We roll our eyes when we see it: "Your phone has been updated to the latest operating system." This unwelcome message means we'll probably spend the rest of the day running into confusing changes and trying to learn some new way to open our camera app.
Changes like this can be frustrating, especially in systems that we use every day. The more we use an interface, the more our use of it becomes a muscle memory, and this makes changes jarring. Even minor changes. Even changes we know are an improvement.
UX professionals are always striving to improve experiences, but this is especially challenging with well-established systems, systems people use often or with great familiarity. How can we continue to make improvements when users aren't asking for a change — or don't want one?
There are a number of reasons why users resist change. Humans are capable of learning and adapting; it’s something we have done since the beginning of time. So why do we get annoyed when Instagram changes its navigation? Why do people hate design updates sometimes and not others?
Baby Duck Syndrome
Some of this could be explained by something called imprinting, or "Baby Duck Syndrome," first studied by ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Baby ducks (and other birds) become attached to the first creature they see, whether or not it is their mother, whether or not it is even a bird. Users do the same thing with a system: they attach to the first one they use and they assume it is the "right" one. Users will tend to prefer this first system over other possible replacements and they will compare all other systems to that original experience.
Accepting Poor Usability
Users tend to accept poor usability on systems that they use routinely – their process becomes muscle memory and routine. It might not be a great user experience at all, but once they complete a task enough times, it becomes less difficult, and therefore acceptable. Complex interfaces don’t bother users after working with them for a long enough period of time. They create their own workarounds and make these systems work for them. Once they’ve invested this time and energy, they fear a new system will be just as time consuming to learn, and they dread starting from scratch.
Method of Change
In addition, users might not hate change itself, but rather the way the change is implemented. Users can become frustrated if they are caught off guard by a major design change. The new design might be better in the long run, but in the moment, they are unfamiliar and annoyed that the change happened without warning. The unfamiliarity can be perceived as negative experience: learning the new design can slow them down at first, creating frustration.
I spent the first years of my career observing users who worked with scientific instruments, specifically mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography instruments. Many of the users I observed had been working with these instruments for years, and within that time, the user experience had changed very little. These instruments are not known for their ease of use, but rather for reliability and robustness. The people I observed accepted the poor usability of the instrument as long as it gave them reliable results.
This makes sense: in the scientific industry, errors can be very costly: if a sample is misplaced during a run, for example, this would result in the run needing to be repeated, which could take hours or days to complete, resulting in lost time and money.
In the UX world, we know that 'human error' is just another way of saying 'Design fail!'
Not all, but many of the costly errors in this work are attributed to human error. But in the UX world, we know that "human error" is just another way of saying “Design fail!” So the goal of the UX studies for these instruments was to uncover ways to prevent human error. In theory, the scientists should support these kinds of changes, because they improve the reliability of the work. But in practice, many of the changes we would suggest were immediately rejected: users said their lack of familiarity with the new instrument would keep them from trusting their results. The scientists were reluctant to change even when the change was an improvement, because usability was a lower priority to them than trust in their instruments and stability in test results.
Swinging Door Example
In one study I observed, users were asked to perform maintenance tasks on an instrument that they used routinely. During this study, a door to the instrument didn’t stay open, and continuously swung back and hit users as they tried to work. Some users propped the door open with their elbows or shoulders as they needed both hands to work on the instrument, and one even was hit in the head by the door!
But despite this obvious usability issue, not one user complained or even mentioned the swinging door, even when probed. They all had created workarounds that they used to complete the task, completely disregarding the swinging door. A small change like a fixed hinge can greatly improve the overall experience working on an instrument, but not a single user mentioned the door as an area of difficulty. Users may be so used to how a thing works that they don't even perceive it as a usability issue.
So how can UX professionals make design changes to well-established systems? Just because users accept poor usability doesn’t mean that nothing can be done! There are a few ways designers can identify areas of improvement that users might not notice, and there are also ways to make updates that will not frustrate users.
A heuristic review is a method of usability study in which a UX expert measures an interface against standard usability heuristics. Having an outside perspective looking for specific usability measures can catch things that many users do not. This type of review removes any bias or established mental models that users might have after using a system for years. It is a great way to identify areas of potential UX improvement that routine users are so accustomed to that they don’t even realize it is an issue.
Another way to implement changes without completely frustrating users is to give them some control over when those changes take place. You could let them know in advance that a change is coming or give them the ability to revert to the original interface for a period of time. This gives users time to prepare and get familiar with the new design without feeling forced or blindsided. It keeps the control in user’s hands and eliminates some of the surprise that can lead to frustration.
If you do decide to implement a major design change, a quick walk-though or guided tour can help orient the user and create a more seamless transition. Major changes without any instructions can be really frustrating!
Listen to Users (And Observe Them Too!)
Always make sure that the changes you are making are the ones that users want – even if they didn’t specifically ask! Collecting feedback helps UX researchers and designers know what their users are looking for, what frustrates them, and what could be done differently. But, as seen in the swinging door example, users might not always know how to improve an experience! That is why it is just as important to track and observe how users actually interact with a system in reality, not just rely on the feedback that they give.