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User Interface Redesign vs. User Expectation
Most of the apps we work on are brand new. We can design them in pretty much any way we see fit, and release them to users who have little to no bias about the app before they use it.
But sometimes, we deal with apps that need redesigns, and these apps already have a strong user base. Anybody who has been on Facebook over the last five years knows how badly even a simple redesign can be received. Not only do users not like change, but they’re more likely to ignore new features or decrease app use altogether if they’re turned off by changes.
As developers and designers, it’s important to us to understand and adapt to user expectations in a way that still provides a complete solution.
Ideal Interface vs. Legacy Expectations
Users want interfaces that are familiar and comfortable. Even if an interface has 50 reasons for requiring an update, you have to consider how users are going to respond. Being grumpy about the changes, as was the case with Facebook’s users, is one thing. Decreasing use of an app because it’s no longer comfortable, well, that’s a problem.
For some of our projects, there’s an even bigger-than-normal focus on UX because existing users need to be able to make a quick, smooth transition from the old interface to the new.
Keep in mind, there are situations where it’s better to overhaul the current design and implement the stronger features. Like when the user base is small, when the UI changes offer significant payoffs like increased sign-ups or engagement, or when a UI redo offer major improvement in the way your brand is perceived.
But when a platform has thousands of regularly active users, rest assured that all of them have product and interface expectations. In these situations, the mobile update process requires heightened sensitivity to the platform’s history and infrastructure.
We recently helped redesign mobile versions of an interactive homework platform. Prior to our involvement, several new features had been added that weren’t necessarily ideal for mobile viewers. In addition, there was a long list of proposed interface changes.
Our goal was to reduce screen clutter and cognitive overload for mobile users, but there was a well-established user base to consider. Because of that user base, we opted to keep more of the desktop features and navigational functionality intact than we would have if we’d been designing from scratch.
Meeting user expectations means that repairing old issues takes precedence over changing layouts or adding new functionality. For example, on the homework platform, current users had the option to toggle between past and current attempts on homework problems. It was a valuable feature, however, they had a tendency to “lose” the past attempts. To make the attempts easy to find again, we put the Attempts tab into an unobtrusive widget with a limitless range. That solution not only kept a familiar feature intact, but actually improved the usability of the feature, and also kept the interface streamlined for mobile users.
A few basic questions are helpful when determining a yay or a nay on a new feature:
- How often will people use the new feature?
- What percentage of users will use the new feature?
- What are the possible consequences of not adding the feature?
Throughout the process, we had to make tradeoffs between our preferred designs and user preferences. It’s easier said than done, but the tradeoffs are worth it because they promote user comprehension and don’t isolate loyal users.
Importance of User Testing
Normal user testing helps verify that a design is fully thought-out and easy to navigate for its intended audience. But in projects where legacy users are involved, user testing also needs to validate that interface changes line up with user expectations.
In our example of the online homework platform, our prototypes were based heavily on user feedback. In the beginning, the list of proposed product changes began with an incredibly large amount of features. Through user testing, we discovered that all of these features confused users and actually reduced the chance that they would engage with the content.
User tests included in-person interviews with current users, as well as quantifying data from client-gathered user feedback. We made highly communicative documentation, like interactive clickthroughs, which allowed us to learn quickly and validate our understanding of problems and opportunities.
By studying actual user journeys through the software, we realized a simpler user interface was best. It reduced cognitive load and increased engagement with the content.
It takes special focus to integrate lean UX methods into a product that already has an extensive history. The uncertain results of user testing make planning longer sprints challenging. We learned that shorter sprints allow the team to communicate findings in retrospective and schedule responses during sprint planning.
User Expectations Matter
Knowing that major design updates can cause user backlash makes them seem risky. But it’s much riskier to not address interface problems. Great project management and lean UX techniques can keep your app up to date without losing users. A little extra time in the user testing and design stages is a huge courtesy to your users, and will pay off in the final product.
In the case of our educational platform, the interface changes we implemented were well-received and actually increased the frequency of mobile use within the existing user base.
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