User Experience Design Blog

Commentary on strategy and design of interactive products.

Dealing with Radical User Experience Redesigns

February 27th, 2008 by Sergio Paluch

In my last article ‘Radical Redesigns May Be Dangerous,’ I wrote about the potential hazards of drastic changes to existing user experiences. In a poorly executed redesign, these pitfalls can turn away hard-won users (customers). In this article, I explore ways that radical redesigns can be successfully implemented, so fewer existing users leave, and more new users can benefit from the improvements.

Unfortunately, the truth is that almost all user experience redesigns will be unpopular with some people. The more substantial the changes, the greater is the possibility that it will strike discord with users, causing them to abandon the product or service. The good thing is that there are measures that can be taken during design and implementation to increase acceptance of the new design and ease adoption.

The Roots of Displeasure

Any redesign inherently carries four difficulties for users. They are:

  • Anxiety
  • Shock
  • Disappointment
  • Confusion

Anxiety arises because users are not sure what to expect. They cannot be sure that the changes will benefit them. They may also be anxious carrying out their tasks in an unfamiliar interaction environment.

A user experience can be shocking when it is a great departure from what users already know and understand. This shock can arise from something as simple and trivial as graphic design or from something more consequential such as a complete reworking of the main navigation of a web site.

Disappointment may be the most serious nuisance because it has the greatest propensity to drive users to abandon a familiar product or service. Users may be disappointed by a redesign for various reasons. Perhaps the changes are touted as vast improvements but do not deliver. It could also be that some functionality is altered or eliminated. It could even be that the company and designer make decisions that do not benefit the user.

Learning to perform their tasks in a new environment means that users will have to learn how to interact with it. This opens the door for confusion. Users will also have to learn the new limits of the new interactive experience. They may ask, “Does it do what the old one did? Does it do more? Does it do less?”

Each of these barriers can lead users to abandon a familiar product or service, so it is essential to diminish their effect as much as possible.

Make only changes that really will benefit users

Designers and companies often make changes that are unnecessary or detrimental to the users. Sometimes haphazard and ill-conceived experience design leads to this. Sometimes business decisions overshadow the needs of the users. For example, a company may want to put ads on their website to earn revenue. This is a very reasonable business goal, but it has to be balanced with the needs of the website users. This may mean opting to be conservative with the number of ad units on a page instead of crowding a page with a ton of ads. After all, no matter how many ads are placed on a website, if doing so drives away users, they will earn less.

Despite the call for a ‘radical’ redesign, such a project is still a user experience optimization and should be treated as such. This begins with creating an overall strategy based on an understanding of the users’ needs and challenges as well as the business goals. Then the user experience designer must systematically analyze all the design options with the broader strategy in mind.

Through this methodical process it will become clear that some changes are clearly positive, others are clearly not worthwhile, and others are toss-ups. At the very least, the designer can discard the ones that do not make the cut and incorporate the ones that are clearly valuable. Because most changes will introduce challenges for users, changes that are toss-ups can either be refined through various forms of user testing, or can be eliminated, since we are not sure they will be beneficial.

By eliminating all superfluous and detrimental changes to the user experience, users will feel less anxiety and shock. They will also be less likely to be disappointed with the changes, and will have less to be confused by, less to learn and more to enjoy.

Let users know what improvements will be made and why

When a company is touting big changes to their product, customers can grow anxious. Big changes mean big uncertainty to them. They may be unsure that they will still be able to complete their tasks the way they know how to. To assuage their fears, it is important to communicate to users what will change and how these changes are meant benefit them. This can be accomplished via various channels such as marketing campaigns and messaging in the software or service.

Give users a preview of the new design

Providing a smooth transition from one version to the next is crucial because it reduces the shock that users will feel when they get something vastly new. Proper messaging goes a long way, but another step is giving users a more tangible preview of what is to come. As a result they can start to get acclimated by seeing screenshots or even prototypes of the new version, rather than abruptly encountering a completely new environment.

Many online services allow users to test out new versions before they are fully rolled out. This allows users to acclimate to the new experience and start learning how to interact with it. It also provides the organization with an opportunity to gather feedback and make final adjustments before releasing it to all users.

Make sure that users will perceive the changes as beneficial in the short-term as well as long-term

Sometimes changes to the user experience are valuable and enjoyable to users in the long-term but are not initially accepted. This could be because the resulting revisions are shockingly different or because users cannot fully take advantage of the new design until they have learned and internalized the new ways of completing their tasks.

No matter what the reason for the users’ initial negative perception, things can be done to abate it. First and foremost is communicating intended benefits to the user. If they understand the value of these revisions, they are more likely to expend the effort to learn a new system and thoroughly try it out.

A somewhat more resource-intensive method is to perform usability testing on prospective designs to see what will be users’ reactions to them. This can help to determine what are the biggest trouble spots, which may be refined to be less intimidating and easier to learn.

By also ensuring that new interactions and environments are easy to learn, and by supporting learning, the immediate and long-term can be brought closer.

Give users aids such as tool tips, tutorials or an overview of changes

When a product is redesigned from top to bottom, it can become so different from the former version that it seems like a completely new product. That means that users have to re-learn how to do many of the tasks that they were accustomed to completing on the old one. From the users’ perspective, they might as well try a competitor since their old product or service is just as alien as the new revision.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to aid learning a new design. Even the most radical designs build upon previous iterations and may keep many facets of the previous experience. The key is to effectively use these tools to help users bridge the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Wherever there are huge departures from existing design, aids such as tutorials, tips, tool-tips, and visual cues can be used to explain and demonstrate new interactions. For example, we can animate a shopping basket to expand whenever a user ads items to it. We can also show a hovering explanation of a new action item or even provide a video tutorial on using it.

Not only do these methods help users understand and learn the redesign, but they also help to reduce their anxiety and frustration.

Give users the option to continue using the old version

Finally, rather than forcing users to adopt the new design, users can have the option to continue using the old version, to reduce their anxiety. Over time they will accept and adopt the new version. For example, when Microsoft came out with Vista, they did not force their customers to use it exclusively. Instead, Microsoft continues to offer support for older versions of Windows as Vista is gaining momentum. This approach works equally well for web-based services and applications as it does for large shrink-wrapped software. In fact, one may argue that it is even more critical for web and mobile products as it is much easier for users to switch to competitors in those spaces.

In Conclusion

Despite the dangers, a well-executed user experience redesign can create great value, which is why companies are excited to embark on such projects. From the user’s standpoint, a successful redesign will make the product or service more enjoyable and rewarding. From the business’ (organization’s) standpoint, a successful redesign will extend the lifetime value of existing customers by increasing their loyalty and even their level of their participation. Putting to practice the above points will go a long way to ensuring that a radical redesign is a hit with users and fruitful for the organization.



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