Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet,” but for most of its 13 years, the site resembled the back page of the classified ads. Reddit is home to hundreds of thousands of unique communities, and for that 13-year period, they all had one thing in common: a sea of text interrupted by an occasional photo no bigger than a postage stamp.
If you’re one of Reddit’s 330 million monthly active users, you’ve certainly noticed dozens of small-but-critical design tweaks to the website that bring Reddit into the 21st century. Even if you’re not on a first-name basis with Reddit’s mascot, Snoo, you’ve probably stumbled upon the site thanks to a Google search or one of its popular “Ask Me Anything” interviews with the likes of Bill Gates, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Jane Goodall.
Either way, if pressed to describe the site’s previous aesthetic in flattering terms, you’d probably reach for words like “utilitarian” or “old school.”
“Redesigns aren’t easy. Most people hate change, and many of those people love spewing that hatred in clever posts on social media outlets.”
The big questions: Why a redesign?
“Reddit just wasn’t welcoming,” says Benjamin Rush, Senior UX Design Manager and one of the project leads. “A lot of people love the platform and, for better or worse, some of that appreciation comes out of the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to figure out how it works, over the course of years. But we found that the majority of new users have no idea what Reddit is—they think it’s Craigslist or that it’s full of spam or links to viruses; the design was so dated it didn’t come across as an acceptable place to engage with other people.
We think Reddit has the best conversations on the internet, and we wanted to make it welcoming to everyone, not just more experienced users.”
As Reddit expanded from a website to an iOS app and then an Android app (all with slightly different configurations), Rush and his colleagues also recognized the need to unify the experience for consistency across platforms.
But redesigns aren’t easy. Most people hate change, and many of those people love spewing that hatred in clever posts on social media outlets. Those inherent challenges are ratcheted up with an audience as passionate and outspoken as Reddit users, not to mention the thousands of Redditors who host and moderate every unique community.
For the design team, that led to three directives: Proceed slowly, engage the community, and embrace flexibility.
Keep the community involved
“Reddit isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience,” says Rush. “We wanted to give users choice around how they browse, how they consume, and how they create. Whether you want to open a post in a lightbox or a new tab; whether you want to see a few big, visual cards, or 14 posts on your viewport at once; or even if you want to keep experiencing Old Reddit—we needed a system that was flexible enough to allow the creativity we saw in the last decade still flourish in the new world we were creating.”
IMAGE: Two women from Reddit working on a laptop
To do that, the design team researched plugins that users had built themselves, revisited compact formats like i.reddit, and recognized the fact that too many of the site’s customization features require advanced coding skills that many users don’t possess.
Based on this, designers standardized and simplified processes, programmed new viewing options to replace third-party solutions and made sure Redditors had access to design tools to help shape their own communities.
Although experienced users knew how to find treasures buried deep in a subreddit, newbies were often stymied by the process, so the design team introduced more intuitive search options, too.
“Our approach to the redesign was unique compared to so many other redesigns that break the internet,” says Clara Zavani, Senior UX Design Manager. “We set up communities like r/redesign to share what we were thinking and to give people a chance to talk to us. All of the designers did—and still do—reply to comments and threads, so there’s a constant flow of open communication, which helps users feel extremely involved in the process.”
Decorations at the Reddit office
In December 2016, Reddit began writing code for the redesign. Over the course of about 18 months, Reddit’s engineering, product, design, community and research teams collaborated on the biggest project in the company’s history. The first changes began rolling out to a small number of alpha testers in July 2017, with updates and new features released gradually over the course of the next year. Redesigned mobile apps were launched in December 2017, teasing key aspects of the broader redesign, which was fully completed in May 2018.
Users can now choose from three standardized layouts, including Card (with an emphasis on media content), Classic (an updated version of the original look), and Compact (nothing but text for quick scrolling).
And if they don’t like any of those options, they can access Old Reddit from a prominent link in the top right corner of the page—an option that Rush and Zavani considered critical.
“When you build a ten-year relationship with a product and build a workflow that you understand, there’s a nostalgia and an attachment to how you feel about that product,” says Rush. “We don’t want to take away that feeling, so I don’t foresee a date in the near future when we’ll deprecate Old Reddit.”
Reddit teammates creating the next big internet conversation
Reddit’s design team is tracking usage patterns, but in recognition of users’ fierce independence, nothing’s being forced on anyone. That transparent approach, which frames Reddit’s designers more as humble servants than creative geniuses, could have left them responding to hundreds of divergent opinions, but Reddit’s system of commenting and up-voting made for a surprisingly smooth process: Design concepts that generated early negative reviews were often ultimately recognized for their strengths, as users argued in their favor.
Over time, consensus helped guide design decisions—not by dictating the placement of every pixel, but by supporting the flexible systems that Rush and Zavani had favored from the beginning.
“The fact that we are the users makes us very different from designers working on other re-redesign projects,” says Zavani. Case in point: One of Zavani’s design colleagues moderates the community Onion Hate, “the largest onion-hate community on Reddit,” where 12,000 members detail the horrors of raw onions as hot dog garnish and families torn apart by parents who fry “industrial batches of onions.”
Zavani laughs when explaining the community’s focus, but insists that the moderation team’s fury makes them incredibly empathetic to Reddit users and fellow moderators. (So perhaps they’ll admit onions are good for something?)
Like many platforms, Reddit has been accused of doing too little to ensure civil conversation, but Rush and Zavani believe Reddit’s pseudonymity actually helps users forge deeper, more authentic connections.
“Redditors create the design aesthetic for their own communities.”
The Reddit team is always working on helping users have better conversations
“A lot of people come to Reddit because they truly care about something,” says Zavani. “Whether it’s to talk about Fortnite or Game of Thrones, or more serious topics like suicide prevention or debilitating acne—they all come to Reddit in search of genuine help. I visit a lot of women-driven communities, and it’s mind-blowing to see how much support exists in those communities because you are pseudonymous and you can expose your true self without the fear that your friends are watching.”
And that appreciation for authenticity comes through in the redesign process, which will always be a work in progress.
“We could’ve taken the approach of the designer as a magician—‘Ta-da! Here it is!’” says Zavani. “But we’ve seen other site re-designs that are so extravagant or so far from reality that they never actually become a reality. At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that people use Reddit the way they’ve always used Reddit, because it’s a magical, weird, and wonderful place.”
Redditors create the design aesthetic for their own communities: “We’ve built the canvas; they’re the painters,” says Zavani. You can see those differences in the ways that Redditors from Ask a Historian, Casual Conversations, and Science have crafted their pages.
Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, CO, with a focus on do-gooders, graphic design, and the great outdoors. His editorial work has appeared in 99U, Communication Arts, HOW, and Modern in Denver.