12 at 18:16
I'm asking the same questions -- this has been the biggest battle so far. It's still early in the process though, and they may loosen up once I've been here a while. Also, this isn't a website -- it's a back end system. – Loren Rogers Sep 6 '12 at 19:14

I guess your only problem is big system and no one to talk to.

  • Create a list of big screens
  • One screen at a time, I would break it down into 3 parts (Information, Input and Interaction). Make small post-it notes. Top left corner screen it came from, Top right corner categorize it as Input/Information/Interaction (or use different color post-it's)
  • I would collect all the Information, Input and Interaction from all the screens.
  • Study the post-it's that I dont understand a bit more

While you do this exercise, you will just understand the entire system. If you get more out of this exercise, then good :). But invest 1 hour atleast on this undisturbed. Drink a lot of water and the more you try to club post-it's together to form your new screen the better. Find different combinations of new screens that you can build.

Since its complex, just focus on understanding the system. Ask questions, discuss, make sure that the person who is answering your questions is being helpful, not taking it personally and crying like a baby :). Talk to 1 person at a time.

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