23 Jan 2008

Radical Redesigns May Be Dangerous

23 Jan 2008

Many clients are excited by radical user experience redesigns; few realize that radical redesigns are not always warranted and often pose potentially grievous problems for users.

Throughout my career I have been involved in a number of projects that called for a ‘radical redesign’ of an existing product or service. To their credit, those clients realized that they needed to surpass the status quo to gain a competitive advantage and were willing to embark on a profoundly new direction to do so. Yet this desire to drastically change a product or service must be balanced against the difficulty users may face in adjusting to, learning, and evaluating those new experiences. Generally speaking, the more radical the redesign is, the greater the possibility that users will not accept the new version.

Every redesigned facet of the user experience must be processed, understood and internalized by users; this requires users to expend energy. At the same time, users are only willing to invest energy if they see that the action will generate a worthwhile benefit. That means three things. First, each desired change to the user experience really must be an improvement for the users. Second, it must be clearly communicated to the user that each change is meant to benefit them. This can be as simple as listing the changes and explaining how they are enhancements. Third, great pains must be taken to ensure that each change is easy to learn.

Another consequence that must be taken into account is the anxiety that a redesign, by being a departure from the familiar, may cause. This unease can be caused by a number of concerns such as a fear of making critical errors in a new interaction environment, an apprehension of learning a new system, or an uncertainty that the new version will still do what the user requires.

The last point is illustrated by a recent personal incident. The online project management software that our firm uses made big changes to its user experience. In the process of trying to improve the product, however, it swapped a simple task list for more robust and complicated feature. We have not yet adopted the new version because we are afraid that it will no longer fulfill our needs.

These effects on users have real, measurable business impacts. When considering extreme changes to an existing user experience, one must recognize that the client has worked very hard to win current customers (users). One must also understand that with every redesign, even a subtle one, those valuable users may abandon the product or service because they may not accept changes to something with which they are familiar. It may be that the changes will, in fact, be beneficial to them in the long run, but they just do not want to give up something that they already know and understand.

The business impacts of a radical redesign may also extend to the effectiveness of a service of profitability of a product. For example, if a ecommerce company drastically redesigns their checkout process in a way that is hard to understand and in a way that is imposing to the users, fewer may actually go through the check out process and sales may be lost.

In addition, creating a user experience that is a great departure from the previous version may lead users to explore competitors. One powerful factor in users’ loyalty is the comfort of a familiar product or service. If the familiarity is no longer there, there is less to keep customers from straying to competitors.

Prospective customers have slightly different challenges than existing customers. They are more likely to be wowed by big changes to a user experience, and marketing folk are very adept at leveraging these improvements as attractive qualities to the customer (user); however, a prospective customer has the daunting task of evaluating a product or service that he or she wishes to adopt. If a product of service drastically changes, the context for that evaluation may be temporarily lost. In other words, while the new version is adopted and evaluated, there will be less such consumer information, like reviews, during that period.

Beyond making the service or product temporarily harder to evaluate, there is another common challenge. The prospective user may hold off on adopting a new product or service until all the ‘kinks’ are worked out. The perception is that the bigger the change in user experience from one version to the next, the greater the number of kinks.

Although there are real challenges and dangers associated with sweeping user experience redesigns, they are sometimes warranted and necessary. One does not want to be too conservative in one’s redesign if there are major issues to resolve or if big changes can set the client apart from competition. If the user experience strategy dictates that a radical redesign is needed, steps must be taken to ensure that existing users can easily convert to the new version and that users understand the benefits of all those changes.

In my next article, ‘Dealing with Radical User Experience Redesigns‘, I discuss how to successfully implement radical redesigns.


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