Improvements at the cost of disturbing the users

We often complain about poorly designed interfaces and wonder why improvements are never made when the flaws are so obvious. I think that there are a number of reasons for this, including ignorance and budget restraints. But there is one reason that can really define the mentality and maturity of a company. That reason is best expressed by quoting a key stake holder in an important redesign project I once worked with: “We should absolutely do the redesign that simplifies the interface, but we should also keep an option for the users to show the old interface. Otherwise, our loyal customers might get upset when they don’t recognize it.” In other words, the risk of losing customers as a consequence of the redesign was considered a reason big enough to not go all the way with the new design.

In 2007, Microsoft released Office 2007 which included a comprehensive redesign where the top menu bar was replaced by the infamous ribbon. This was done to better handle the rapidly growing amount of functionality since the drop-down menus were becoming overfilled! The new design was based on massive amounts of data collection¬†and extensive user studies, with the main purpose to increase accessibility and usability. The response to the redesign was hesitant to say the least, since the users had to relearn much of what they knew from the old interface. Personally, I remember being upset about the change since I thought that “everything worked fine in the old design”. But before long as I learned the new interface, I realized that it made much more sense and that my issues with the redesign had more to do with broken habits than anything else.

Office word 2003
Office Word 2003 (click the image to enlarge)

Office word 2007 ribbon
Office Word 2007 (click the image to enlarge)

Habits are manifested by imprints in our neural pathways, meaning that they can be quite difficult to change. Changing a habit requires extra energy as you have to stop and actively think about how to perform the task. And since humans are creatures of habits, we tend to get annoyed whenever we have to do this. So most of the time, it is good if you can get away with tweaking your interface, leaving your users as undisturbed as possible. But every once in a while you will have no choice but to redesign the whole interface for different reasons (your UI is out of date, you need to add more functionality, you have a new business model, you are about to enable your interface for new devices etc.). And sure, you might lose some of your loyal customers if they get lost in the new design (hopefully, this shouldn’t happen if you’ve done a good job though). But in these situations you have to be brave enough to make decisions that lead to a better interface, and NOT one that flirts with the old design with the purpose of not losing customers. Otherwise you will tiptoe between the old and the new design and end up with a compromise that may even be worse than the original design. You have to be confident that an improved interface in the long run will lead to satisfied customers and thereby a higher ROI. Otherwise, you will send the wrong message to both customers and the design team as it shows a clear lack of confidence in the new design.

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