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'Users hate change'

'Users hate change'

This week NN Group released a video by Jakob Nielsen in which he attempts to help designers deal with the problem of customers being resistant to their new site/product redesign. The argument goes thusly:

  1. Humans naturally resist change
  2. Your change is for the better
  3. Customers should just get used to it and stop complaining

There's slightly more to it than that, he caveats his argument with requiring you to have of course followed their best practices on product design, and allows for a period of customers being able to elect to continue to use the old site, although he says this is obviously only a temporary solution as you don't want to support both.

This argument is both incredibly entitled and terribly egocentric, as well as being wrong-headed on several counts.

Firstly: humans don't resist change when it's something that they asked for, they resist things being imposed upon them against their will. There is an incredibly persistent cultural movement in product design that "we know best", this is a very parent-child style relationship: "Mother knows best", that both disempowers and disengages customers.

Let me be clear: when I buy a product I am paying for what the product can do for me now. It fulfils a need that I currently have. I am not paying money out of my own pocket for a faint hope that the product may do something in the vague and nebulous future.

So: Product does X. I find that valuable. I pay $n to buy X capability. The product probably does Y and Z too, but I don't care about that. I bought it to do X.

When you as a product manager or designer or PO or whatever decide that your product should do A, B and C too, I don't care. I don't want those features, I didn't pay for them.

When you as a product person change the way that I have to use the product in order to do X, you are asking me to spend time, effort and attention to change my habits around X in order to do something differently, which may (or may not) benefit me in the future. In all likelyhood you made it easier for new users to learn X. I don't care about new users. I care about continuing to use the product in the same way as I always do in order to do X, even if you have forced me to do it in a sub-optimal way.

Every change that you make to the product after I have bought it makes it more likely that I will leave your product and find something else that does X instead, because the cost to me to learn how to something different in your product is now not much different than the cost to learn how to do something in a different product.

The more times you force me to change my behaviour, the more badwill (being the opposite of goodwill) builds up. Eventually I'll become so pissed off that I'll move, no matter what the cost.

Secondly: Your change probably isn't for the better. Not for me, not for the majority of existing customers. As stated above, the real benefit is almost always for new customers, who will find it easier to learn to use X. That's even assuming that this isn't a 'branding' change, which actually benefits no-one other than the expensive branding consultants that you just paid.

The vast majority of the effort that designers spend on look and feel, typeography, colour palettes, image choice and placement, tone of voice, button placement, size and style and a host of other things are of marginal value at best. The really hard stuff - like ethics, accessibility and knowledge architecture are almost always neglected in favour of bike-shedding. The popular rise of apps like Pocket and browser features like Firefox's Reader View are proof that it is the functionality and the content that is important, not what colour the buttons are.

Thirdly: the idea that you can just tell your customers to suck it up is a relic of last-century marketing that relied on captive customer bases and lack of customer knowledge, awareness and community. Modern customers are, in the majority, well informed and highly vocal with other customers in their community. Unless you have a significant barrier to exit you'll find that your established customer base leave the moment your competitors make it easy enough for them to migrate. Even the most impressively built and reinforced barriers don't last forever. OpenOffice and Google Docs, coupled with a change in the way that offices work have meant that even giants like Microsoft are losing their heartlands of enterprise business software contracts.

We can no longer afford to be complacement with our customers.

The idea that it is impossible to support more than one version of a product presupposes that a) work is required to upgrade both versions simultaneously, and b) that the existing product isn't stable i.e. still many bugs being surfaced. We have many known solutions for the second malady (q.v. software crafting) but the first problem overlooks a simple strategy: Extensible Product Portfolios (EPP).

The idea of EPP is thus: when you have a product that works, and an existing customer base - freeze it. Instead of a major redesign because 'Material Design is so 2014' simply leave the product the way it is, bar minor BAU and bug-fix work. Instead devote effort into building a new, next-generation product that addresses (hopefully) a new customer segment, and allow existing customers to add this new product to their portfolio for a incremental fee. This allows existing customers to self-select into a new product, protects revenue and reduces the risk of existing product customers leaving due to badwill.

In this way a team/organisation builds up a protfolio of products, all of them profitable, all of them long-lived. After the vast majority of customers leave an old product for '2.0' then when only a small minority remain you can sunset the old product, perhaps offering customers a free upgrade path, or just leave it running indefinitely as it's marginal cost of maintenance is now essentially zero.

This treats your customers like adults, gives them the freedom of choice and empowers them to use that choice in order to best satisfy their own needs.

@jasonfesta

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commented Jul 26, 2019

100% agree with this.

We (Designers) are imposing our own interests of design security by re-inventing new systems to own/maintain. This has a negative effect on the users who have learned to love the previous system that worked. In the physical world, products that are loved simply can not up date over the air. This gives the user power to upgrade, stay with the old version, or switch to a new product when he/she is ready. In the digital world, products can simply change overnight based on external factors outside the users control. (giving them both is also wrong, a UX fail out of fear)

I have never heard of a physical product that starts with, "you hate this now, but you have to buy it, you will love it later, you don't know any better!". ~ very much treating users like children

@davidk01

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Your view is also selfish and egocentric but complementary to designer egocentrism and selfishness. Ultimately the user and designer must meet each other half-way, otherwise there is no progress and both stagnate.

@jxramos

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commented Jul 26, 2019

I definitely dislike large sweeping changes, but in time I get used to them. But there is a risky period in that initial state of shock in terms of customer flight. This is especially true if hyped up competitor marketing has been buzzing around the background and noticed. However frequent incremental upgrades with small deltas, eg Android gmail, have been palatable to me.

@sleepyfox

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Your view is also selfish and egocentric but complementary to designer egocentrism and selfishness. Ultimately the user and designer must meet each other half-way, otherwise there is no progress and both stagnate.

I think you forget who is paying whom here!

@htor

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commented Jul 26, 2019

i wholeheartedly agree – we should not force users to upgrade, but instead let them choose to upgrade. very few users care about the latest design trend and probably will not care if it's skeumorphic, flat or round. as long as it gets the job done and users are happy with that you as a product person should be happy too.

@nsfyn55

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commented Jul 26, 2019

I think you have to accept that there are often more reasons than design decisions at play. Design refactors are often accompanied by architectural shifts, changes to the business model, etc. I have worked on a few systems with 100,000+ users. We made more than a few design decisions that enraged our customers, but it was never done out of hubris. It was typically done because it was necessary and the real rationale(engineering, financial, etc.) was too complex/nuanced to meaningfully explain to the customer.

@sleepyfox

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commented Jul 26, 2019

I think you have to accept that there are often more reasons than design decisions at play. Design refactors are often accompanied by architectural shifts, changes to the business model, etc. I have worked on a few systems with 100,000+ users. We made more than a few design decisions that enraged our customers, but it was never done out of hubris. It was typically done because it was necessary and the real rationale(engineering, financial, etc.) was too complex/nuanced to meaningfully explain to the customer.

I've spent more than 30 years in the IT industry, trust me, I've seen it all. My point stands - we can give the customer a choice.

@davidk01

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commented Jul 26, 2019

I think you forget who is paying whom here!

Since you brought up money do you suppose Bill Gates and Warren Buffet deal with product design change issues? If either one wants a product custom made for their use case they just pay for it. The issue with bringing up money and saying you forget who is paying whom means you are actually paying the designers enough that they're willing to implement whatever vision you have in mind. For the rest of us it is a compromise between what we want and what the designers think we want for the amount we paid them.

@reagank

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Your view is also selfish and egocentric but complementary to designer egocentrism and selfishness. Ultimately the user and designer must meet each other half-way, otherwise there is no progress and both stagnate.

Do architects and the people who pay them to design buildings have to meet each other halfway? Or does the architect need to make something that meets the specifications of the customer? An older example - the labs in Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT have no closets, We're making things for people - how in the world are we not starting with what the people who will use it need and want?

There are legitimate reasons for re-designs and there are places where designers can "nudge" people's behavior one way or the other or towards newer ways of doing things, but software changes of the type described here are much more often either for the sake of novelty or in pursuit of some specific corporate goal that might make the life of the developers easier but has no positive impact for users.

@nsfyn55

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commented Jul 26, 2019

@ocdtrekkie

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Absolutely true. I don't want the new white space laden UI. I just want your app to continue to work on modern computers with security updates. It's unfortunate accepting the first is so often required to get the second.

@mezod

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Jakob Nielsen :D

@Ruff9

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commented Jul 26, 2019

(There are two typos near the end: esxisting and redisgn)

@miguelmota

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commented Jul 26, 2019

Good piece, definitely empathetic with you. Always prefer incremental changes over complete redesigns since users are lazy creatures of habit.

@Madrox

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commented Jul 26, 2019

The "design knows best" mentality comes into play functionally as well. On principle, I resent the idea that, as a grown adult, other people know what I want more than I do. Looking at you, "latest tweets first" feature...

@trasparente

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commented Jul 27, 2019

*Nielsen

@atompulse

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commented Jul 27, 2019

Excellent piece!

PS: @ing fuck your new homebank ui I never asked for it and I fucking hate it!!!

@bradleybowman

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commented Jul 27, 2019

I think sometimes these changes are rather calculated to keep users within an ecosystem if performed 'properly'

There's one giant company I can think of that does this rather effectively as their users really don't want to or feel like they can't leave the product. An OS upgrade changed the trackpad scrolling behavior to utilize the opposite direction and set it to default. I believe the naming convention of the setting changed from Normal and Inverted to Natural and Inverted (even though Inverted actually meant original behavior). I believe the change was to accommodate the scrolling behavior users liked on mobile devices, allegedly.

There was the standard period of the two-minutes hate about it, and now it's all the users know. When they try to use a competitor's product, and they try to scroll on any document, their first impression now is "This is wrong and doesn't work like mine"

Of course changes like that roll out at a pace that the desire to leave is outweighed by the short period of inconvenience. The end result is the users are more trapped in the ecosystem. Other products seem to mimic this type of entrapment but without as much grace.

Though I do not personally enjoy using said company's products, I have to commend their capability to do the opposite of what the original poster suggests with net positive results. I have spoken to many users of their products who ultimately seem dissatisfied but continue to use them because of the artificial appearance of a large learning curve leaving their ecosystem (nevermind the perceived investment into their ecosystem...add up your paid app purchases for example and it's often not nearly as high as perceived, for example)

@ambroiseRabier

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commented Jul 27, 2019

I think you forget who is paying whom here!

Users are the one paying.

Your view is also selfish and egocentric but complementary to designer egocentrism and selfishness. Ultimately the user and designer must meet each other half-way, otherwise there is no progress and both stagnate.

I totally agree with @davidk01, they both should met half-way.

In my opinion, designers are creative peoples, asking them to just follow the line will kill them. (and if someone is a designer but prefer never innovate, he probably would be better off in another job). Lastly, change is part of the life, people that do not want change, are like water that do not move, water that do not move, become a swamp! I think the allergy to change, is a problem on the whole earth, in everyone, in all domain, we do not need more stagnation.

As you can see, I am very much for change, but remember, I agreed with half-way, change take time and energy to learn. Talking about learning, most people stop to learn very soon in their life, sadly. Users should not have to learn everything from scratch, each time, of course.

@josefrichter

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commented Jul 27, 2019

There are plenty of products that improved significantly over the time and amassed huge user bases as a result (while losing some at the same time), that prove this theory isn't generally correct.

@athornton

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commented Jul 28, 2019

For most modern apps/websites, users are not the customers. Advertisers are. They're the ones paying the bills. Thus the designer's job is to allow advertisers to pack in as much of their product as possible without driving so many users away that overall ad revenues fall. Hate the game, not the player, and go long on guillotine manufacturers' stock.

@giohobbins

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commented Jul 28, 2019

Might regret wading in these waters but this post struck a chord for me.

Appreciate the post because it's indicative of a fairly common perspective I see around. I thought there were some good points around change in products being catalyzed by bad motives - specifically: over optimization for new users and designers just wanting to try a new system/color palette.

That said, there's a lot I disagree with which was interesting. Besides there being a lot of cynicism directed towards product managers, designers, and "brand consultants," there also appears to be a lot of bad assumptions around what people in those roles actually do.

Product managers don't just change the product to help new users - business model, architecture, and much much more comes into play. Designers don't just want to fiddle with colors and bike shed on details with "at best marginal value." These misconceptions don't really apply to the author's point but definitely serve to weaken his credibility.

But most importantly the big blindspot here is a myopic understanding of how software is used. The author assumes the way he is using the product is the way everyone else uses the product. When, in reality, there are other types of customers with different priorities, workflows, and requirements and an ambitious product must serve everyone to grow. Inevitably, every product decision (even the decision to not change anything) will hurt some user's experience. You might disagree with that a product should try to serve a lot of types of people but that's a wholly different conversation.

Also the idea of a freezing a feature once it works is laughably naive. Just because it "works" for you doesn't mean it works well for other users or that the current method is the best possible way for something to work in perpetuity. That's just shortsighted and stifling of innovation.

Look at the most successful products (yes FB, TW, etc but also products like Stripe and GH that devs love). They're always changing. Bad changes get a loud backlash, good ones go unnoticed. Meanwhile, the businesses grow, add users, and are more valuable generally because of all of the changes being made.

@bradleybowman

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commented Jul 28, 2019

Another thing I thought of too--you really have to look at whom your product is serving. If it is an application people use for leisure or to keep up with friends (social media the obvious example) then yes changes are met with a bit of backlash but ultimately become part of the flow. Especially in that type of market where the 'new thing' is always making some buzz, leaving things unchanged for long periods almost invites a sense of boredom with the product.

Enterprise-targeted product use is a lot different. Anything that requires employees to relearn a task or moves a feature, even if it's ultimately a better workflow in the end, requires time. And different users have different ways of adapting and will likely not be as productive as they usually are for an indefinite period. If, in the span of a day, your spreadsheet application introduces a 'ribbon' interface (you know what I mean), and a company has X amount of employees spending Y amount of time staring at a significant paradigm shift, there's a potentially massive 'hidden cost' there. Perhaps why enterprise is often reluctant to move away from programs that are virtually unusable at this point.

Might as well let their employees install the word processor with a ribbon at home and use it for 4 or 5 (or 15) years before taking the plunge, at least there's a chance that they know how to use it by then.

@ACoolmanBigHealth

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commented Jul 29, 2019

For me, the question of "should I change this", is a strategic decision based on the product. The language of respect and offence does not resonate for me personally. But regardless, when it comes down to it I assume we all agree: Sometimes it makes good sense to commit to old versions (especially distributed binaries, or products with high setup and low frequent use), while other times it makes sense to just sunset the old version (Saas, expensive maintenance costs).

@audreymgr

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commented Jul 30, 2019

100% agree with @giohobbins, it is a siloed view to think every user has the same exact use of a product. Which is exactly the reason why products need to evolve constantly, to try and capture the biggest mass of people who see a noticeable value in the product. I enjoyed the article, and I agree with the idea that users should be in charge at all times; but the concept of designers only changing colours is wrong, as our job in product is to interact with the user base and understand what their needs are. And figure out how to modify the product to respond to said needs.

@dhc02

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commented Aug 2, 2019

Because examples are useful, it's worth noting that Basecamp (neé 37signals) actually does EPP (which I didn't realize had a name). I have never noticed another SaaS company taking this approach, and I always thought it was super interesting.

  • They still have users on Basecamp "Classic" (their 1.0) but only ship security patches.
  • You can still sign up for Basecamp 2 and it has an entirely different pricing structure, in addition to different features, design, etc.
  • New users by default get Basecamp 3.

Over the years, they've occasionally written about why they did things this way and why they feel committed to supporting Basecamp Classic and other sunsetted products for existing customers "until the end of the internet".

@DMcCunney

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commented Aug 2, 2019

I've been in IT for over 30 years, starting on IBM mainframes and working across and down, with recent work being systems, network, and telecom administration, and Windows, Unix and Linux servers as part of my domain. I've also been involved in corporate efforts to upgrade systems.

My experience has been consistent throughout that time. Users learn just enough to do what they need to do on the machines they use, and stop. Corporate upgrades are especially fraught, as user reaction will reduce to "I don't have time to get all my work done now, and you want me to learn whole new ways of doing it on top of that? Just when am I supposed to do this?"

Part of what I've found myself doing over the decades is whatever I can to simplify user's lives, like ripping out the menu system a Unix based application suite used and replacing it with with a setup based on userid, that dropped the user directly into the particular application they would use when they logged on, and logged them off the system when they exited the application. The users were happy about this. It was one less thing to think about.

I understand the need to upgrade applications, both to fix bugs and provide new functionality. But as much as possible, the UI should not change. The user should be able to use the programs the same way they are used to, and things like new functionality should be logical extensions to the UI they already use.

I've lost count of the number of major vendors who don't seem to grasp that. An old friend is a former Art Director and currently makes a living doing photo retouching. He uses a relatively ancient version of Photoshop, and won't upgrade. The one he has does what he requires and he's adept at using it. He grew mortally tired of the total UI revamp in every new Photoshop release that required him to relearn how to use the program to do what he was accustomed to doing every time he got a new release.

And Microsoft Windows is a worst offender. I was grimly amused when they dropped the Start Menu in Win 8.1, realized it was a bad move, and brought it back in Win10. But in the spirit of fixing what wasn't broken, they moved things around and forced user to again go through the process of discovering where a particular thing they needed to do was hidden this time. I just installed Classic Shell which reproduced the Win7 Start Menu by default, but users on corporate settings won't have that option. (If anyone reading this works at Microsoft on Windows development and can explain why MS fixed what wasn't broken in the Win10 UI, I'm all ears.)

But that stuff is prevalent in the open source community, too, and possibly worse. In proprietary software, people buy it, and developer salaries come from those sales. They have reason to try to understand what users do, how they do it, and what they will think worth paying for. Open source tends to be funded differently, and there is a disconnect between developers and the folks who use their code. I've been using Mozilla code since it was still the name of a Netscape internal project to write the next generation browser suite. I've lost count of the number of changes Mozilla made that drew storms of protest from the users, and got the impression Mozilla devs live in a echo chamber and only talk to each other. I don't recall ever seeing a Mozilla effort to reach out to the user base and say "This is something we are thinking of doing. What do you folks think?" (But they likely wonder why Firefox lost market share to Chrome...)

That way lies madness. Change what you need to change in the program, but as far as possible don't change what the user sees and how they deal with the program as a user. They will thank you and be more likely to actually buy new versions.

@mojimi

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commented Aug 5, 2019

This EPP you mention, now that I think about it many companies do this, freeze the old product and release a new one, sometimes with a new name or even under a new subsidiary.

I wanted to know more about EPP but it literally only links back to this article if you search "Extensible Product Portfolios" and "EPP" returns dozen of unrelated stuff. Got any links?

@HampusNyberg

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commented Aug 5, 2019

Great counter point to major redesigns of B2B or workplace tools, excluding the condescending language. But I don't agree with a lot of the arguments if you look at general product development. Designers and PMs must prioritize (and supporting 2 versions doubles the complexity).

Who are more likely to generate and grown revenue for a B2C (social, streaming, media, news, car/home sharing, e-commerce, etc) business? Existing users, or existing and new users combined? The visual digital product design is overall objectively better now than it was 10yrs ago. In general: more useful, easier to use (except when bizz intentionally priorities dark patterns), better branded, better writing/copy, faster development/design, better interaction flows, more accessible than ever, etc. Sometimes designers and PMs doesn't succeed. But often it leads to improvement in the long term.

While I get that you/OP hate change, and I know for a fact that you are part of a user group that hate change, PM's and designers shouldn't avoid learning and improving a product because the small, but vocal, group of you want products to fill your specific need then forever stagnate. The learnings also follow the individual PM/designer to their next product, which collectively helps us from same/some misstakes over and over.

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