Key takeaways

  • A radically changed product or site design can be difficult for users to adopt.
  • Good communication is a key strategy for success.
  • You don’t have to make just one major update – try initiating change in increments.

At the end of last year, Glad Australia announced a number of changes to its Glad Wrap range, made after “rigorous and extensive in-home research”. One of the biggest changes was moving the serrated cutter from the bottom of the box to the lid.

“All changes were made in response to customer feedback. […] We wanted to give our customers a much better experience and better value, at no extra cost,” a Glad Wrap representative said.

Despite their best intentions, the new location of the cutter provoked an unexpected backlash. Customers flocked to social media and talkback radio to voice their frustration, saying the new design was counter-intuitive.

Instead of tearing down, as they were used to, they now had to tear up.

Under pressure from its loyal customer base, in January 2015 Glad announced that it would be returning to the original design, a change estimated to cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kicking the habit

If Glad had indeed undertaken extensive user research and testing before making the change, what went wrong? We may never know, but they were up against a powerful force in user design: habit.

According to a 2006 study from Duke University we spend more than 40% of each day performing habitual actions – a behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

This has implications for the online world.

When users use an app, website or system regularly, they develop habits and rely on memory rather than focussing on the content. They learn the design, mastering it over time, becoming fast and efficient and eventually using it without thinking. This can make it hard to make changes without upsetting loyal users. Changing deeply ingrained habits is hard!

Change is usually a good thing, especially when it makes something more fun, engaging or efficient to use – but dealing with change can be difficult for users. When products change, expert users suddenly become novices, leaving them feeling disoriented and frustrated.

Radical redesigns

When the BBC recently switched to a responsive website in order to better accommodate tablets and smartphones, it received comments calling it “an unmitigated disaster” and asking “please don’t do this”. They responded by saying the launch was just a starting point.

Jared Spool writes about the dramatic, and sometimes negative, impact of radical, ‘flip the switch’ redesigns:

“In most cases, people hate change because they don’t like to suddenly become stupid.” –  Jared Spool

User research and testing is obviously key in avoiding backlash to major changes, but there are strategies you can use to mitigate the effects of change.

You can make slow and incremental changes: eBay and Amazon have never had major redesigns, but have evolved through continuous improvements over time.

Or you could allow users to access both the old and the new versions until they have “acclimatised” and feel comfortable.

There are some further useful strategies for mitigating the effects of change. Google Ventures suggests:

1. Let users know that changes are coming

This was the approach taken by the BBC. Website editor of BBC News, Steve Herrmann said he took lessons from previous relaunches of the BBC site:

“The last relaunch was very much a big bang, all in one go. At the time we didn’t give people a way of previewing what it was going to be like. With [our latest relaunch], we created a promotional banner to bring it to people’s attention on desktop to say have a look –  with the aim of inviting people to see what we were working on.”

2. Communicate why change is happening

Site changes may be driven by factors such as enhancing speed, accessibility, improving certain back-end functions and adapting to new technologies, such as responsive design due to audiences predominantly using tablets and mobiles. These issues and their value are not always obvious to individual users.

3. Provide instructions and support

This can help turn the user away from feeling ‘stupid’ and frustrated with the new design.

4. Allow users to provide feedback

One of the observations made by Glad’s marketing department was that they had relied too heavily on traditional research methods but hadn’t focussed on the real-time feedback offered by social media. By enabling a dialogue with your user you can gauge effectiveness and respond quickly.

5. Give your own feedback on major issues users have raised

If you’re implementing incremental changes in response to feedback, why not share that with your customers? This was demonstrated with the BBC launch, where the BBC product manager noted some of the changes that were made due to their audience’s feedback. Users that have taken the time to raise issues with you have the potential to become your biggest advocates. Seize the opportunity with effective communication.


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Kate Needham

Kate is a senior user experience designer with a multidisciplinary background. She has a degree in communications and post-graduate qualifications in public administration and more than 20 years of experience in corporate communications, marketing, publishing, website management, multimedia production and project management in both the public and private sectors. She is an award-winning intranet specialist, with strong hands-on experience in intranet design, development and management.

Kate has a broad range of skills and experience in designing online experiences, including user research, requirements gathering and analysis, information architecture, content strategy, interface design and accessibility. Her broad range of skills and experience has given her the ability to bridge the gaps between technology, creative, business and operations.

In her spare time, Kate enjoys overseas travel, sewing, exploring cafes, watching foreign films, and the occasional fun run.

“I love designing solutions to complex problems and the endless possibilities for making everyday life simpler.”

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