Redesign The User Interface At Your Own Peril!

I’ve written a few times about The Sixty One. I thought it was a great example of a web app that works well.  I was able to discover some great new bands and for a few of them I track their progress to see if they come to town and play.

Unfortunately, The Sixty One is a prime example of how redesigning the user interface can make your existing user base very angry and make them leave.  Common complaints about the new design are “antisocial and unnavigable” and I happen to agree with them.  The new changes made a great music discovery site not nearly as much fun and discover new bands.  It sure looks pretty though.

Microsoft has gone through similar criticism with the Office ribbon.  Some people love it and others hate it.  The few times I’ve used Office with the ribbon I was frustrated beyond belief because of the way *I* learn how to use applications.

A friend recently commented to me that they learned to like the ribbon.  I’m not sure that Microsoft would get that benefit (of time) if Office wasn’t ubiquitous.  I can say that as a Mac user I’m not excited about getting the ribbon in the next version of Office but them I’m already using Pages and Numbers more and more because they do everything I need them to do for far less money and less bloat.

From my own experience, we went through interface changes on Task Timer, our Mac/Windows desktop application that tracks your time.  It’s a very simple interface.  Version 1 and 2 let you track one project/task combination at a time.  People complained so we opened it up to five.  People (mainly lawyers – go figure) said that five simultaneous timers weren’t enough so we made it unlimited.

We rewrote the interface to allow an unlimited number of simultaneous timers and project and task combinations.  The beta users were very happy and we were happy too (since we use it every day as well).  We released and the very first bug report was from a long-timer user who complained that we destroyed the simplicity of the interface.  I guess there’s no winning.  Thankfully, with a few minor tweaks we were able to make that customer satisfied but most users will just walk away in disgust.  It’s not easy to get a second chance.

Every time FaceBook changes their layout there’s always a round of complaints.  I generally fall into the group that is willing to work with it but I do have to admit that I generally don’t mind the changes after I’ve gotten used to it.  But then, I also find that the new interface isn’t that much better than the old one – usually.

I sometimes think that companies redesign their website and products because they’ve got designers on staff and they think the designers need to earn their keep.  Don’t fall into that trap and change the interface ‘just because’.

Interface changes should be well thought out to satisfy existing users and to get new ones.  Doing so without some serious thought and effort, both before and after the change, can result in people abandoning your product or service.  Tough to stay in business that way.

Any other examples of a bad user interface change?

4 thoughts on “Redesign The User Interface At Your Own Peril!

  1. It’s good that you mention Facebook — that’s a great example. The site was usable, but they seem to make changes just for the sake of making changes. And every time they do, people (including me) bitch about it. I finally got tired of it, and am now using Twitter only. And Facebook is just a “fun” site — their redesigns don’t actually affect productivity.

    I recall the 5.5 -> 2005 switch in REALbasic, and it took several YEARS before the complaints died away, and many people left over it. People don’t like change unless there is a very obvious benefit. Change for the sake of change kills products unless they have a TON of inertia.

  2. It’s surprising that my recollection of the 5.5 -> 2005 user interface change is so different from Aaron’s. I do remember some people not liking it initially and then later deciding that they did in fact like it. I don’t remember anyone leaving the product over it.

    What does happen over time is that users experience new user interface designs and concepts in other products and if your user interface hasn’t been refreshed in years, it starts to look old. Change just for the sake of change is NOT a good idea. I agree with that. And if you are going to make interface changes, hopefully you are making changes based on what you have learned from your users. But most user interfaces are not perfect and we do learn new concepts that can improve a user interface.

  3. Well, Geoff, I think I have to agree with Aaron on this one. There *were* a lot of people very upset at the 2005 interface change and it *did* take several years for the complaints to die down. I don’t know how many people left just because of the interface but it might have been the proverbial straw for a few. If memory serves, 2005 introduced a ton of bugs as well and the combination wasn’t pretty for a while.

    My point of the article is that a user interface change had better be well thought out and the negative implications thought of *before* it’s foisted on the users. One vocal critic is enough to damage a product reputation for a long time.

  4. Geoff, I did not ‘leave’ but I still use RB5.5. The initial bugs with RB2005 made RB2005 very unproductive for me. I stopped complaining because I stopped trying to use the new RB. FWI Ihe people I have met through using RB are amongst the best I’ve met 🙂

    I think if a new interface is delivered there should be a choice to use the new interface or the old ‘classic’ interface, at least for some time. Like the way you can turn on classic mode with Vista. The main thing I wanted with the new RB was to compile my old projects … relatively bug free …

    The interface with Office 2007 was a real shocker … I wrote an application that used Excel for reporting. One client bought Office 2007 and then asked me to make it work with the spreadsheet I had written … there was no file menu ? No visual basic tools menu … I asked the client how to close the file without using the close window button … they did not know … I told them to uninstall Office 2007 and get Office XP instead. I was not interested in learning how to use Office 2007 for the sake of using Office 2007 … I just wanted to work with the spreadsheet that had been working for years …

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