Results tagged “ui”

How to Redesign Your App Without Pissing Everybody Off

January 9, 2013

Inspired by Anil

The era of User Generated Discontent began about a decade ago, when a critical mass of people started using social apps on the web often enough that they felt a bit proprietary over the user interface and design of those services. Inevitably, that led to mass revolts and widespread complaints any time a company changed even the most minor parts of its user experience.

From Facebook's introduction of News Feed and Timeline to Twitter's launch of New Twitter and New New Twitter to countless angry responses to any given logo change, the spirit of "Why Wasn't I Consulted?" runs deep on the Internet, and perhaps in no realm is it expressed more passionately than in user interface design. How come we keep screwing it up? Is it possible to change a UI without inciting a riot?

It would appear so. We just have to follow some principles based on learning from the last 10,000 times that a mob of users got upset.

Saving Face

Yesterday I talked about how all dashboards should be feeds, using the example of our work with ThinkUp. I sort of glossed over it by saying "we threw out the old UI when we built version 2.0", but the reality is we totally redesigned an app that had been designed by a community, and nobody got upset. So it's possible to do this! But how? By obeying a few principles:

  • Communicate in advance with the community about what your goals are. You've got reasons for making a change in your app or site, but they should be grounded in meaningful goals that meet user needs. "We want to increase engagement" is not a goal, or at least not one that you should try to get a community to care about. But "we want to make sure new users aren't overwhelmed with options" is something people can actually respond to intelligently. If the community can understand your rationale, then they can help you achieve it, or at least begrudgingly concede that it's one of your priorities. And the time to do this is before you actually put the new version out. If you're concerned about revealing secrets to competitors or to the market, then just speak in broad terms without revealing exactly how you're going to change the app to meet those needs.
  • Enforce communications discipline amongst your team members when communicating the change. Everyone who knows a change is coming should get together and discuss how they'll talk about the redesign, and should work together to come up with consistent ways to describe both the goals and what's up for discussion in terms of future adjustments. Be hyper-responsive and very present as soon as the change is announced or released, to respond to complaints or questions wherever they happen. And if someone on your own team is worried about a design change, or disagrees with its implementation, you can bet that many of your users will feel the same way.
  • Describe the audiences you're trying to serve by making changes. One of the most common tensions with a community is when you make a change to address one part of your audience, making the other people you serve feel left out. If you optimize your mobile UI, desktop users get mad, or if you shift an element on the page so that international languages get a better experience, your primary language users might be frustrated. And no matter who you're serving, some people will say "Why did you fix that instead of fixing this other thing I care about more?" So articulating who a change is meant to serve helps to focus the conversation about a change in a useful way. We did this in a very literal way, simply writing a blog post called Who is ThinkUp for? to start to define our target audiences.
  • Give people structured ways to provide feedback and comments. Okay, so your users are asking "Why wasn't I consulted?" about this new change — now what? There should be clear, consistent ways for them to get heard, whether that's through social media or email or a comment form or any other mechanism. So many companies, especially big companies, screw up on this part by hoping that refusing to provide a forum for user complaints or feedback will somehow stop a backlash from coming.
  • Define a process and timeline for iterating based on feedback. Many of the issues that your community complains about or brings to your attention are going to be legitimate! They'll be raised in the spirit of a productive conversation, and you have an obligation to respond to those points with plans that are as concrete as possible in addressing them. So, be ready before you announce your changes with a team that will estimate the effort involved, and roll out those updates as efficiently as possible.
  • Set a measured, rational tone with your community. This is something you need to be doing well in advance, but if you set the expectation that changes will be responded to and both your team and your users are going to communicate about them respectfully and calmly, people will follow the prevailing culture of the conversation. On ThinkUp, we've had a mailing list for almost four years where there's never been a flame war. That's almost unheard-of in open source, and in addition to making things less stressful when we make a change, it helps us attract good, diverse talent to our community.
  • Accept that some people will never be happy. This is the sort of zen aspect of community management with changes, the one you have to confront by reciting the serenity prayer. Some people are determined to be unhappy, usually for reasons having to do with their personal lives or other challenges, and they simply want to use your app as the platform through which they demonstrate it. As long as you can contain their tantrums and direct them away from those giving productive feedback, they're not that hard to deal with.
  • It helps if people don't care that much about your app. This is more of a worst-practice than a best-practice, but we began to explain our reasoning behind a radical change in our user experience by talking about what sucked in older versions of ThinkUp. As painful or humbling as that exercise may have been, the criticisms that were leveled resonated as being accurate with our community, and gave us permission to pursue a more aggressive redesign. So one takeaway if your community gets upset is that you should thank them, because it indicates passion about what you're doing.

Humility Above All

This is far from a comprehensive list, but these are some of the basics that you'll have to accommodate if you want to not make your users mad. If you have a super-small community, you might be able to skip some of these steps. But overall it let us go from an app that looked like this:


To one that looks like this:


Without anybody getting upset. It's not inevitable that every change on the web has to involve drama; By carefully anticipating people's responses and thoughtfully engaging with your community, you can actually come out of even a dramatic UI redesign with people happier than they were before.

Related Reading

Many of these ideas of community management are far from new; Lots of people liked a similar piece that I wrote a few years ago called If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault.

If you're a developer or designer, you might want to follow along and make sure we put these principles into action by joining ThinkUp on GitHub.

Aesthetic Integrity

March 28, 2008

An application that appears cluttered or illogical is harder to understand and use.

Aesthetic integrity is not a measure of how beautifully your application is decorated. It's a measure of how well the appearance of your application integrates with its function. For example, a productivity application should keep decorative elements subtle and in the background, while giving prominence to the task by providing standard controls and behaviors.

An immersive application is at the other end of the spectrum, and users expect a beautiful appearance that promises fun and discovery. Although an immersive application tends to be focused on providing diversion, however, its appearance still needs to integrate with the task. Be sure you design the user interface elements of such an application carefully, so that they provide an internally consistent experience.

From Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines.

Microsoft Says, "Steal This UI"

December 20, 2006

Summary: Earlier this year, I said that Office 2007 is the bravest upgrade ever, and the reason was simple: The audacity of introducing a radical new user interface was as surprising as the vast improvements it yielded in productivity. Now, Microsoft has decided to license that user interface to other developers, being surprisingly open in the license terms and potentially improving the user experience for dozens of other applications.

Word 2007 has the wacky ribbon

When I wrote about Office 2007 back in June, the benefits were obvious to me:

They killed the File menu, along with all the other menus. They added a giant, weird circular target up in the corner. They actually use part of the title bar as a menu sometimes. They even changed the default font in all the apps. What's amazing is not just that it works, but that it works so well.

My experience has been the same as most of those who I know that are using the new version: Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best. Excel is a fundamentally different kind of spreadsheet application, focused on presenting information usefully instead of optimizing for the creation of complex formulas.

Anne Chen and Michael Caton wrote an excellent overview of Office 2007 in eWeek, and I don't know if they or their editor created the headline, but it gets to the gist of the story pretty effectively: "Office 2007 Will Rock Corporations' Worlds".

Though the Office UI Licensing page is a little short on details, as always, Jensen Harris articulates the story perfectly on his blog:

[M]ore than a year ago we started talking about how we could share the design work we've done more broadly in a way that also protects the value of Microsoft's investment in this research and development.

Well, I'm pleased to finally be able to definitively answer the question. Today, we're announcing a licensing program for the 2007 Microsoft Office system user interface which allows virtually anyone to obtain a royalty-free license to use the new Office UI in a software product, including the Ribbon, galleries, the Mini Toolbar, and the rest of the user interface.

Office 2007(Side note to Microsoft's communications team: I understand you feel you need to put out the standard boring press release, but why not at least link to Jensen's blog from there, so that people reading about this won't think it's quite so boring?)

The best part is that the guidelines themselves are written in clear English. You can download a sample (1.4mb PDF) of the 120-page guidelines document. The example guidelines are about an esoteric area, resizing the items on the Ribbon toolbars, but are clear, comprehensible, and promise a lot of potential for the other pages in the document.

This is a fantastic trend, mirroring on the desktop what companies like Yahoo have done with licensing their UI libraries for the web. I'm cautiously optimistic that other developers might even follow the guidelines correctly, promising some productivity gains from the new generation of desktop apps.

Names Behind the New Face of Windows

November 7, 2006

Windows Vista's astoundingly long beta period is winding down (they just sent out the "what did you think of the beta?" surveys to testers), which means a whole wave of analyses of the new user interface is about to be unleashed.

Windows Interface Guidelines Amongst the hand-wringing over the choice of colors and animations, and the inevitable kvetching about the need for new video cards, it's worth pointing out the rise of some interesting personalities from within Microsoft. In fact, the most notable thing to learn from Microsoft's recent enormous leaps in the usability and attractiveness of its flagship products is that there actually are personalities at Microsoft.

Take Tjeerd (pronounced "Cheered", as is noted every time his name is mentioned) Hoek, a design director at Microsoft. There's a brief profile of him on the Microsoft Design site (did you know Microsoft had a design site? I didn't.) Having worked his way through various versions of Office from 95 to XP, Tjeerd moved to Windows and became one of the driving forces behind trying to make Vista not just pleasant, but possibly even enjoyable. I think they've done a fairly good job, just based on some admittedly superficial testing of Vista betas. But you might want to take that with a grain of salt given my effusive praise for Microsoft Office 2007 and my earlier kudos for Jensen Harris, who is roughly Tjeerd's counterpart on the Office team.

Caveats aside, take a look at this 2004 Paul Thurrott interview with Tjeerd and Hillel Cooperman:

Hillel: It's a funny thing. It's very easy to look at a company -- and I'm not saying you're doing this, but I did do this -- and see some of the very obvious spots where we could be less boring, less formulaic, or whatever those things are.


Hillel: We make it hard on ourselves because our style is not to push a single personality as the genius behind all of it.

Paul: Are you sure about that? [Laughter]
Hillel: No, when it comes to the UI ... Look, we certainly have a single personality when it comes to the guy that is running the company. But even there, there are a lot of people on stage during keynotes, and it's not just people doing a demo for Bill Gates. I mean, that was my job, but ...

I'm talking about, from the UI perspective, this is a real team effort. The bench that we have around the UI is so exciting, but you're only seeing two of us today. When you come back in April, you have to meet everyone else.

Here's the truth. The reason we've never been great at telling this story is that ultimately, if we have to choose between making it as great a product as possible and getting the story out, we'll always choose the former. We don't really care about the credit. We've only started to care recently because we've realized that it sets the tone for what users expect from the product. So it's not so much that we really care about getting credit, but if we're going to talk about what we're trying to accomplish, the credit goes to a broad group of people.

Another great look at the team's attempts at being more human, not just in the user interfaces they create, but in their interactions with customers outside Microsoft, is in this 2004 Discover article by Steven Johnson.

A growing awareness of the inextricable connection between emotion and cognition sparked Microsoft’s push toward aesthetically pleasing software. For many years their products were the virtual equivalent of the barren cubicle mazes of many modern offices: functional, but devoid of life, of personality. Neglecting aesthetics might have made a kind of cruel sense in an older, assembly-line context, in which work revolved around mindless, repetitive labor. Factory owners didn’t want to inspire creativity among their employees; they wanted to drill it out of them. But the keyboard jockeys of the information age -- precisely the people using Microsoft Windows -- do their best work when they’re rewarded, rather than discouraged, for creativity and mental agility.

I find the parallel between the humanization of Microsoft as a company and Microsoft's software products to be fascinating. Given that Apple is considered (fairly on unfairly) the reference standard for usability and delightful experience, I wonder what impact it will have in the long run that none of the many rank-and-file designers within the company are allowed to speak publicly with their own voices about the work they do. Either way, increasing competition to make software more pleasant can only be a good thing.

The Best Microsoft Blog

June 14, 2006

Congrats to Robert Scoble on his new gig, and no disrespect intended to great MS bloggers like Dare Obasanjo and Niall Kennedy, but for my blogging dollar, the best blog ever published by a Microsoftie is Jensen Harris' Office UI blog. I'm not the first to note it, but I wanted to chime in with my vote there. Honorable mention goes to Ray Ozzie, who's infrequent, but then some of the very best bloggers are.

It helps that Jensen's working on Office 2007. (If they paid me, I might call it The 2007 Microsoft Office System, but they don't. Speaking of branding nazis, there's only one "e" in "Movable".) Office 2007 is the single most impressive and ballsy effort that Microsoft's put into anything since Word 6, which I think was the best desktop software application ever created.

I'll hopefully expand on these thoughts more when I've got a few minutes, but I wanted to throw that out there while I'm thinking of it. Commence flames... now!

(More evidence of Jensen's greatness: The phrase "Install the Send a Smile tool" appears in a post. Really, shouldn't we all install the "Send a Smile tool"?)