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Case study: 5 takeaways from redesigning a top tier auto website

A couple of weeks ago, we launched a new Volkswagen website for the US market. Designing the digital storefront for a global brand has come with its own set of challenges.

Volkswagen website home page when it launched in October 2020

As a leading auto company that operates in more than 150 countries, a strong customer experience design is vital and will undoubtedly provide a strong foundation as the brand continues to grow. Given the global operation of the brand with many stakeholders across the world, there will undoubtedly be constraints. One of the most difficult, yet crucial, challenges throughout this customer experience redesign was to ensure we aligned with the global brand while focusing on the US incremental market growth.

Knowing the nature of the project scale, there are some lessons that I learned through the whole development experience. Here are my biggest takeaways from redesigning the Volkswagen website.


1. Universalizing the design for different markets could be a pitfall

As the brand grows globally, it is important to keep the design consistent across all markets. In 2019, VW launched a new brand design and logo. Its new brand design has become a uniform global 360 experience across all channels. I couldn’t agree more that a brand has to have design consistency everywhere across channels. However, given each market has its uniqueness, I realized not all designs would work for a specific market.

During the research phase, we studied the auto industry in the US and its competitors compared to the rest of the world. Simply put, it is essential to immerse in the brand’s global heritage and story, but we need to understand the cultural context for the related market. In the end, we’re designing for the people who have a particular background and culture.

Usability testing helped us to be more empathetic to the people we were designing for. We followed the design guideline and tested the website on some usability study participants. We discovered not all designs that worked in other countries, such as European countries, worked in the US. Some visual translations don’t communicate the cultural convention to meet the users’ needs. This insight gave us the design direction to tweak the design, even it meant to overlook the global design guideline, but still being mindful to ensure we preserved the brand’s global story. After all, people won’t just remember the brand, but the experience.


2. Revolving the design around customers can leverage the whole experience for success

The lack of users' understanding to begin the project frustrated me initially. I didn’t own a car, and it was hard for me to try putting myself in the customers’ shoes. In order to stand for the users, I had to know from their own experiences. Going to the local dealerships and met with the dealers and real customers gave me in-depth knowledge about the customers that I wouldn’t able to get from online research. Reaching to my broader network and asked about their experiences with the brand also gave me valuable insights that I could bring to the table.

I hated when people said the product should accommodate users’ needs but never went down the street to understand the customers’ real experiences. Knowing the real users helped me to boost my confidence in design decision making. I was able to give some artifacts from the user research to defend on which features we were prioritizing and why that should matter. Even though sometimes we had to step back and prioritize the business goals, it’s a designer’s responsibility to convince the stakeholders of the importance of customer experience.

The initial approach of putting the users’ needs on the table led us to improve customer participation throughout the development. We looked at different perspectives to study customer behavior. Data analytics gave us invaluable insights into how people interact with the product on digital channels. Qualitative user research such as usability testing helped us caught essential usability issues that gave us a clearer design direction. One important takeaway we learned was we couldn’t just solicit from the users’ preferences. Rather, we put more attention on the users’ behavior while interacting with the website to lead us the way towards the next iteration of the design process.


3. Striving for simplicity is worth fighting for

Given that the auto industry's nature is always in flux, especially in the US, all the parties who play a part in the business feel the need to have a voice in website development. As all parties have their own importance, we had to bridge their priorities with the users’ needs to ensure the website is not just a collection of the stakeholders’ needs.

It was always easy to add things to the website but never to take it out to reduce it to the essential. It took us several design iterations and months of conversation to bridge the gap between understanding the business goals and users’ needs. Inviting the stakeholders to observe usability testing with the real users was a game-changer. By studying the real users directly, the stakeholders acknowledged what matters to the users, which led to prioritizing what was essentials to put on the website.


4. Stakeholders engagement is essential to narrow down the solution exploration

The nature of designing a product for big companies is that we need to deal with so many stakeholders who own specific parts of the website. Each stakeholder has a different definition of what success is, which means they could be the potential source of risk and opportunity within the project.

“The goal of stakeholder involvement for designers is to create a ‘common understanding’ and reduce the ‘cognitive distance’ during solution exploration.” — (Badke-Schaub et al., 2011)

It is a misconception that only certain roles in the team need to engage with the stakeholders. The relationship with the stakeholders is key to develop trust to speed up the design and development processes. For designers, engaging them in participatory design brings more value in providing the right solutions for the right problems.

I was pretty overwhelmed at the beginning of the project with the design direction we’re going as there were various parties affected by the project. It was challenging to align what the success was in the context of project delivery and the impact for the customers especially when the scale was global. I learned to always start small and grow as the scope of the design exploration expands. Scale down the stakeholder mapping to the key decision-makers including both internal or external players (clients) and include them in the early stage as possible in the design decisions to narrow down the solution exploration.


5. Transparency is the key to win customers

A good design is not just a simple design that takes the less cognitive load for the users, but the one that can inform them as clearly as possible. As people may know, VW ran into an emissions scandal in 2015 which put them in a great loss. Even after so many years of organization restructuring, strategy redevelopment, and product rebranding, it’s still challenging to win the customers back.

As we redesigning the new website, we had to be very careful to put people-first in design. We had to be mindful of every single piece of information we put on the website. To present the right information, it required expertise from a wide range of disciplines across stakeholders. I learned that successful information design is a collaborative effort of designers, copywriters, developers, product specialists, and the legal team.

The most challenging part was to accommodate the information details and present them in a way that is not overwhelming to the users. We had to bridge what the legal team provided and how could we leverage the user experience. There were so many things to compromise. As much as we wanted to keep the design simple and clean by reducing the amount of information shown on a page, I learned that sometimes we as designers had to let go of our idealism and prioritize what matters more for the business establishment.


Redesigning websites could be challenging, especially if the scale is big. What I learned the most from redesigning the VW website was to strategize how the website could be useful for the customers and also beneficial for a specific market that helps the global brand growth. By revolving the customers and stakeholders in the design process, we can undertake the right solutions for the right problems.


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