Helping Users to Absorb Change: Four Steps Designers Can Take

January 19, 2015

Articles and surveys on the Web and in print tell us that people feel overwhelmed by the ever-increasing pace of change in technology. And, of course, these articles offer a lot of helpful advice on how to ease the stress that people may be feeling as a result of such changes.

As an early-adopting, tech-savvy UX professional, I feel that I should thrive on technological change, be readily able to make sense of it, and incorporate the latest, greatest innovations into my own personal technology landscape. However, I must admit that I am better at this sometimes than others, when I find myself reaching the limit of my capacity to absorb it all. Therefore, I’ve started trying to take a more considered approach toward looking at each new application that comes across my screens. Plus, my time is more precious than ever, so before I download and install an app, I ask myself, How would this improve my current situation?

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Looking back over the course of my education and career, I’m reminded of how many applications and technologies have come and gone—tools that I spent weeks or months mastering only to have them fall out of favor and be overtaken by something new. It’s impossible to predict what is going to take root and grow.

Take a moment to look beyond your own technology landscape and consider how this constant avalanche of change is affecting the rest of the world. Marketers are relentless in their efforts to make us aware of—and to desire—their company’s new devices, apps, and services. They’re constantly reminding us just how powerful and capable their new devices are. They might even make us feel a bit guilty that we’re using just a tiny fraction of what is possible.

Ask your less technology-oriented friends and family what they think about Google Inbox or whether they’ve upgraded their operating system, and you might just hear more than you expect: an outpouring of emotion that goes far beyond their opinions about some user interface changes. I routinely hear statements bordering on apologies—about feelings of anxiety and inadequacy regarding their ability or desire to keep up with things; anger and resentment about their lack of control; and sometimes even a threat to simply withdraw from the use of technology entirely. These feelings, while not necessarily rational or realistic, are nonetheless very real to those experiencing them. It’s easy to see why the media have seized upon such reactions, but their continual commentary and advice just add fuel to the fire.

Understanding Resistance to Change

For UX designers, this situation matters. As we seek to understand and empathize with users, it’s critically important that we acknowledge and anticipate that at least some users may not actually want the latest update. They may not regard a notification that an update is coming or is getting installed with anticipation and delight. Their fear and anxiety about change and disruption may exceed any touted benefit of something new and improved. We, in the design community, should anticipate and take into account this emerging defensive use case—especially when designing Web sites and applications with complex workflows for specially trained users, who may have had a long time to become comfortable with a particular user interface.

While it still may be worthwhile and sometimes really necessary to do a complete or even radical redesign of a site or application, it is clear that we must consider the users’ current comfort level and expectations before moving forward. Of course, this may seem like simple common sense or a basic principle of UX design, but it’s important to remember this and not get swept up in our team’s excitement about bringing out something new. It’s also important to remind our clients that their users may not share their particular point of view.

What are some specific problems to look out for? What can we do to help users overcome them?

The Mental Model

Probably most important to users is their deeply ingrained mental model of a site or application. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem for new sites or applications, but for redesigns of existing, complex sites and applications, you should expect to see or hear about resistance to change. Even if the existing domain model isn’t very good, expert users will have adapted to it—and we all know that old habits can be very hard to change. You can just hear them in the usability testing lab, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I just know where things are.

Users may at first perceive our moving things around as making change simply for the sake of change. But if you’ve done a thorough job of examining the primary use cases and re-architecting a site or application based on current use cases, your new information architecture should inherently make sense. Once users can see that changes make things easier for them, you can hope that they’ll embrace the new design.


The other aspect of any site or application redesign that is particularly challenging is making changes to workflows that would directly and deeply impact the user experience. As a UX designer, you’ve really got only one chance to get this right. Any failure to quickly and directly address any existing frustrations or, even worse, creating new painpoints that would aggravate users could inflict lasting damage to users’ perception of a site or application—ultimately, affecting their perception of the brand behind it.

Developing an understanding of the primary use cases, resolving users’ painpoints, and obviating the need for workarounds that users have developed is key to a successful redesign. Once users experience a simpler workflow that lets them intuitively understand what they’re there to do, they’ll quickly forget all about the old way of doing things and soon begin to wonder how they managed to deal with the old workflow in the first place.

Visual Design

Even if you keep every function in exactly the same place and don’t change a single thing in the workflow, just changing the color palette, you’re still likely to elicit strong responses from many users. This just goes to show how critical the overall look and feel of a site or application is to the user experience. Any change in style must immediately make sense to users and inherently support a change in the branding or positioning of the product or service. Along with changes in layout, color, and imagery, a good redesign should include any necessary changes in editorial tone, content, or labeling.

Helping to Ease Their Transition

If you’ve done a good job and have actually designed a better, easier-to-use site or application, users should be able to adapt quickly. Nevertheless, you should anticipate an initial response of fear and resistance to the new user experience. So here are some things that you can do to help users over that hurdle.

Keep What’s Working

If there are substantial elements of the existing site’s or application’s user experience that you can essentially leave alone, try to keep them as intact as possible. In particular, retain core navigation concepts and elements—especially button labels and link text—because these are the first things that users will look for as they try to accomplish their tasks. Similarly, it’s fine to update the visual style of icons, but try to retain icons’ fundamental visual concept so users can still identify their functions. Retaining as many familiar parts of a user experience as possible will give users some sense of control amidst the overall changes to the experience.

If Possible, Make Changes Incrementally

While rolling out an entirely new experience might be simpler for development or make a better sound bite for the media, consider taking things slowly. If the architecture and your development cycle allow it, don’t change the entire user experience all at once. Make changes gradually, so users have an opportunity to adapt to them and can retain some sense of control over their environment. Introduce changes over the course of a sequence of updates.

Warn Users About Any Impending Changes

Let users know that changes are coming. Surprises can be disorienting and leave users feeling powerless. Just knowing that a change is coming gives users some sense of control. Use social-media channels to communicate with users about upcoming changes and include visual examples of the new design, highlighting new features, functions, and changes from the existing design.

Provide Onboarding

When releasing new code that changes the user experience, include a brief, interstitial tutorial screen or a series of screens that appears when the user first launches the new site or application. Use visual cues—not just words—to specifically point out where users will find the new features, describe what they do, and clarify other changes to the user experience. By providing short tutorials in conjunction with incremental changes, you can effectively ease users into new experiences.


Change happens, so users must ultimately understand that change is inevitable—and that it’s usually for the good. As user advocates, it is our job to make change easier for users and to give them some control over managing the intensity of the pace at which they must adapt to change. 

Principal at Joel Rosen Design

Rochester, New York, USA

Joel RosenJoel has more than 30 years of experience in information design. He began his career as a print designer, then moved to desktop publishing and technical illustration as design progress from print to digital. Prior to joining EffectiveUI in 2012, Joel spent 14 years at Eastman Kodak Company as an interaction designer and creative director. He is passionate about learning the complex details and inner workings of systems and meeting the new challenges that each client project presents. Joel has a Masters of Fine Arts in Computer Graphics Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology.  Read More

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