As I write this the latest version of Skype for the iPhone has a 2 star rating as does Swarm by Foursquare. What these apps have in common is that they are both part of bold attempts to redesign a well-known and popular app which are being rejected by its core constituency. A consequence of my time working on Windows 8 is that I now obsess quite a bit about redesigning apps and determining what warning signs indicate that you are either going to greatly please or strongly offend your best users.

When I worked on Windows 8, there were a number of slogans that the team used to ensure the principles behind the work we were doing were understood by all. Some of them such as “content over chrome” were counterproductive in that slavish devotion to them led to ignoring decades of usability research by eschewing affordances and hiding navigation/controls within apps. However there were other principles from the Windows 8 era which I wish app developers took more to heart such as “win as one” which encouraged consistency with the overall platform’s UI model & working with other apps and “change is bad unless it's great” which encouraged respecting the past and only making changes that provided a noticeably better user experience. 

In addition to these two principles, I’ll add one more for app developer to keep in mind whenever the time calls for a redesign; “minimize the impacts of loss aversion”. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, loss aversion (aka the endowment effect) is the tendency for humans to strongly prefer avoiding losses to making gains. What this means for developers is that end users will react more strongly to losing a feature than they would to gaining that same feature. There are numerous studies that show how absurd humans can be in the face of loss aversion no matter how minor. My favorite example is how much people overreact to loss aversion when it comes to grocery shopping as taken from this blog post by Jon Geeting

There was a law set up last month in D.C. (passed unanimously by city council) to place a five-cent tax on paper and plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and other food-service providers. So, basically, if I went shopping, my total came to $35.20, and I needed one bag to put it in, my total would then become $35.25. Similarly, if I needed two bags, my total would become $35.30, and so on — while if I simply bought reusable bags, I would be subject to no tax.

From what I hear from people in D.C., they absolutely hate it. Even though it’s just an extra five cents, they want absolutely nothing to do with it. They really want that nickel. So many people use less bags, bring their own, or just try to balance everything without one on their trip home. Think about how much less waste and pollution there is in D.C. now, because of a measly five-cent fee.

On the flip side, if you told people you’d give them 5 cents for each bag they brought from home they’d laugh in your face. Nobody is going to do an extra bit of work to be paid five cents even though they would do that work to avoid paying 5 cents. That’s loss aversion at work.

To recap, if you are redesigning an app you need to keep these three rules in mind

  1. Win as one: Whatever changes you make must feel like a consistent whole both within the app and with the platform your app resides on. Swarm and Foursquare have completely different aesthetics and integrate in a fairly disjointed manner often with no way to easily jump back and forth between both apps. Skype for iPhone is pretty much a Windows Phone app in look and feel complete with pivot controls and cut off title text. This is a very jarring experience compared to everything else on iOS.

  2. Change is bad unless it’s great: App developers need to be honest with themselves about whether a redesign is about solving a customer problem in a better way or is part of a corporate strategy. Facebook news feed is an example of a redesign which was actually driven by a need to solve customer problems which is why although it met with a massive user revolt at first, once people used it they loved it and the anger died down. Swarm exists because FourSquare now wants to compete with Yelp and needs to shed its history as a social check-in app which it sees as baggage as it evolves into a social discovery engine of things to do in your city. From an end user perspective, Skype for iPhone’s redesign is about making the app look and feel like a Microsoft metro-style app. Given these primary goals, it is no surprise that end users can tell that solving their problems came in second place as they review these apps.

  3. Minimize the impacts of loss aversion: Coupling a redesign with taking away features means people will focus on the missing features instead of whatever benefits you have provided with the redesign. Foursquare took away badges, mayorships, social feed of your friends check-ins and points as part of the split that created Swarm. There are a large number of one star reviews of the Swarm app complaining about these missing features. Skype for iPhone’s initial release took away deleting & editing messages while making others harder to find. Even features that are used once in a blue moon seem mission critical once people find out they are gone. Taking away features will always sting more than the actual value of those features. Taking multiple features away as part of a redesign means any benefits of the redesign will be lost in the ensuing outrage about the missing features.

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Categories: Social Software | Technology