Quieting the Outcry over Software User Interface Redesigns

April 2, 2012

Companies that have successful software products often know that their user interfaces need improvement, but they may be concerned that any sort of major change might upset their user base.

Facebook, for example, caused quite a stir in September 2011 when it made dramatic changes to its user interface that spawned an initial backlash from users. But for every example of a UX redesign that has gone wrong—like Facebook’s—there is a success story of a company that has blasted ahead of its competitors by reinventing its product design.’s dominance in the CRM (Customer Relationship Management) market, for example, is largely attributable to its innovative design updates.

The risks that are associated with not updating your user interface outweigh those of releasing a software update. But, to avoid a user revolt, you absolutely need to take the right approach to product management and UX design, evolving your product carefully to ensure that it meets users’ needs.

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Do Research the Right Way

One of the most common mistakes companies make is implementing user interface changes based on what users say they want. Unfortunately, UX research shows that what people say they would or wouldn’t like doesn’t always match reality. Moreover, a user’s suggestion on how to solve a user interface problem might be unworkable, unreasonable, or both. While it’s important to solicit and listen to user feedback, users aren’t designers or usability experts, so you should not take their complaints and suggestions verbatim. Don’t confuse a design suggestion with a design solution.

To identify your product’s real user interface problems and solve them, you need to perform careful product management and UX research that takes facts—not users’ opinions—into account. Your research should identify actual user needs through techniques such as protocol-based interviews, paper prototyping, and usability testing. You don’t want to discover something after a new software release has launched that you could have discovered earlier through doing proper UX research.

Implement Changes Properly: A Bad Implementation Negates a Good Idea

Companies are often good at identifying useful ideas for improving user interfaces, but simply having a good idea is not enough. For example, your company might discover that it would be advantageous to include GPS functionality, a calendar application, and a games section in your smartphone design. But if the design and implementation of those features makes them difficult to find and use, you will lose much of the value you’ve set out to provide.

If your UX research has shown that a user interface idea has value, don’t leave its implementation to chance. Involve the development team early in the product definition process to ensure that the idea gets translated properly into concrete product design specifications and that the developers implement it well.

Expect Some Complaints

Nothing is universally loved by everyone. When you’re evaluating user complaints about your user interface, accept that there will always be some, and don’t react to them in a knee-jerk fashion. The complaints you get might identify a widespread problem, but they could also simply be gripes from a very small, but vocal group of users.

To evaluate whether you should act on their complaints, find out how widespread they are by conducting a random survey of your target audience—either through user interviews or an ethnographic study. This research can tell you whether you’re dealing with a common complaint that you should address immediately or a minor issue that should be a lower priority on your list of things to fix.

In addition, evaluate the groups of users who are complaining and the tasks with which they’re having problems. Are they representative of the primary users of your product? Do they match one of your key audience profiles? Are they typical users? Are they upset about something relating to a key task—or a secondary task that users rarely perform? For example, removing a command-line Interface tool might make a tiny group of users very upset, but benefit 99% of your target audience. This brings us to our next best practice…

Focus and Make Trade-offs

No single user interface design is ideal for every user. You need to make some hard choices and understand that you won’t be able to improve everything across the board for each and every user. The key, however, is to ensure that you make these choices based on evidence, not just gut feelings or personal opinions. Perform user research to identify the most important tasks and the areas of your user interface that you should focus on improving, then conduct usability tests on new features to make sure they function properly.

Weigh the Short-Term and Long-Term Impacts

Sometimes a design change results in short-term user pain, but users’ long-term gain. Let’s say Product Management realizes that an automated data-entry feature would help users to complete a key task more quickly. When the feature first gets rolled out, your users may object to it. They’re used to entering data in a certain way—even if that way is more time consuming and inefficient—and they may be upset that they now need to relearn how to do something with which they are already familiar. After two or three days, however, they’ll realize that they can now complete the form in half the time and begin to appreciate the change.

Facebook may have had this principle in mind when they changed their Web site. Yes, there was an initial backlash, but how much are you hearing about it now? You may even have been one of those users who were initially upset, but are you still annoyed about the changes?

Identify the Actual Impact of Users’ Reactions

Design changes typically impact two main aspects of a product: the user interface design and user workflows. You’ll find that users react very differently to a visual design change than to a user interface change that affects their workflow.

Visual design changes tend to provoke instantaneous, emotional reactions like “That’s gorgeous!” or “That’s hideous!” Reactions to workflow changes, however, take slightly longer to emerge, and it normally takes users longer to adapt to such changes.

When evaluating users’ reactions, try to analyze the impact of the feedback rather than the emotion behind it. For example, does “That’s hideous!” mean “Now I won’t renew my subscription”? Or does it simply mean “I wouldn’t have chosen those colors”? However, when evaluating a workflow complaint, be sure to weigh the short-term and long-term impacts and judge whether a user is simply experiencing short-term difficulty adjusting to the change or a deeper workflow issue is at work.

Consider Whether User Support or Training Would Be Necessary

If you’re creating a product that needs to have a walk-up-and-use interface, such as an ATM machine, its user interface should be instantly comprehensible, so it obviously should not require a manual or any form of training. However, if you are developing an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solution or software for managing complex electronic medical records, users may understand—and even expect—that they’ll need to spend some time learning how to use it properly. If that’s the case, you’ll probably have more leeway in implementing user interface changes that would be beneficial, but require a certain amount of training or hand-holding. During usability testing, observe users carefully, and note common areas of confusion to ensure that any necessary training addresses the most common and important user tasks.

Consider What Would Happen If You Don’t Make Changes

Sometimes, when a product is successful, companies feel that they shouldn’t mess with a good thing. But this kind of thinking can lull companies into complacency and cause products to fall behind in the marketplace. While there is always a certain amount of risk in updating a user interface, there’s usually a larger risk that your product would stagnate and become outdated if you don’t make changes. Plus, if you don’t take the risk of improving your user experience, chances are that a competitor will improve theirs.

It’s all too easy to take the conservative approach and maintain things the way they are, ensuring that you don’t negatively impact customer goodwill by making a bad user interface decision. However, the reality is that, through conscientious product management, user research, and UX design, your user interface updates can reliably produce results that keep your product ahead of the curve and win in the marketplace. 

Vice President of User Experience Design at Macadamian

Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

Scott PlewesScott has deep expertise in user experience design, user research, and incorporating the voice of the customer into product design. With 20 years of experience in the field of UX design, he has worked in both the public and private sectors. His UX design skills cover the spectrum of desktop, Web, and mobile applications for a wide range of telecommunications, healthcare, enterprise, and consumer products. A strong advocate for collaboration between multiple disciplines, as well as user and stakeholder involvement in the creation of exceptional UX designs, Scott frequently speaks at software and design conferences across North America.  Read More

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