Small Change, Big Impact

I’ve been looking at jobs at some very large places of late and I’ve been spending some time thinking about how small changes to an interface that is used by many thousands of people for a long time can cause large problems. I don’t mean changes that are bad, I mean really well thought out, well conceived changes that we perceive as ‘fixes’. If many users, who are uncomfortable with technology and computers in general, are accustomed to ambiguous labels or seemingly random icons they may react very badly to a change, even one that seems to be for the better.

Some of this can be fixed with training, but one of the goals of a good interface designer and all of that usability testing we do is to avoid creating designs that need a ton of explanation and training. If a new design requires retraining 10,000 employees or users to deal with the new labels and icons the redesign may not be worth the trouble.

So how can we deal with users that can’t deal with change? In a system with a lot of new users the redesign may make sense because it will allow them to pick things up with out having to learn to deal with all of the poor design earlier users did. On the other hand if you have many long term users with little turn over you must weigh the cost of the change and their ability to adapt to the altered interface against the benefits of the new interface.

So far in my design career I have dealt mostly with systems that I can change at will. Once I have identified the problem I am free to figure out the best way to change it and I go ahead, if the change is big or potentially confusing to existing users I provide an explanation of the changes and how to handle them. This was how I handled the redesign of the CIMdata web site. It was a drastic overhaul so I posted a notice on the front page advising that changes were going to happen soon, what they were, and why they were being made. After the launch of the new site I left a notice on the homepage for a month explaining all of the changes.

I find this to be an interesting problem in usability and one that has the potential to hold back many useful changes for fear of the disruption they will cause. As a result I’d like to explore in more detail how established, non-technical users respond to interface changes and how effective various methods are in dealing with their anxiety, confusion, and frustration in such a situation.

Kevin Hall
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