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
New Xbox Experience

Yesterday the ‘New Xbox Experience’ (NXE) upgrade was finally rolled out to all Xbox Live users. The old system (created by AKQA and known as the “blades”) was more dated than bad, but the market has shifted during its five-year lifespan. Online is now the default platform for many, casual gaming is the new black, and the previously masculine bias of the games industry has softened substantially in recent years. The NXE is an attempt to catch up, so the changes aren’t huge, but it’s interesting to see how they affect the overall console experience.

The avatar

Yes, that’s me. We can see the avatar as the natural extension of the Xbox gamertag, created back in 2003. Personification is the trend: game companies are keen to give players flexibility to define an identity for themselves online. Certainly a name alone no longer cuts it. It’s worth remembering that Xbox Live controversially remains a chargeable service, so there is a clear impetus to at least equalise with competitor online services, the Wii being the obvious parallel.

Rare, the avatar designers, say they were keen to find the balance between toylike and overly realistic (there’s that uncanny valley again), but I think the result is bland: approachable, but far too close to Nintendo’s territory and too limiting to create anything with real character.

However, the new avatars do have a couple of interesting features. A friend’s status is now reflected by their avatar’s pose (eg. asleep = offline) and apparently avatars will be embedded in small games in future. Microsoft have, in essence, created a hook around which gaming experiences can hang, which is a smart move.


There are some minor functional changes, probably the most significant of which is that you can now install games to the hard drive and run them from that. Not only is this long overdue, given that it’s been standard practice on PCs for 20+ years, but it also tackles one of the 360’s major flaws: its extremely noisy DVD drive. It also allows for faster switching between games, which will suit those players who like to throw tantrums when they start losing.

There’s also the new ability to ask your Xbox to download items remotely, although this does of course rely on you leaving it on all the time.

Interface and IA

The interface itself isn’t much changed, except that the blades have become panels and adopted the increasingly-clichéd Cover Flow stance. More usefully, there’s a welcome tightening up of the IA, which means hours wasted fishing around in Settings should be a thing of the past.


The detail I’ve been most impressed by was the migration experience itself. Upgrades are one of the areas where just a little user focus can have a huge impact: compare firmware upgrades for the iPhone with most older handsets. The entire upgrade took just four minutes (excellent for what is essentially an entire OS upgrade), with seamless plug-and-play operation and an explanatory video upon relaunch.


Somehow, we’ve reached the age where a firmware upgrade for a console can create a buzz—almost universally, people seem to love the NXE. The really interesting question is why, which I’ll write a followup post about shortly.

Personally, I’m not as glowing as others. I actually quite liked the old Xbox personality: hardcore over casual, masculine over feminine. This update softens that stance, and I think it’s a mistake to drift towards Wii territory. Minor gripes aside, it is an undeniably well-crafted piece of work, tackling known problems, creating extensibility and, most importantly, getting people talking about a rather old console in the lucrative run-up to Christmas.

Cennydd Bowles
Farewell to anti-intellectualism?

Until recently, I equated politics with duty: something that I must participate in, but that was never elevated above a choice between deeply unsatisfactory options.

I find most politics ideologically empty, and it is almost a truism to say that we know very little about how President Obama will govern. However, I do believe that yesterday’s election will make a profound difference to the world, and for the first time I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of political change. Of course the race issue is important, but my personal hope for Obama’s presidency is the end (or, at worst, the long suspension) of a culture of anti-intellectualism that has plagued Western politics for years.

Anti-intellectualism is not a uniquely right-wing stance, but it has been used with alarming regularity by the current US administration. Bush himself is the archetypal example but, consigning him to the history he deserves to inhabit, we’ve seen examples in the recent campaign too. Sarah Palin’s attempt to champion the cause of the “real America”, by conflating intellect and elitism, failed profoundly.

The right’s attack has not been constrained purely to intelligence: it has also involved the devaluation of education, reason and evidence. All have been systematically discarded by the incumbent government, state education boards, Supreme Court Justices and hawkish military generals.

This framing of intellectuals as The Other is counter-productive, dangerous, and hopefully moribund.

It is clear that Obama is an acutely intelligent man and a gifted orator. As such, he received his mandate from two ends of the spectrum: those with the lowest and highest privileges. His race and his stance on welfare made him attractive to disenfranchised minorities, while his sharp, rational demeanour made him almost entirely dominant amongst liberal urbanites. This top-and-bottom split was complemented by a generational shift: a fierce reaction against the hegemony of old, rich, white men. The campaign itself owes much of its success to the internet and, yes, even graphic design. Fairey’s Hope poster will stay with us as one of the most important political design works of our generation.

Republicans may wish to blame their loss on the economy. 63% of Americans say it was the primary issue. But I think the Republican attitude that the economy needs to be restored to its former glories is fundamentally wrong. It doesn’t. The way forward is a new, sustainable, evenhanded economy with environmental conscience, and checks and balances protecting the public purse from the risks of the free market. Where the poor get richer, not just the rich.

While I’m concerned I’ve compromised my cynicism and have gone a bit gooey over a single politician, yesterday feels to me as significant as 9/11, and as constructive as the aforementioned was destructive. I believe that, given the pace of innovation and change in our society, we are already caught up in a second Renaissance. Politics, historically, always lags behind social trends. Yesterday it caught up, and the 21st century can really begin

Cennydd Bowles
Why is technology so dull?

The concept of personality has us hooked; just look at Cosmo quizzes and the thousands of online personality tests. And rightly so: it’s something that has profound effects on our friendships, love lives (that old “she’s got a nice personality” chestnut) and careers. For instance, Bruce Tognazzini claims that designers must have an ‘N’ in their MBTI, one of the slightly less dubious profiling tools. (I actually agree with him on this. I’m an INTJmyself.)

However, we’re also a little infatuated with personality, and often assume that someone’s actions are caused by the ‘type’ of person they are, while ignoring the social and environmental forces that influence them (the fundamental attribution error). In reality, personality is always framed and affected by the world around us, meaning behaviour can be quite variable. Just because someone’s angry once, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an angry person. We have to work backwards, interpolating someone’s underlying personality from several observations of their behaviour. You can’t really get to know someone from a minute in their company.

For instance, at a football match, I drink, swear, and slip into a latent Welsh accent. This is no surprise—my environment almost demands it of me, since I’m surrounded by drunken, sweary Welshmen. But you’ll find me behave very differently in bed with a girl, going through airport security, or talking to my Nan. This behavioural variance is part of being human and people who lack it are deemed to be boring. If you behave the same in a nightclub as in a library, you won’t be invited out again.

Constrast this with technology, which behaves in a very rigid manner—the same in all environments. I think it’s time to make technology more interesting by introducing some mild behavioural variance. Sampled over a few readings, we can then start to form an opinion about the underlying personality, which is where we make those emotional connections.

Clearly we can’t go too far. Some behavioural consistency is essential for usability, and some devices are better suited to quirkiness than others. However, the dead zero we’re at now is clinical and drab.

Fortunately, we have the jigsaw pieces we need to imbue technology with personality. We just need to put them together. As mentioned above, behavioural variance generally comes from environmental influence. This meshes nicely with technology’s increasing context-awareness. Bluetooth, RFID, APIs, accelerometers, spimes etc, common geek parlance, all refer to ways technology is becoming more aware of itself, other technologies and us. But it doesn’t need to be this esoteric. Glade recently released a quite silly air freshener that only activates in the presence of a human.

The concept of an emotional response to technology isn’t new, by any means. For example, the uncanny valley:

I happen to be sceptical of the uncanny valley idea (no real reason), but I challenge anyone to watch the following and not be slightly saddened:

So let’s imagine an operating system that sees you’ve split up with your girlfriend and says sorry. A program that knows you were out drinking last night and therefore uses muted colours and suggests you take frequent breaks. A mobile that loves going on rollercoasters.

This could be so much more fun. And the exciting part is I don’t think it’s too far out of our reach—for starters, we already give out plenty of these informational cues (knowingly or not):

Ultimately what we’re aiming for is intelligence (or at least pretence thereof) in technology. In the words of Piaget, “intelligence is the ability of an organism to adapt to a change”. I think behavioural variance is a perfect example of this adaptation, and for that reason I think we shouldn’t be scared of giving our future technology a personality of its own.

Based on my lightning talk “A rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights” given at Skillswap On Speed, 29 Oct

Cennydd Bowles
Printing press workshop

A slightly shortened week, since Clearleft took Monday off for a day of printing press revelry at Ditchling Museum. Ditchling was, for many years, the home of sculptor, typographer and unspeakable pervert Eric Gill, and a large proportion of the museum is therefore dedicated to his work.

The first half of the day was dedicated to examining the museum’s collection and creating our own original works inspired by it.

I contented myself with the (terrifyingly precious) first edition of Gill’s Cantica Natalia, and was quickly absorbed in transcribing it and noting down the unusual trills and marks that aren’t represented in modern notation. My rather sketchy original work was a worms-eye map of a seaside town using only these odd musical ligatures from the score. Slightly Klee-esque, without the talent.

In the afternoon we got our hands extremely dirty playing with the Stanhope press. Jeremy and, who else, Richard probably got the best from it, setting the following plug for UX London in 60pt Baskerville:

My efforts were less successful, but I did manage to print a new header for this blog, which I will at least try to integrate over the next couple of weeks.

It was, of course, very refreshing to spend some time out of the office and learning more about the foundations of our industry. The other point I took from the day was a renewed sense of humility. Technology has made our outputs so much quicker and more reliable, but without the hard work, patience and dedication of centuries of craftsmen we would be far, far behind.

Cennydd Bowles
The survival of web apps

I’ve had a busy time of late, in particular thanks to a couple of days in Switzerland and Austria, followed by the Future Of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in the Docklands.FOWA’s a little large for my tastes, but it’s undeniably well organised. Three sessions stood out (the uniformly excellent Gavin Bell, Benjamin Huh’s history of Icanhascheezburgerand Kathy Sierra being her enthusiastic self) but my particular interest, and one I’d love to have heard more about, is in the eponymous future bit.

I’ve been thinking for a while about how our field will develop and while I believe mobile, the Cloud and the Semantic Web are going to be big factors, I’ll park them for future posts and talk about the clearest issue on our horizon: the economic downturn.

Truly this was FOWA’s cri de coeur. A majority of sessions made mention of it, and Sun’s Tim Bray scrapped his keynote at the last minute to deliver Get through the tough times – which, although somewhat cataclysmic, is definitely worth 30 minutes of your time. Over a matter of days, the economy has become the dominant topic of the web. Dan Saffer askswhat designers can do to help (in short, make stuff). Khoi Vinh cautions us to be careful about our data. Andy Budd talks about how to survive a global recession.

I’ll admit it: I’m a little scared. I was too late for the bursting of the first bubble; every year I’ve spent in the industry has been one of growth. A potentially contracting market is a new thing for me.

Of course, self-correction is a fundamental part of the system we live in. Boom precedes bust. And I’m confident there’ll always be work for smart people at the top of their game. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, if capitalism has one strength, it’s that it has a knack of creating new jobs to replace those that are lost.

But our environment will undoubtedly change. Andy makes the point that it’s now even more important for businesses to understand their customers; after all, retention is far cheaper than acquisition. He’s right, but unfortunately I think few will accept the perceived risk: tight budgets make waterfall, big requirements and long research phases a thing of the past, if they weren’t already. UX designers in particular might find it hard to be relevant in these short-term times. To survive, we have to become more agile (both lower-case and upper-case ‘a’) and demonstrate our value from day one. Quick, practical research. Quick, volatile design. I’m currently writing an article on how we can do this; but, looking beyond survival tactics, is there still room for user experience to make a difference strategically?

Perhaps, if we make the case clear. Now is a particularly bad time to compete solely on features – the cost is of that arms race is simply too high. I forsee UX people increasingly filling the role of strategic chaperone, dragging businesses away from unsuitable functionality and focusing them on the core product. Cash-strapped businesses are already going to build just half a product; we have to help them focus on the right half.

I also think lower levels of capital will catalyse a far deeper trend: the end of the website as destination. Once upon a time, creating a brochureware site or, recently, another social networking app was a viable strategy – there was market share to be gained, and there was capital available. ‘Me too’ sites captured their share of eyeballs, CPA and other such meaningless trivia. These days are gone, and if this is your future model, the question will be one of survival, not expansion.

Historically, companies that thrive in recessions aren’t those that drive efficiency and cut costs: they’re those who can execute on an idea that changes everything. So the next phase of the web, now upon us, will see it evolve as an enabler, not a medium. The real value now is in getting devices talking, connecting products and services, and synthesising information in new, valuable ways. Services like Dopplr are already halfway there: so laden with APIs and interconnectedness that they exist as intermediaries – a ‘social physics engine’, to use Matt Biddulph’s wonderful phrase – the site itself is largely redundant. All that counts is the value that it brings to people’s lives.

The good news is this is still very much dependent on a user experience focus – it’s just a different flavour of UX. It’s less about making fractional sales improvements or reducing numbers of customer service interventions. Our role now has to be more about trying to make a genuine difference to the world through innovation. This is noble and, as I said earlier, scary. Change always is, and it’s appropriate that we remain alert in difficult times. But, for good people, the sky isn’t falling quite yet.

Cennydd Bowles
The MAYA principle

One of the benefits of following smart people on Twitter is that I regularly pick up on techniques and principles I’ve not heard of. I don’t remember who first mentioned theMAYA Principle, but I investigated and found a powerful idea I think is worth sharing.

MAYA, Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, is a heuristic coined by Raymond Loewy, who explains it thus:

The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.

What Loewy is saying is that a local maximum exists for creative work: the behaviour, understanding and mental models of our userbase anchor us and cause work that’s too far removed to fail.

Matthew Dent’s recent Royal Mint coin designs are a great example of the MAYA Principle in practice.

The task of redesigning currency is daunting. British coins hadn’t changed since 1968, and as such represented a great deal of tradition and cultural identity. Over the years, we’ve literally come to accept the portcullis, three feathers, thistle, lion, double rose and Britannia as icons of our nationality.

Individually, Dent’s new coins are unashamedly modern. They feature aggressive cropping and striking full bleed layout, with the 5p being a particularly bold example. Britannia they aren’t. However, taken as a holistic whole, the full suite of coins form the royal shield of arms. The design makes admirable use of the concept of closure, whereby our minds fill in the gaps to maintain a coherent pattern. The coins are also wonderfully tactile and interactive: the process of arranging them, jigsaw-like, to reproduce the bigger picture is novel and enjoyable.

Both the common historical thread and the design’s interactive nature were a conscious choice:

I can imagine people playing with them, having them on a tabletop and enjoying them… I felt it was important to have a theme running through from one to another. – Matthew Dent, in The Times

While a traditionalist may not appreciate the individual coin treatment, the strong nod to British history should placate him. The designs also encourage us to reexamine these everyday objects as a result of their interactivity, causing us to refocus on our money, the patterns they display and the connection to our identity they inevitably form. In short, this redesign skilfully mixes the old and the new in a way that is advanced, yet acceptable, to a potentially intransigent public.

Cennydd Bowles

More and more, I find myself less interested in what web designers have to say.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some very clever people out there – hell, I’m lucky enough to work with some of them. However, I’m worried that as a community we are blinded by our self-importance. Proudly we don the mantles of digital pioneers and imperiously believe we’re the first to encounter the problems we face. How do we make things that people enjoy? How can we help people to share and learn from each other? Can new technologies alleviate social ills? The more I learn about other fields, the more I find that bright minds have been tackling identical problems for years, and the less surprised I am by this discovery.

I’ve reached a stage of my career where I learn more about user experience from outside the field than in. My non-fiction reading list, previously full of every reputable web/UX design book I could devour, now bulges with architecture, Tufte, typography and semiotics.

Most of the intelligent, ambitious web people I know seem to be undergoing a similar escalation of interests. Whether I can count myself as one of them is moot, but I do know that I’m increasingly skipping RSS feeds that talk about web methods, techniques and tricks. I spend my conference budget on inspiration, not tuition, and endeavour to aim equally high when I’m fortunate enough to present to others.

The UX mailing lists, a barometric aggregate of the field’s current interests, seem to be moving upmarket too. Discussions about design thinking are in the ascendency; those about the location of confirmation buttons are bottoming out. Despite the occasional futile game of Defining The Damn Thing, the trend is increasingly highbrow and diverse.

Below, an example of some advice I’ve recently found particularly enlightening:

“Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.”
“Being non-specific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one.”

Crystalline, and applicable to all design fields. These quotes, as of course you guessed, are not from a web design book. Instead, they are two of many useful aphorisms from 101 things I learned in architecture school by Matthew Frederick – and yet are still more a commentary on design process than advice on a specific discipline.

In similar circles, I’ve recently been inspired by Stewart Brand’s marvellous documentaryHow Buildings Learn, the companion to the elusive book of the same name. The first episode alone has so many parallels with web design that we ought to be ashamed at how we’ve not drunk more deeply from a well some thousands of years older than our own.

There is, of course, an exquisite irony in a web designer harping on about the questionable wisdom of web designers (particularly when opening with such a shambolic oxymoron). I do think the industry has a great deal to offer its devotees, and there’s still a place for learning from our experts (and I’m looking forward to UX London hugely for this reason), but I do think our community would benefit from removing the blinkers every now and then. Forming a human pyramid is no match for standing on the shoulders of giants.

Cennydd Bowles