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A word on interface change, design backlash, and broccoli


A word on interface change, design backlash, and broccoli

Liam Spradlin

In 2008, Facebook had a "backlash" on its hands. As Mashable faithfully documented, there were many groups on Facebook that sprung up against the company's changes to its home page. Among them were the following groups:

  • Please keep the old Facebook. The new version is a disaster (355,000+ members)
  • I prefer the old Facebook (246,000+ members)
  • 1,000,000+ to bring back the old facebook (264,000+ members)
  • 5,000,000 people who want the option "Back to the old Facebook" to remain! (597,000+ members)

Those are just a small selection. In total, the ten groups Mashable sampled comprised 7,152,000 members (at least). That's a lot of people upset about the new Facebook. The changes were largely tweaks to the home stream, adding automatic updating, friend requests to the more rapid-fire upper right column, and other changes to what content users would see.

In 2013, a petition called "YouTube, please stop the new 2013 channel designs" popped up on change.org, gathering over 32,200 signatures. New Media Rockstars reported that "over 4000" content creators petitioned Google to stop the changes. Here's a pull quote from the site's article:

Speaking for the majority of the YouTube community, we are utterly horrified at the new layout and I truly hope YouTube will hear the cries of the loyal users.
— 2013 petition against YouTube changes

Putting aside the fact that the petition writers are claiming to represent a "majority" before the petition is even signed (there's a huge fallacy happening here), there are a few things going on. 

Reactions to major (or minor) interface changes to products with huge existing audiences are not limited to YouTube and Facebook, but both have audiences large enough that it's very easy to find examples of this sort of behavior.

I want to take a look at why this kind of reaction might occur, why users will have to become more flexible, and what these kinds of companies can do to minimize design backlash.

Why does it have to change?

The first thing to understand in this discussion is that interfaces have to change. They really do. Think back to the early Facebook design.

It's kind of ugly, it's not intuitive by our current understanding of how interfaces work, and it doesn't leave room for compelling new features. In many cases, designs are considered with current features and a group of new features in mind, but the very nature of creating a cohesive design dictates that the designer is not clairvoyant, and a perfect design that accommodates all present and future changes is virtually impossible.

Changes to feature sets, addition of features, etc. require a lot of forethought. Adding a new feature or visual element can have a ripple effect on other parts of the interface, and by the time the dust settles, you've got a design change.

Let's go back to YouTube for a second. In 2011, the channel interface was a simple set of tabs, comprised of "Featured," "Feed," and "Videos." The interface placed emphasis on promoted videos and channel information, with the option to display favorite videos and featured playlists. The layout also provided a channel search.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 1.42.49 AM.png

Here's a screenshot of what channels look like now (and a link to TheCraftyGemini where I got these screenshots)

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 1.43.11 AM.png

YouTube has grown enormously both in scope and user base since the first screenshot. The second shot reflects this, and it reflects new features that help both content creators and users. The new channel layout - at this point - is undeniably cleaner. It's also better for discovery. Visual content is prioritized over blocks of text, everything has a white background, and information is segmented appropriately in a new, larger selection of tabs. If we're really honest, are the layout and color tweaks "utterly horrifying?" Have the original petitioners left YouTube for greener pastures? Are there greener pastures?

The very basic reason that things must change is that context changes. Products that don't change stagnate in the context of competitors who are willing to experiment. Change needs to be decisive and thoughtful, but in the end it's inevitable if a product hopes to survive. That said, what happens next?

What happens when things change

In many cases, when drastic interface or design changes occur, there is a design backlash. Users are familiar and comfortable with the old ways of doing things, the old aesthetics, and the old functionality.

To get to the compelling new features and functionalities I mentioned, users have to get through the broccoli, the undesirable first course of adapting to a new interface or aesthetic. If the design change is done thoughtfully, this period is short, but with changes as drastic as the ones undergone by Facebook or YouTube, it can be a painful experience for users.

But the right way of thinking about this, from a user perspective, is to be as thoughtful and open-minded about new opportunities and features as the product teams, designers, and engineers were when creating and implementing them.

Google's Inbox is a great example of how great this attitude can be.

Google's Gmail team created Inbox, a brand new way of looking at and managing email, a thing many people agree is terrible.


Mike Elgan, a general tech connoisseur who generally has good insight on subjects like this, wrote an open letter to Inbox on Computer World

The letter perfectly illustrates the process of initial revulsion, gradual adaptation, and ultimate acceptance or even embrace of a new design or experience.

"I wanted to hate you," the letter begins. Continuing on, the letter explains that its writer has spent 20 years optimizing email for usability, and has Gmail customized to a tee to work just how he wants it. Naturally then, his reaction to Inbox was revulsion. Still, he used the service to figure out what it was like, and look for the holes and problems that surely existed.

Instead of petitioning, however, Elgan became "addicted" to Inbox. Learning to use - and by extension love - its new features, new paradigms, and new interface.

I really recommend reading the whole piece for full effect, but you get the picture.

I would say that many users that petitioned against the new Facebook and the new YouTube are tacitly in the same boat as Mike, having accepted the changes, made use of new features in one way or another, and moved on. 

As a matter of fact, nine of ten groups listed in Mashable's article cannot be found on Facebook at the time of writing, with the tenth redirecting to a Lyme Disease group. Another group that at one point had over 1.7M supporters opposing Facebook's changes now redirects to a "snow ball effect" group with just over 10k members.

What about YouTube's petitioners? The writer of the change.org petition cited by New Media Rockstars, uploaded a video as late as three days before this post was written.

How can we avoid backlash?

The simple truth is that, given a large and disparate enough pre-existing audience, backlash is likely to happen when design, feature, or interface changes are made. So what can be done to minimize this effect? Three things come to mind.

First, be transparent. This is something both Google and Facebook have learned. Allow users to become acquainted with the new interface on their own terms. Offer an "upsell" to the new interface, an opt-in option that users can participate in before the changes go live for everyone. Announce the changes beforehand, in a highly visible place, where users can see what's going to change before it happens.

Second, be careful and be thoughtful. This means take things a piece at a time where possible. If you can maintain similar graphical assets (Facebook still has the person, message, and globe icons) without breaking the new design, do that. Use paradigms you already rely on where possible with new features, unless changing paradigms of existing features is part of the new vision (as with Inbox).

Third, stay engaged. Come equipped to social discussions with your design thinking. Be ready to explain the product, the process of developing its concept, why the changes are beneficial, and keep in mind that a sudden change does suck for users sometimes. Also be open to criticism. Consider every piece of feedback and reflect on whether further changes really are necessary to bring back some equilibrium.

Google has said openly that Inbox might become the future Gmail. Such a drastic change is Inbox that Google made it a separate app and a separate website. Inbox is also built with Google's overarching design philosophy in mind, taking inspiration from other Google products in terms of design and interaction whenever possible. Keep these approaches in mind as you redesign and the "broccoli" stage will hopefully be quick and relatively painless.

What's the bottom line?

Ultimately, the bottom line here is that interface and design changes that effect a large, pre-existing audience are broccoli for both parties. Users care a LOT about what's familiar, even if some features are missing.

This isn't to say that all redesigns are universally good. In fact a lot of them are flops for one key reason - a successful redesign must add enough delight, and enough compelling new-ness to outweigh the drawbacks of adapting to a new experience.

If this tenet is fulfilled, the reaction at first may be sour grapes, but eventually the fresh new interface will be fine wine.