Design Changes and Power

In a comment on my last post, Thomas McGee made a good observation about people who complain about design changes in software. He pointed out that those complaining about a change are the ones who know exactly what’s being changed, and how everything works before and after the change. This means that the people criticizing the change are actually not going to be confused by the new interface. So why the negative feedback?

It’s a case of the user’s power being seized by the designer, albeit a very tiny amount. People spent the time learning your interface – they’ve invested this time – and as a result they’ve gained a little power in the world – that is, they’ve gained the ability to better control their environment. With every interface change, their level of control gets pushed back a little, and they have to reorient themselves around the new design. But what’s worse is probably not that people need to spend time learning the new interface – this probably won’t take long – but that they can feel power being taken away from them.

Software these days tends to auto-update itself, so the changes often come as a surprise. One moment you’re using the old interface, and then when you sign in later in the day you may find that something has been changed. It’s a little bit like coming back home only to find your furniture re-arranged. Even if the new change is good, the act of the redesign takes away your control over your environment, if only just a little. This is what sparks the powerful reaction against design updates on software forums. People who are used to the arrangement of their furniture don’t really hate the new arrangement – what they hate is having the new arrangement suddenly imposed on them.

This can be flipped around. When Twitter launched a major redesign of their Web app (the previous design, not the current one), they rolled it out gradually, giving only a few select accounts a taste of the new. This created artificial scarcity. Those few people who were now lucky enough to experience the shiny new design felt special and chosen. Those who weren’t chosen wanted the new design precisely because it was scarce, and thus valuable.

As the new design was activated on more accounts, people embraced the change because it was giving them power, not taking it away. Rather than coming home to find your furniture rearranged, they came home to find a new Ferrari they were dreaming of parked on their doorstep. In the former case, the change is unexpected and thus unwanted, in the latter: expected – they knew they were going to get the new design at some point – and desired.