Can we avoid redesign backlash?

Users hate redesigns, or so we’re told. To be fair, the evidence does seem to support the argument: the last year or so has given us some clear examples of user backlash.

  • Facebook: Right now, the largest anti-redesign group has 1,656,258 members. I’m with them in spirit: I think the Facebook redesign is weak, although it happens to suit my particular needs well (i.e. a lifestreaming service for non-geeks).
  • A site I dearly love, but whose redesign did little to address its IA problems, while introducing a gap-toothed NME-meets-Facebook visual direction that does it few favours. I wasn’t alone in my disappointment; there were quickly over 2,000 comments (warning: link may choke up your browser), often wildly negative.
  • News sites: The, and the BBC also transformed themselves within the last year, with ‘robust’ opinion voiced on each. News sites also have to handle the added complexity of politics: even if the Beeb were to find a cure for cancer, there would still be someone complaining it’s a waste of his licence fee.

All of these redesigns followed the familiar backlash pattern. To begin, post on your blog that you’re rolling out the redesign, and explain your rationale. Bonus points for words such as “widgets” and “personalised”. Having lit the touch paper, retire to a safe distance as the Kübler-Ross hatefest commences:

  • Denial: “Why on earth did you change it?”, “The site was fine the way it was”
  • Anger: “My twelve-year-old could have done better!”, “F—- you, I’ll never use this site again”
  • Bargaining: “At least give us the option to use the old version…”
  • Depression: “I used to love this site. Now I can’t bring myself to use it.”, “I miss [feature X] :(”
  • Acceptance: “Actually, I’ve been using it for two weeks now and…”

The accepted wisdom on the cause of this backlash is that users learn how to navigate the site and achieve their goals, only for these strategies to prove useless in a redesign. Something akin to the way we learn the layout of a supermarket and optimise our routes accordingly.

I don’t buy this argument. Navigation may have a minor impact but users are notoriously good at satisficing—finding a good enough option—in unfamiliar waters. Instead, I think the reaction has a psychological basis. A favourite site has an emotional connection for us: we like it, it likes us, and we can depend each other. We fear the disruption of that equilibrium: a redesign raises the question of whether the site will grow in a direction we don’t want to follow. As Hugh MacLeod says in How To Be Creative:

Your friends may love you, but they don’t want you to change. If you change, then their dynamic with you also changes. They like things the way they are, that’s how they love you – the way you are, not the way you may become.

Ergo, they have no incentive to see you change. And they will be resistant to anything that catalyzes it.

So, following from my earlier post, why has the New Xbox Experience (NXE) been so successful where other major redesigns have failed? Remember that this is Microsoft, a company not afforded the grace period that, say, Apple or Nintendo are.

My first thought is that the NXE is another good example of the MAYA principle in action. In particular, the quick interface, a cutdown version of the dashboard launched from within games, is structurally very similar to the old UI. I don’t know much about the NXE’s design process (although if anyone has any links I’d love to read them), but certainly it’s easy to imagine usability tests showing this was a welcomed feature.

The new UI also didn’t push boundaries particularly far, since in some areas it was simply catching up. The real value came not in the interface but in service innovation, incorporating new and desirable functionality (Netflix, HD installation) as a key part of the new design.

Compare this with Facebook’s lurch towards lifestreaming, which is at odds with the popular model of the site and therefore unlikely to appeal to many users. The public’s opinion seems to be that Facebook is a place to get in touch with people, rather than see what they’re up to. It could be argued that as friendship saturation reaches 100% (i.e. you have no friends left to add), lifestreaming becomes more useful. So perhaps Facebook are ahead of the anticipated user curve, but I doubt the 1,656,258 care.

We must also consider the fundamental question of whether a major redesign is wise idea in the first place. Jared Spool, for instance, argued long ago that big relaunches are dead. To a large extent I agree, and there are usually alternatives; for example, the classic eBay redesign story, which I assumed to be apocryphal but have been assured by insiders is true.

In a nutshell, a meaningless background was removed from a seller page. Pandemonium. After strong resistance the background was reinstated, to everyone’s satisfaction. In fact, the rebellious users were so placated that they failed to notice the designers slowly adjusting the background’s hex values over the next few months. The background got lighter and lighter until one day—pop!—it was gone.

To return to my initial question, I think it’s a brave and lucky company that can find a way to redesign without creating unrest amongst a large userbase. Your best strategy is to sweeten the deal with desirable functionality and an interface that matches users’ current mental models; if you don’t have those, batten down those hatches and prepare yourself for retaliation.

Cennydd Bowles