At this year’s IA Summit, Joe Sokohl gave a talk titled The Digital Place You Love is Gone, which touched on the loss people feel when a digital space they know well changes. People don’t like change in the digital realm any more than they like it in the “real” world. Such change can make users feel stupid, anxious, or even angry. When the Q&A website Answerbag changed its design in 2009, some of its old functionality failed and existing threads were deleted by mistake. The loss was keenly felt by long-time users, as seen below. Site activity decreased significantly, and some users departed for similar sites.
Clearly, users will not stand for this kind of change if they have other options. It is therefore important to prevent or compensate for negative feelings when changing a site’s design. A few examples of best practice are outlined below.
Test for the best
In usability testing, a lot of focus is placed on identifying trouble spots. This is understandable, but it is just as important to find out what is working well. In an evaluation of Netflix’s redesigned website, one user specifically mentioned his pleasure at finding that he was still able to filter results by subgenre. Christina Wodtke quoted John Gournville to point out that because “losses have a far greater impact on people than similarly sized gains”, users consider the loss of their familiar and comfortable site significantly more important than any advantages the redesign provides. Therefore, if you remove features beloved by users, they are unlikely to stick around long enough to see any of your improvements.
Communicate with users
Communicating with users before, during and after a redesign is essential. Using the website itself as well as all available social media channels to let users know what you’re doing and why will decrease the number of users who receive a huge shock the first day they visit the revised site. This announcement from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is a terrific explanation of the redesign of the Physician Compare website because it:
- Explains the reasoning and goals behind the redesign (so that users don’t feel the changes were arbitrary)
- Describes the enhancements offered by the new design
- Offers a means of providing feedback
Make the smallest changes required for the biggest improvements
If possible, it’s best to redesign in phases, and allow users to gradually adjust to changes. Sites like Amazon have had great success in making subtle changes over an extended time period. Along the same lines, Louis Rosenfeld argues that tuning is better than redesigning. He justifies his point by referring to the the Zipf curve below (illustration by Eva-Lotta) a construct that shows how a very small number of frequently searched queries make up a large amount of search traffic. The same holds true for content – most users are looking for only a small percentage of what a website offers. Rosenfeld states that once you have identified the most critical information needs (the dragon’s head), you can make tweaks that are small, but have enormous impact.
Give users a way back
A redesigned site tells users that they are not in control. Something that they have used, perhaps daily, has changed without their consent and where they were formerly experts they are now novices again. When Google redesigned its inbox in 2011, users were initially able to opt in to the new layout. If they decided to revert to the old version, they were asked for feedback as to why, along with a gentle reminder that the new version would soon be the norm. This method gave users back some feeling of control by allowing them to opt in rather than have the new look forced upon them. They were given the option of adjusting in their own time, and the request for feedback let users know that their opinions were important.
At the heart of all of these techniques is the need to always involve, consider and reassure users, rather than blaming them for disliking change. As Ryan Freitas aptly put it, “The moment you succumb to the notion that “users just hate change,” you’ve ceased designing for your audience.”