Despite what a lot of application developers think, changing a user interface too often is bad for users. It confuses users and generally generates distrust in your product.
It is often said that one of the major benefits of developing a web application is that users don’t have to download updates since they are always using the latest version of the software every time they visit the website. As we developers are well aware, users are fickle when it comes to installing updates.
But why? There are, of course, numerous reasons ranging from “too lazy” to “don’t care” to “not aware” to “I’m afraid something is going to change”. It’s that last reason that this article is going to address.
The User’s Perspective
As developers, we are used to interfaces being changed. We usually keep all of the software we use up-to-date and are, of course, used to changing the interface of whatever application(s) we’re working on.
That means we encounter changed interfaces at a much higher frequency than most other users warping our perspective on how difficult that can be for some people. That means it’s important to take a step back and also have a look at it from a “normal” user’s perspective.
Do regular users want a constantly changing interface? Do they want to have to find that button again that was once on the left and is now on the right with a different label? Why is that element now green instead of black? Does that mean something?
Changes make users nervous and unsure about how to use an application. That is particularly true if they are regular users and they rely on your application to get work done. They become apprehensive about accidentally doing something wrong because the button now says “Apply” instead of “Save”.
When developing an application, it is common practice to constantly tweak its interface. This is particularly prominent on the web where it is cheap and easy in comparison to a native application.
Developers and even the entire development team including product owners, UX designers, managers, etc, think that because it is easy to deliver updated user interfaces, they are doing their users a favor by continually messing with it or they just simply don’t think about it at all.
However, this is primarily a developer’s perspective. I haven’t talked to many developers who turn the issue around and ask themselves about the user’s take on it. Of course several UX designers do something similar to that by getting user feedback, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
The constant tweaking frustrates the normal user. They want a familiar, consistent interface they know how to use. Most of the time, they don’t care about what color a button is as long as it stays consistent. In fact, quite a few users will simply stop using your application if it changes too often or too radically.
In order to avoid radical changes that cause users to abandon your application, it is important to collect user feedback.
Getting User Feedback
As I mentioned above, it is common practice amongst UX designers to get user feedback for interface designs. This is great not only because it means they can optimize a design before it gets sent into development, but it also means users have a say in how the application they use looks and feels.
This truly is a great thing, however, from my experience, a lot of them simply ask users about updated user interface designs rather than about whether or not they want an update or think it’s necessary.
Of course that has its place when, for example, there’s a new feature or page being added to a website. The question of whether a change is necessary or not is moot as something that wasn’t there before is being brought to life.
For pages that exist, however, I think a lot of users would appreciate being able to give their input about whether or not they want a changed interface. You’d probably be surprised at the number that say no.
Why Users Have Trouble with Changed Interfaces
So far, I’ve written about taking a look at change through the user’s perspective, but now let’s talk about why users have difficulties with changed interfaces.
Creatures of Habit
Humans are creatures of habit. Most people that learn something want it to stay the same for as long as possible. This is especially true when it comes to software as most people use it for a single purpose or a set of purposes and not because of the way it looks.
When things change, it costs them time and energy to re-orientate themselves in it. This could be applied to anything from software to cars. In fact, I know several people who complain bitterly about new dashboard layouts or steering column controls whenever they buy a new car, even if it’s the same make and model. Software is no different there.
The longer something stays the same, the more comfortable they feel with it and the easier it is for them to use it. When you’re just trying to get stuff done, that’s crucial.
They Just Want to Get Stuff Done
People use software because it allows them to manage, create, watch and play things. Needless to say that list is not exhaustive as the possibilities that software gives us is near limitless. Whether it’s writing an article, recording a song, chatting with friends or watching a movie, the software serves a purpose for them.
Once a user has familiarized him or herself with how an application works, he or she can be productive with it. That means, however, that as soon as an interface changes, that user is no longer immediately productive with it anymore until he or she has re-invested the time and energy into learning the new interface.
This might go quickly with small updates or if the user is especially adept at learning, but for a lot of users, especially older ones, for example, that struggle to use computers in the first place, it could be a long, tedious, arduous process.
Understandably, this frustrates users, particularly when they are using software to get unpleasant things done such as work. In that case, it drags on the task they don’t want to be doing in the first place and it also costs their employers money since they have to spend company-time becoming reacquainted with the applications they use to do their job.
In this article, I tried to paint a picture of why changing an interface too often is bad for users. I attempted to explain the user’s perspective as well as why they don’t like changes.
Generally, I am not opposed to interfaces being updated at all. There needs to be evolution in software and if interfaces still looked exactly the same now as they did twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have made any progress in the world of computing.
If there is anything to take away from this article, it is hopefully to just always keep the user’s perspective in mind when making those changes.
There will always be those that complain about every little tweak and would prefer everything to look the same way it did twenty years ago, but there will also be those exceptions who love exploring new interfaces and even look forward to those updates.
In fact, I fall into the latter category.
What are your experiences as a developer or as part of a development team with changing user interfaces? Have you had negative reactions from users? Do you have any experiences good or bad with applications you use changing their interfaces? Let me know in the comments below!