This analysis was originally undertaken as part of my role as Creative Tech Lead at NewsNow, to inform our own redesign process as part of the New Format. It has since been updated to stand independently from that work.
Reddit is what is known as a “Social News Aggregator”. It combines the features of a social network with those of a news aggregator, to create a user generated, self-governed array of “communities” (otherwise known as “subreddits”). These communities are entirely moderated by volunteers, and serve as independent, topical pockets of the internet, for everything from memes, to politics, to the most niche, specialist subjects.
Posts are sorted via “votes”, which allow redditors (users of Reddit) to collectively determine which posts rise to the top of any given community, based on their vote score. This system results in a kind of emergent aggregation, where individual redditors contribute to a larger system via small interactions, resulting in a colony-like behaviour that functions in a similar fashion to a software content aggregator, though more chaotic in nature.
Reddit was founded in 2005, by Steve Huffman, Alexis Ohanian and Aaron Swartz, backed by startup incubator Y Combinator, and subsequently bought in 2006 by Conde Nast Publications. In 2009, Huffman and Ohanian both left to pursue other projects, and in the following five years, reddit grew its user base dramatically, became independent from Conde Nast, operating as a separate subsidiary of its parent company Advance Publications, introduced sponsored content, and eventually raised $50 million in funding and spun off as an independent company.
In late 2014 and early 2015, Ohanian and Huffman re-joined as Executive Chairman and CEO, respectively. In 2017, Reddit raised $200 million in Series C funding to support a major redesign of the site and a new native video project.
Why Redesign Reddit?
After Huffman and Ohanian left Reddit in 2009, no significant design work was undertaken before their return in 2014-2015. As a result, the design was dated and lacking in current, contextual design language that would make the site appealing for new users. This was bad for Reddit is a brand, bad for overall usability (the website was not adherent to modern best practices for usability and accessibility), and bad for any prospect of growing the userbase. In addition to this, the design did not cater well to mobile, and even senior leadership members referred to it as “dystopian Craigslist”. Additionally, Reddit claimed to be having trouble developing new features due to technical debt and an aged code base of 12 years.
Aside from these obvious cases for the redesign, it would be naive to assume there was not a high level of pressure from investors to more effectively monetise the platform. This would mean imbuing the new design with programmatic and native advertising, as well as looking for new ways to monetise the extensive user data available. I believe this factor is resposible for a lot of the turbulence Reddit saw during this process.
How to Redesign “The Front Page of the Internet”
Build out a team of 70 to focus solely on the redesign, including a new director, 20 designers and 2 UX researchers, and of course, a whole lot of developer resource
Visualise metrics for success, based on motivations for the redesign, within the context of the current website (these were not made public, though it is widely believed that these metrics would have been related to advertising revenue alongside userbase growth)
Build on top of legacy rather than creating something entirely new, as this would be unfamiliar to users
Start with a clearly defined perspective, but be ready to adapt and be open to the needs of your users
Conduct user research, covering:
- New user stories (“I don’t know what I’m looking at”)
- Power user stories (“Why are you killing Reddit?”)
- Hundreds of hours of video and interviews
Build a new mobile app and use it as an opportunity to test a new look and feel
Scope out a modernised web stack
Develop multiple design concepts, spanning a range of styles
Develop a new brand identity
Test the new design concepts internally and externally, with users and non-users
Gather qualitative feedback from as many sources as possible
Decide on an overall direction for the stack, brand, and design
Develop the basic foundations first: Information hierarchy, typography, UI components - this enables easy re-structuring of layouts and components in response to research or feedback
Create a prototype of the new site, to about 30-40% functionality, to test development approaches and gather user feedback
Conduct further interviews and prototype tests to get user impressions of the new design
Rebuild or amend the prototype based on the above, as needed
- Server: NGINX
- Databases: PostgreSQL, Redis
- Server-side framework: Node.js
- Front end: React and Typescript
New analytics stack, alongside new dashboarding system to visualize metrics and inform product and design:
Reddit’s redesign ethos was one of preservation as much as progression. Care was taken to identify existing user journeys and preserve those use cases through to the new website. Design language was borrowed from modern, social web apps such as Facebook and Twitter, to maximise familiarity for new users, but this design language was also woven into the existing format, ensuring a relatively seamless experience for anyone who already understood how reddit worked.
“Reddit is a personal experience. How people spend their time on the site and within its communities is very different from one user to the next. The kind of community you’re browsing, your role within it, your physical location, and even the device that you’re browsing from can heavily influence your experience and needs. Whether we’re talking about moderators, new users, “lurkers” or even the uninitiated, a user’s experience on Reddit is completely dependent upon context. That said, context was a really important consideration as we built the guiding principles for the redesign. We wanted to build a site that was approachable, inclusive, personal and human. To do that required building choice and customisation into the product.”
Diego Perez, Reddit’s Head of Design
With this in mind, there were still some dramatic changes to the overall structure of the site, such as:
Merging of fragmented menu systems (horizontal and vertical) into a single, unified navigation - this initially took the form of a hamburger menu, and was later iterated into a cohesive header menu with a dropdown menu for navigation
Introduction of “views”, allowing users to customise their experience via three distinct layouts: Card, Classic, and Compact. This was designed to provide a tailored experience for users with different needs:
- Card view: Inspired by current best practices and familiar design patterns, borrowing cues from popular social networks
- Classic view: Inspired by the original reddit layout and design language, to maintain familiarity
- Compact view: For users who want to scroll through lots of content quickly, with extra-high density
Posts opening within a lightbox window, to keep users in the experience and encourage discussion
Reddit’s rollout process was deliberately slow-paced and gradual, interspersed with regular iterations based on feedback from selected users during alpha and beta stages.
Reddit also leveraged its enormous userbase via the Redesign community. By creating a dedicated community for the redesign, and posting regular updates, they offered users a sense of transparency regarding the redesign, and an opportunity to feed back on their progress. This also benefited Reddit, as it created an opportunity to gather immediate, qualitative feedback with every update, and to engage in direct discussion with their users at their convenience.
The rollout process began in July 2017, with a select few alpha testers, and completed in May 2018. It’s important to note that while the rollout is officially complete, Reddit’s new design has still not reached feature parity with the old Reddit. While this does not affect regular users as much as it affects moderators and admins, certain site features, such as subreddit analytics reporting, are still not available from within the redesign, and to date, Reddit has not offered users any concrete information on when feature parity might be reached.
Reddit also made the decision to retain the entire old design, under the old.reddit.com subdomain, to appease power users, resistant to the new design, and as a fallback for features that were not present in the redesign. Since the underlying architecture and data structures were not changed, it was feasible to do this, though it may be representative of some technical debt.
Reddit’s redesign has suffered incredible scrutiny from its users, many of whom have threatened to leave the site altogether if Reddit ceases to support the old version of the site (old.reddit.com). Using Reddit’s own algorithms to sort the posts within /r/Redesign to see the all-time, top posts, the top five resulting posts are the following:
- “I made an extension that forces reddit to load the old design”
- “This is ridiculous. Please, for the love of God, get rid of the redesign.”
- “Despite everyone saying the redesign is perfect, please align these before we all go insane.” - (Tongue in cheek post from the CEO)
- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
- “The loss of purple links SUCKS. I extensively rely on them to keep track of news that I’ve read vs not read…”
It is evident within the above linked posts that many users were unhappy with various aspects of the redesign. However, it can be quite difficult to differentiate between substantial feedback and unsubstantial, subjective outrage, masked as feedback. During the rollout period, regular users would frequently see negative posts about the redesign reaching the front page of reddit. Some common complaints included:
- Inline native ads are deceptive, as they look too similar to legitimate user posts
- Features missing/moved
- Too much white space on either side of the content (not applicable to classic or compact views)
- Lack of transparency from Reddit throughout the redesign rollout
In addition to this, many community moderators, especially those in charge of discussion based communities, felt that t*he redesign negatively impacted their communities*.
“The pop-up/overlay approach to opening posts feels more like a ‘preview’, as if we aren’t really supposed to spend too long in the comments.”
Kal Turnbull, creator of /r/ChangeMyView
Sport communities were among those who were worst affected by the redesign. Due to their very specific use cases, they had relied heavily on their previous ability to style their communities with custom CSS (a feature of the old reddit), and had made extensive use of the old site’s “flair” system, which was simplified in the redesign, to introduce complex methods of flagging different users and posts as a means to categorise content and verify celebrity posters, for example.
To attempt to measure the success of Reddit’s redesign, I have located some basic metrics:
The above statistics display overall page views throughout the last year from SimilarWeb, alongside distributed uniques and page views for the /r/BestOf, /r/Atheism and /r/CasualConversation communities, supplied to me by a moderator for those communities. It is worth noting that the community-specific graphs were supplied to me on the 18th of April 2019, and thus the numbers for April are incomplete, and that the redesign went completely public on the 2nd of April 2018, so we can be sure that as of that date, all users would be shown the redesign by default. It is also worth noting that the official Reddit app is consistent with the redesign in terms of look and feel, and so users of “Reddit Apps”, as referenced in the community-specific metrics, are at least also users of something that shares the same overall design language as the Reddit website redesign.
None of the above metrics display an overall negative impact on page views or unique visitors, during the last year. In fact, most of them would suggest overall growth, and therefore indicate that the redesign has been successful in terms of retaining users, and possibly in attracting new users. The community-specific metrics suggest an extremely steep increase in users as of October 2018, though I haven’t been able to identify the cause of this, and I have been supplied some similar metrics for smaller communities, that are not consistent with this, suggesting that these fluctuations are at least partly related to the context of the communities themselves, and not indicative of the site as a whole:
The judicious and vigilant approach through which Reddit undertook its redesign has proved effective, despite the user backlash. One only has to look at the “Digg Exodus” to understand the implications of a truly bad redesign: Digg not only failed to listen to its users; it failed to ask them in the first place, and redesigned the entire platform without adequate research or consideration for its users, resulting in a mass migration of users from Digg to Reddit. I have no doubt that Reddit benefitted from Digg v4 not only by welcoming its ex-users, but also by way of a lesson in how not to redesign a website, especially one with a tightly integrated and opinionated userbase.
By understanding the workings of Reddit’s redesign process, and looking at the outcomes, there are a number of lessons to be learned from both their successes and their failures:
The user backlash to Reddit’s redesign was somewhat predictable, and it is clear that Reddit did everything they could to mitigate its severity, from the carefully constructed rollout procedure, to the community engagement through /r/Redesign, and the admin activity in relevant discussions. Despite this, there was still an extremely large, vocal segment of users who deeply opposed the redesign. What's worse is that these were among the most dedicated users of the site.
Reddit has been criticised for a lack of transparency during the redesign process, which I believe is more in reference to their motivations for the redesign than the actual process by which it was undertaken, as the latter was very well documented. Reddit has been scaling up its position as an ad publisher, largely facilitated by the redesign and the introduction of native ad formats, and has neglected to address this fact publicly, in the context of the redesign. This has spawned an element of mistrust amongst users. Total transparency regarding business decisions, as well as the inner workings of a complex process such as a large scale redesign, is unfeasible if not impossible, but transparency regarding top-line motivations would have done a lot to build trust with users.
We should ask why Reddit has been so shrewd in regards to this point. The fact that the platform survives in part thanks to volunteer moderators definitely raises questions about monetisation and fair compensation for moderators. Further, I think there is a disconnect between how Reddit is seen by its users, and how it is seen by management.
Had Reddit taken some more time to understand the niche use cases of its userbase, certain decisions made during the redesign process would have likely taken different forms. For example, the decision to strip back the flair functionality, used so extensively by sport communities that it had become a core feature for them, would have not been made in light of the fact that it would be insufficient. The same goes for limiting customisation options for moderators, which have since had to be expanded.
The reality is that what may have seemed like an "edge case" when looking at the entire platform, in fact is a consistent use case spanning an entire segment of communities.
A little extra vigilance during the research phase, focusing on existing edge cases and understanding user motivations, would have made for a smoother launch.
Given the aforementioned disconnect between Reddit and its users, I have to wonder whether Reddit's management is a little out of touch. If they were more willing to find a middle-ground between their financial ambitions and the needs of their loyal user base, who actually moderate their platform for free, they may have fared better.
The Redesign community (AKA /r/Redesign) allowed the Reddit team to engage directly with users, for immediate, qualitative feedback on releases and concepts.
This is very much a double edged sword - it was bold of Reddit to allow users to post in the Redesign community, and to enable full discussion features there, as this opened up the community as a platform for the bad as well as the good. It strikes me that the benefit of this far outweighed the cost, only because the Reddit team were actually prepared to invest in this as a resource, by reading, understanding, and responding to the opinions of the users within the community. Unfortunately, this did little to address many users' more fundamental issues with Reddit's practices as a business.
A large proportion of negative user feedback stemmed from the fact that certain features were missing from the redesign at launch. I believe this was a mistake on Reddit’s part - by rolling out an incomplete redesign, they knowingly served users a watered-down experience. This decision is one that fundamentally broke the user experience, causing users with learned behaviours and expectations of functionality to feel short-changed. Feature parity should have been a priority for public rollout.
To this day, old.reddit.com is still live, almost as a public artifact of their technical debt.
Despite the oversights along the way, Reddit acted quickly to respond to those critiques that had substance, and they have continued to iterate and improve on the redesign accordingly. For example, the sport communities that were fundamentally affected by the redesign have had their grievances heard and rectified. This effort to engage with their community and understand their perspectives, epitomises the empathetic and user-centred approach with which contemporary digital product design should be undertaken.