Change is hard. When a beloved and well-used website gets a dramatic facelift, passions are stirred. That passion can manifest itself as love, but more often than not, it manifests as extreme displeasure…or even hate. The more beloved (or unchanging) the website, the hotter the temperature of the embittered comments that result.
There are two sides to the reaction of any extensive redesign: that of the design team and that of the website’s users. Each has a vested interest in the success of the redesign but from very different perspectives. This has been highlighted to me in a somewhat dramatic fashion as I’ve recently found myself living on both sides of this equation.
The Designer’s View
In any significant redesign, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of thinking and planning involved. The user never sees this behind-the-scenes effort; the content strategy, the stakeholder interviews, the competitive benchmarking, the planning for site structure, the user interface design, the weeks of team discussions and debates. This work lasts for months and at the end of it the development team has poured their hearts into a product they’re sure will please—if not thrill!—their target audiences. Else, they either wouldn’t release it or sign their professional name to it.
I managed a significant redesign project recently in which I led the effort to completely overhaul the online presence of Brookhaven National Laboratory. My team went through all of these steps and at the end of the process, we had a product that we were very proud indeed to sign our names to. While the release of the new design went off without many hitches, I was not prepared for the backlash against what we considered a minor change to the site basic template in which we repositioned the search box to a far more conventional location at the top right corner of the page. Users were outraged. Many accused us of having gotten rid of the search box altogether. To some of them, the new location was simply invisible. That’s a solvable usability and habituation issue, but it’s the intensity of emotion that’s worth noting here. Site users do not like sweeping change—even when every theory and design convention in the book suggests that the proper change has been made. Because of the inelegant criticisms leveled against the design team, I felt personally insulted. I simply couldn’t understand why site users would react so violently to what was, by almost any objective standard, a vastly improved website.
What I as a designer really wanted our users to know was that no change was ever made because we wanted to make their lives more difficult. Every change was made in the hope and belief that it would make their overall experience better. I made a note to myself to the effect that when I encountered a new design, I’d first consider this experience, empathize with the designer, and try to find things that I liked about the design before I launched into a screed about how terrible it was. I’ve had a chance to put this to the test.
The End User’s View
This week, with the release of the first major revision of the Flickr interface in many years, I find myself playing the role of the Irritated Site User. For reasons that are opaque to me as someone outside the redesign team, a decision was made to replace the original interface for navigating through picture libraries with a tile-based interface reminiscent of Windows 8 or Google+. The new design eschews the very concept of white space, jamming as many photos as will possibly fit in the viewport. It moves relevant metadata off the screen such that one is now required to scroll in order to see it and overall site performance has been dramatically impacted in terms of speed. In short, I’m devastated by the loss of a site I once loved…a site which had an interface that was so functional and familiar that it was transparent to me. I now find myself feeling edgy and discomfited by a design that feels clumsy and simply “wrong.”
When I first saw Flickr’s new design, I held to my personal rule of trying to see the good in what the design team was trying to accomplish. Surely, every choice they made was done in the belief that it would make my experience as a site user better. Maybe I just had to immerse myself in the design for a few days to allow their wisdom to become apparent. Find the good first before lashing out with ill-considered criticism, I told myself. Alas, after soaking in a new design that I’ve tried to embrace, I find that I can’t.
Does the Flickr design team want to hear from me, the loyal but now disgruntled user? Would they think “this guy just doesn’t understand how much better this design really is” or, if I offered my criticism in a measured, polite way would they say “wait a minute. He’s got a point there”?
Maybe there’s no practical way for design teams and end users to see eye-to-eye on these technical and emotional details, but I believe this is true: it’s reasonable for design teams to be credited by site users for their skill as communications professionals but end users should be listened to when overwhelming feedback makes it apparent that a major element of a redesign has failed. Real-world results trump textbook theory every time.