Users don’t hate change. They hate you.

Recently, more than the color of the leaves on the trees has been changing. Everyone seems to be redesigning. Apple’s OS7Slatenew features on TwitterGoogle, the Yahoo logo (and much of Yahoo) — even my kid’s school website. And users are angry, annoyed, exhausted, eye-rolling… not delighted.

This user does not want your “improvements”


And so the usual comment comes: users hate change.

Now this is a funny comment, considering that the entire silicon valley has been built on the fact that users like change so much they pay for it. If users hated change, Google would have failed, and we’d be happy with Altavista. Facebook would have failed, because Friendster was enough. Paypal would have failed, because, you know credit cards. And Skype? whatevs, I got a phone in my house dude!

What’s not being said is Users don’t hate change. Users hate change that doesn’t make things better, but makes everything have to be relearned. In fact, users don’t like change that might improve their lives if they don’t perceive the value of that change.

In Eager Sellers and Stoney Buyers, John Gournville points out that getting consumers to adopt a new product is incredibly difficult

“First, people evaluate the attractiveness of an alternative based not on its objective, or actual, value but on its subjective, or perceived, value. Second, consumers evaluate new products or investments relative to a reference point, usually the products they already own or consume. Third, people view any improvements relative to this reference point as gains and treat all shortcomings as losses.

Fourth, and most important, losses have a far greater impact on people than similarly sized gains, a phenomenon that Kahneman and Tversky called “loss aversion.” For instance, studies show that most people will not accept a bet in which there is a 50% chance of winning $100 and a 50% chance of losing $100.The gains from the wager must outweigh the losses by a factor of between two and three before most people find such a bet attractive.”

So when a big change comes, the end users is focused on what they have lost: productivity, comfort, familiarity. And the users weight that loss as three times more important that any gain that company professes to offer. The exact same math applies to redesigns: you moved my cheese and I am not happy about it.

Add to that sense of loss a loss of happiness. Research has long shown that the #1 predictor of happiness is a sense of control. Angus Campell says in Psychology Today

“Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered,”

Now let’s imagine users of a product. They know where everything is. They know how it works. And one day you change it. And because you think you are Apple (or because you are Apple) you change how the product looks and works without one word of explanation of where you put key features like search or the navigation system. And suddenly the users have lost their sense of control and their happiness along with it without one word from you on how their life is about to get much, much better. You’ve basically snuck into their house and rearranged their living room furniture to a more pleasing (to you) configuration. Without permission or warning.

Or perhaps you take the Slate route, and tell people where all the features went, but not why they should care.

The overlay Slate ran when they launched their redesign


The overlay is a nasty “best practice” that is migrating from lazy app onboarding to sloppy web design. Why is it a bad choice? You interrupt your users from the goal they were pursuing to ask them to memorize how you’ve rearranged the furniture, then they close the map. Are you surprised when they bark their shins?

Users can’t find functionality they care about

So why does it happen? Why do companies keep making radical changes without fully explaining how those changes will benefit their customers?

Again, we can turn to Guerville for an answer, in the form of an elegant little chart

From Eager Sellers, Stoney Buyers

Not only are your users sitting there, seething in resentment as they realize you’ve moved everything that gave them a sense of control over their device/service/website your team thinks they have just delivered sliced bread 2.0.

This conversation captures the tension in the attitudes:

Updating the software to the latest fashion in visual design — say flat— is certainly a high value change, right? Why wouldn’t we love an interface that was hip and chic and fresh? You silly users, you like skeumorphism? That’s so five years ago.

Looking through the IOS 7 website when trying to figure out where they had hidden search, I realized Apple can’t explain the value of the change because — like most fashion—it’s subjective. The entire OS7 site is a miasma of design-flavored techno-babble and obscure internal names for features that are never explained: “Now with Airdrop!”

It’s beautiful because it’s beautfiul

And throughout they tell you over and over again that is beautiful, familiar and simple, as if to hypnotize you into submission. If it’s so simple, why am I have having such a hard time? If it’s familiar, why can’t I find settings?

There are a few real clear improvements, like easy access to my calendar from anywhere including within apps. But that isn’t covered on on the OS7 site. They are too busy telling you how hard simple is, and how beautiful OS7 is. Orwell would weep.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, simple, beautiful, beautiful, familiar, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful… have we convinced you yet?


But in some ways, it’s the Twitter example that drives home this point the hardest. It really is hard to follow conversations on Twitter. Some of the funniest stuff on Twitter happens when people go back and forth, yet it’s easy to miss. The blue line should have been a godsend. But a search shows a mixed reaction, mostly negative.

Perhaps people don’t like the change because of a a weakness in the design metaphor. Perhaps they didn’t spend enough time hypnotizing the users that the blue line is beautiful. Or perhaps they just didn’t warn people change was coming, but it was going to be ok because now it was going to be easier to follow conversations.

Maybe they took a page out of Facebook’s playbook (the company hated at the same level as cable companies) and decided to give the users “improvements” and just wait for the screaming to pass. This is an approach that works well when users don’t have a choice of an alternative. This is an approach start-ups would love you to take.

The moment you succumb to the notion that “users just hate change,” you’ve ceased designing for your audience.
Ryan Freitas

Change is expensive, even when it’s free. Change is expensive in relearning. Change is expensive when you feel like you no longer have a choice in how you live your life. For change to be accepted, it needs to first have real value to the user. Then it must be explained clearly in the language of that person’s values. Not the designers’, not the company’s.

Rather than take on admission of failure to communicate the need and benefit of a change, too many teams decide to blame the very people who write the checks: the end users.

Also See:

Consistency is a Tactic

The North Star

Compassionate Design

World’s Easiest Way to Critique a Design

The Law of the Conservation of Complexity


Add Yours
  1. 1

    I’ve seen this for years on, of all places, social networking / community sites. When the developers are up front about everything – and I mean outages included – there’s a high degree of user loyalty. Done well, users will in fact pay money for an otherwise free service. Forcing devs to talk about change also clarifies that there is an actual reason to make a change. But start messing with everyone’s personal coffee klatch (opt-out improvements, egads), and they’ll start forming groups complaining about you. On the same site. Contrast LiveJournal with Dreamwidth.

    Sometimes I think designers need some brick-and-mortar experience to grasp the concept of customer service. If design is like fashion, remember the customer fills their own closet. The average user does not like to be told they don’t know how to dress themselves.

  2. 6
    Sidney François (@sdnyco)

    While I am not here to defend Apple’s IOS 7 (I personally dislike it; not because I am not a fan of flat design, but because it could have been done better), I find it hard to argue that the outcry after re-designs of major websites are a mere public relations issue.

    Fact is: The way we (customers) FEEL about using a product efficiently is by no means an indicator on how efficient a product really is (or could be). I personally like the Facebook (and now Twitter) approach of simply ignoring the collective uproar–which I am sometimes a part of–after new changes. After all, most of the time we end up accepting, maybe even liking the feature (and changes) they implemented.

    The “customer knows best” philosophy seems very mid-20th century to me. I am all for constructive criticism; but I am not expecting to get it from the masses.

  3. 7
    Chris M

    We tend to overlook the fact that several physical things have stopped changing in terms of design: scissors, staplers, knives, paper clips, cups. They tend to treated as mundane objects, but I think you can make the case that they reached their optimal state and then stopped changing. Website designers seem to think that their website has never reached an optimal state.

  4. 8

    People who do not listen to the feelings, needs and values of the customers are likely to not have customers for very long.

  5. 9
    Respawn: Redesign of right and wrong

    […] Update: – I added (thanks to Alexis) a short review of who is at the begining of this article. – A bad point too is that users do not have a global view of others – companies or other users – needs. Without the global view as plan, as how to arrange them and which I goal, ideas risk to be bricks collapsing soon after launching. And with so much visitors, even a few hundreds cannot speaks for millions. Users do not like changes. […]

  6. 10
    Tim Allan (@thebottlerocket)

    Not sure if this is covered elsewhere but I wonder if there is a ‘stat’ on the number of people who complain about a change to the number of people who don’t say anything because they’re happy with it.

    The squeaky wheels get the most attention but without knowing the split, we don’t know how much attention they should get? Are they representative of the vast majority of customers? Or are they a very vocal minority? But as a minority are they vocal enough to trash your product rep in front of potential loyal customers (the trip advisor mud-slinging effect).

    As a product maker your product it never going to appeal to everyone. The question is, are the complaints valid enough to warrant you do something about it?

  7. 11
    Meta Brown

    Christina, this is fabulous. You’ve really gone to the heart of a very common software design problem.

    I recall a major redesign of one product at a software firm where I used to work. Power user features were stripped out, and the power users were mighty displeased. Marketing began referring to these users as an extremist “fringe” group and pushed forward. Users abandoned the product.

    This week I have been doing battle with Chicago’s new payment system for public transit. It’s by far the worst of its kind. It lacks even simple features that the previous system offered, it’s riddled with errors, the interface is terribly clunky. And, just to be particularly annoying, it keeps changing my name. Where did we get this new and improved payment system? From a bank that operates only in South Dakota and Iowa – places not known for their use of public transit. I’m convinced that the designers have never even visited the big city.

  8. 12
    Meta Brown

    Tim, it is certainly possible to obtain that type of statistical information. It requires a post-release user survey, which is certainly a good thing. A survey can provide information that tells you whether the unhappy users are a small minority or a big slice of the users base.

    Remember, though, that the number of unhappy users is only part of the picture. You must also consider which users are influential over other current or prospective customers. If your goal, for example, is to get organizations to standardize on your product, then the product will have to reasonably accommodate the needs of a wide variety of users. Even if that isn’t your goal – your competitor may wipe you off the map by persuading organizations to standardize on a competing product.

  9. 14
    Keef M (@keefmoon)

    Sure, products could continue on in exactly the same way, year after year and they may retain many of the users they already have, until something shinier comes along and they jump ship. But aren’t re-designs and new features to acquire new users, with new features or a fresh new look. This may be at the expense of temporary grumbling of current users, but any product that stagnates will eventually die.

  10. 16
    A redesign done right | c0up

    […] This post on Eleganthack struck a chord with me last week. There’s plenty of wisdom in there (so read it), in particular, the simple enough idea of explaining the benefit of change to users on their terms. You’d be surprised how often it isn’t done. […]

  11. 17
    Nils Davis

    Regarding the factor of 9, I consider it a rule of thumb that any *new* product – and it might be a change in an existing product – has to be 10x better than its predecessor in some important, hopefully measurable dimension, or it’s just not cost-effective for the users to change.

    But your main subtext point, that too much of the change we see is just not well-motivated, and at best only benefits the vendor, is fundamental. As we’ve been discussing today on Twitter, “[x change] is good/OK if it’s in the user’s interest. It’s bad if it’s in the app’s/vendor’s interest.” And, it should go without saying, it’s bad if it’s in no one’s interest, ie., it’s “just because,” such as flat design.

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