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Reskin or Rebuild?

Posted @ 10:55 am by Alex Kaplinsky | Category: Strategy, Web Development Process | 0 Comments

Often times, clients will come to us with new designs and antiquated technologies. This is typically the case where a web site has a lot of functionality and performs a workflow or is a rich Internet application. The question becomes whether to rebuild the entire site from the ground up or reskin the site. The factors that determine which should be utilized include 1) how broken the old system is and 2) how many new features need to be added.

The more broken things are and the more new features, the more it makes sense to go to a “big bang” and rebuild the entire site with a new infrastructure and the new look and feel at the same time. However, if there are less issues with the existing technology in the short term and less new features (or new features can be delayed), it’s a good idea to reskin the site first, gain insight into the system, and then rebuild the back end.

Reskinning of the site is an approach where the front end code (HTML/CSS/JS/Flash/Flex and perhaps presentation layer code) is updated to match the new look and feel. The back end platform, data structure, systems architecture, and third party systems interactions are not changed. Generally the HTML gets an update (web standards based HTML, cleanup of look and feel, cleanup of inline styles, etc.) as the new look and feel is implemented, but by reskinning, the core of the system isn’t changed. The advantage to this is that it allows for rapid change without the full cost of a rebuild. The final factor of my preference for reskinning is that it exposes all the aspects of a site that will need to be rebuilt and lets the developers become more familiar with the code. This often obviates the need for long feasibility studies and code reviews that are required as part of rebuilds.

Rebuilding includes reskinning, but also looking at the architecture. This approach is riskier and involves more work as it will involve the fundamental architecture of the site as well as the display logic. It is typically done when the back end of the system is so broken that a reskin is not possible, or more features need to be added than are possible to add to the current architecture, or that will involve such a large rebuild that most of the code will be re-written anyway. Rebuilds should be done periodically (every 3-5 years typically) as technologies and best practices change or when major new features get introduced. If rebuilds are done after a reskin, they often take less time and are less risky as all the front end changes have been made, new interfaces introduced, and everyone is on the same page.

In short: the less moving parts, the better. If the reskin can be achieved first, do it and see the results. The rebuild will then be more cost efficient and will have less risk.

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