Huffman had jokingly lamented that Reddit's longstanding design and antiquated interface were off-putting to new users. In a comment on Reddit he said that newbies would come to Reddit after hearing good things, but would be greeted by a "dystopian Craigslist." It had a counterintuitive design, and learning how to navigate it required negotiating a steep learning curve. Still, commenters were prickly. One wrote: "I like dystopian. The feel of the site is part of its charm."
Redesigning a website is a process already fraught with challenges; on the social web, where businesses are entirely dependent on the loyalty of fickle users, it's even more difficult. Consider when Snapchat foisted a sudden redesign on users in February to broaden its appeal. Its loyal young fans backlashed, claiming they'd move over to Instagram. More than 1.2 million people signed a Change.org petition to revert to the old design.
An aversion to change is, in many ways, characteristically Reddit. Its power users and moderators are both vocal and staunch in their belief that the best version of Reddit is the product they know--the one hand-built by Huffman and launched in 2005 as a "minimum viable product," which has gone largely unchanged, aesthetically speaking, since 2008. From its very early days, Reddit used a default sans-serif browser font that rendered as Verdana on most browsers. Its content was comprised largely of unsightly blue hotlinks cascading down a long page of text. It's very Web 2.0, and to loyal users--some of the 330 million who visit Reddit every month--this retro feel was part of the site's charm.
The redesign of the site that once billed itself as "the front page of the Internet," has been nearly a year and a half in the making. Huffman hinted at a complete desktop site rewrite in a post back on January 25, 2017. Even then, at the first suggestion of a comping change, commenters jumped on him, begging, "please do not fix what is not broken," and "I'm sure you expect to lose a segment of your users making such a change." Also: "Please, please, please don't f--- Reddit up..."
Redditors, being both persnickety and having demonstrated their capacity for mass-mutiny, have not been underestimated by Huffman and his 20-person design team. The tastes and quirks and "spirit" of Reddit and Redditors have been a matter of intense, long-running discussion that has touched every department of the company, and have greatly influenced design choices, which were finally unveiled this week.
Reddit's strategy for redesign has been a long game, begun in 2017. The company's engineers were already embarking upon rewriting the site's framework when the design and product teams began communicating with groups of users and moderators--those who run sections of Reddit--about what they wanted from a visually-refreshed Reddit. Over the following year, tools for moderators and small design updates were tested with core groups of moderators. Certain subreddits began to adopt lighter, more modern, and mostly customizable designs--such as r/Overwatch, the video game subreddit with more than 1 million subscribers.
After the site rewrite was complete, the design team was ready to show off the product of more than a year of sketching, designing, focus-grouping and in-office testing. They released an alpha version to a small group of users in early 2018. The product and design teams collected feedback for months, both in private and on a Reddit community they created called r/redesign.
"These early design tests were a conduit to have a conversation about needs and use cases that we weren't yet addressing well," Reddit's head of design, Diego Perez, said in an email. "It helped get users on board with sharing feedback and ideas, and proving to them that function for them comes before form to some extent."
This past Monday, Reddit unveiled its newest design: a "card view"--that is, a site on which every user-posted link, and any accompanying image or video, is boxed in its own "card." (Think Pinterest; such a design is handy for keeping bits of information isolated from one another.) It was everything a certain stripe of Redditor might despise: Visually appealing, clean, bright, and image-heavy. In the redesign, links are no longer blue, nor Verdana. There are right and left navigation tools and rails. Gone is the toothpick-thin former top-of-site navigation to "default" subreddits, such as r/worldnews or r/mildlyinteresting.
It looks a lot like Reddit's mobile app. It also looks a little like Facebook. (Just a little. Although one of Reddit's designers admitted similarities, Huffman would likely resent the comparison. When I asked him in March to describe what the redesigned website was going to look like he sarcastically made fun of the very notion: "Oh, it's going to look just like Facebook!")
Users were not livid. There was no rebellion or Change.org petition--for a couple reasons. First, only one percent of Redditors have actually been given the option to use the new design. Second: The redesign isn't one--it's three. In addition to the "card view," Reddit also gave users two more ways to view the site. There's also "classic view," which is similar to a list-of-links Reddit, but in an updated-for-this-decade style. There's another bone thrown to the nerds, too: "compact view," which might be a designer's nightmare, but which was created to allow Reddit moderators to rapidly scroll through content. "There's a class of our users who just want more content above the fold," Huffman told me on stage in Austin at South by Southwest last month.
Redditors need not choose one of these options; they can toggle through views of the site. "There are a number of escape hatches. We are not going to shut off the old site," Huffman insisted. He said there would, for programmers and night owls, be a dark-themed night-mode any user could switch on.
It wasn't just function and overall form considered by the design team, led by Perez, a former designer at Microsoft. It wasn't until that team was months into their attempts to re-render various subreddit pages that they realized certain standards of web design they'd been taught would just not fly on Reddit.
"One of the design reviews, I told the team, this is too clean," Huffman said. He envisioned a redesigned Reddit to still be rough around the edges--to still have a bit of clutter, and contain a lot of information. "I just envisioned, like, take a chisel to this and distress it a little bit!" He wanted it to be classy--but not perfect.
"There is a charm," Huffman told me. "I want Reddit to feel handmade."
The redesign does have certain charming quirks, such as a tiny icon of a hamburger at the upper left instead of a classic drop-down, known as a "hamburger menu." It may charm Redditors in the end.
If it doesn't, at least they can use the ultimate escape hatch. Once the redesign is fully introduced to the world, Huffman said there will still be a way out for those resisting change. An individual user will be able to switch the redesigned view completely off. "If you really like 'legacy Reddit,'" Huffman reassures, "it's not going anywhere."