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Why We React Strongly When Web Sites Change

A new tactic to get web site traffic I’ve seen lately is to make a drastic change that will create a buzz. Whether a web site undergoes a complete redesign or removes a previous function, we know that no matter what the change is, some people are going to hate it. Several of them will comment in Twitter. Others will write an entire blog post listing all their reasons for disagreeing with a company’s decision to change something. The traffic boost and follow up user reactions would be a non-event if not for one thing: human emotion.

Study after study of human/computer interaction shows that in our daily interaction with computers, we react to what we see on our screens with a variety of subtle and not so subtle emotions. How many of you talk to your TV or yell during video games? Most of you have laughed at funny videos on YouTube. Even those quotes you see passed around on Facebook or Twitter elicit feelings of agreement, acceptance, rejection, disagreement or amusement when read on-screen.

Those of you who belong to web-based communities understand that sometimes the people you converse with feel like family. It doesn’t matter if you’ll never meet them in person. We can still become attached. We will develop habits to a certain way of using the software behind a community site user interface. We know where things are and what the buttons do. We know why we come to a community and what we like about it. There’s a sense of comfort in believing that what you expect to happen will really happen. The software, the people, the user interface and the site’s performance will be the same every day. We’re confident that the reasons why we love our favorite web sites will remain intact, no matter what.

It’s easy to say that people are resistant to change. It’s no fun when a change forces us to say goodbye to something we like, such as a favorite TV show or needing a larger size pair of jeans. With technology, we adapt with few complaints (other than the sheer price of keeping up!). I think many of us have a healthy attitude towards change when we understand the reasoning for it. Consider that nothing in the technology realm will change on its own. Something has happened to inspire or demand the change. In other words, changes are our own fault.

Changes to security

When Facebook made drastic changes to its privacy policy, the changes may have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that they threw everyone’s information out into the universe during the process. Then, they compounded this by forcing our information into categories, pages and wikis without our consent. For weeks and weeks Facebook users scrambled to review their accounts, make changes and in hundreds of thousands of cases, disabled certain areas entirely because they lost faith in Facebook.

There were calls to boycott Facebook. Reporters investigated and tried to sort out the mess. Even now, Facebook continues to remove applications we liked, games we played with, and make new rules of engagement. It’s easy to think Facebook doesn’t give a damn about users or usability at all. They seem clueless, cruel and cut throat in their approaches to changes and user communication. What could have forced Facebook to implement so many changes to their software?

Facebook got big. They blew away MySpace and Xanga, which meant that millions of young people were switching over. We already know the Internet isn’t safe but it can be worse for them. The Internet opened up new ways to stalk and harass that didn’t exist before. Each new type of violation, death of a member, user complaint or criminal investigation that involves Facebook causes the company concern. If everybody played nice together, Facebook developers wouldn’t be required to be so focused on security. It’s meant constricting previous freedoms.

Facebook’s decision to change marketing practices is also the direct result of community usage patterns. Facebook is free but growing. This has led to their seeking new ways to generate revenue or promote certain types of members. We can complain, sure. But they didn’t neglect free opportunities. A business owner can put up a free page. A sports team can put up a free page for fans, parents and team mates. The one I set up for a local football team is doing exceedingly well, drawing the interest of local newspaper reporters.

As much as it may feel like Facebook is working against its members, in actuality, they’re using our usage behavior to determine what changes to make. As our habits and needs change, you can expect Facebook will continue to adapt, whether you accept it or not.

Changes to function and user interface

Whenever you see a change to an application’s functionality, a site redesign or the removal of a function or task, you’ll most likely see a reaction. A complete redesign may require us to re-learn the entire user interface. In some cases the site was re-built so well that the learning curve doesn’t exist and the user experience is vastly improved. Those changes are great and we like them. What causes us to fear redesigns are past experiences. How many times did Yahoo! change its homepage? Whenever Google tries to put anything new on its homepage, world reaction is instant outrage. Amazon never looks the same from month to month. Even something as simple as Twitter rolled out new functionality to tick off their user base.

Why change how a web site looks? Search engine data. Analytics data from software like CrazyEgg. User feedback. Blog comments. Customer complaints. Each of these can signal the need to fix or repair something. Funnily enough, while many people write to complain about something on a web site, they don’t seem to understand that when change does arrive that they may dislike, they were part of what provoked the change.

We may get what we want but it’s not the improvement we’d hoped for. Such is the case of Twitter’s automatic re-tweet function that was added to supposedly make it easier to re-post a tweet. Their solution had issues and was largely ignored. Despite their effort, it remains easier to manually re-tweet.

The case of Sphinn

The sudden, unexpected removal of a function from a web site called Sphinn (a sister site to Search Engine Land) caused a minor, but vocal, push back. Sphinn is a community-based web site in which article and blog submissions are “Sphunn” if you like them and “deSphunn” if you don’t. This voting permitted some pieces to be moved into a “hot” category, or perhaps “getting hot.” Voting (or “sphinning”) was used by members quite a bit after the site was first launched. In fact, the ability to vote down a piece was added due to user demand for it. The audience for a site like Sphinn consists mostly of internet marketers, so naturally, gaming the system occurred. Editors and moderators were added to assist with spam submissions, sphinning of poor quality articles and the occasional comments gone wild situation.

As any site owner can attest, when something doesn’t seem to be working well or isn’t popular with site visitors, it’s time to re-evaluate it. Incentives for making changes vary. When revenue is dependent on web site conversions (completed orders, sales lead forms, sign ups, ad or link clicks, etc.), everything that isn’t pointing directly towards completing conversion tasks is under constant inspection and subject to testing. In situations where a web site is operated solely by volunteers and is largely non-profit, concern over volunteer work load and membership preferences are deciding factors towards suggested changes.

When Sphinn Editor-At-Large Danny Sullivan announced Sphinn Says Goodbye To Voting, reaction wasn’t long in coming—much of it negative. Was Danny prepared for the backlash? Yes. But what about the hostility? What could have possibly warranted that?

“We expected there would be some backlash. It’s about what we expected, which is fairly small given the number of people who come to Sphinn each day. We already know most don’t vote and have no interest in voting. They certainly haven’t expressed concerns. What is surprising is the hostility in some quarters and the assumption that editors can’t do a decent job. It’s especially surprising when repeatedly, I find some of those accusing us of killing “community” haven’t actually been that active. I think there’s a myth some people have about how voting works on the site, as if it has been some perfect nirvana, versus the reality of how imperfect it is. I’m glad to see it go, along with the community-killing hostility it has created.”

On average, Sphinn receives about 2,000-3,000 visitors per day. Before any changes were made, users were invited to participate in a survey, which resulted in 100 responses. When the new changes were implemented, based on user feedback and observation of Sphinn logs, far more than 100 people responded—with blog posts, Tweets, comments and a tornado of fury.

According to Sphinn Editor-in-Chief Matt McGee, “Between the survey results, looking at our analytics, and looking at trends in voting/commenting/submitting, it’s been obvious for some time that people are using Sphinn differently now than they did when the site first launched.”

While removing the ability to vote upset some members, far more were displeased that their articles would be reviewed by moderators first, before being added to the site. This is interesting because of the target user base. Their mental model is of someone who might be a regular at Sphinn and is an independent thinking, competitive search engine marketer. Among those are a fair share of manipulative folks as well as those who reject any hint of authority. A huge number of these folks stopped using Sphinn over the years or lurked instead of being involved. McGee pointed out that “the pendulum has been swinging toward more editorial content for a long time now,” rather than being a community-submission based site.

Information and emotion

A decision to make any changes to a web site that enjoys a good following is often misunderstood by outsiders and painful for insiders. As Sullivan told me during the angry backlash he and his team received:

“Most of our customers, virtually all of them, want a collection of good stories and don’t want to vote to generate those. So we’re working to please those customers. A tiny number of people vote, most seemingly to push their own content. We’re still allowing them to submit, so I think we’re still working to please them, too. An incredibly tiny number of people vote because they enjoy voting on stories. We can no longer support that group, because it puts too much of our effort on a feature that few want. So we apologize to them, and we move on.”

Thousands of case studies going back to the earliest days of computers have tracked our resistance and eventual acceptance to technology. Whether or not you’re aware of it, somewhere inside you’re having an emotional reaction to the images, user instructions, tasks, forms, navigation, information architecture and everything else that you see every day.

Pictures, for example, can offer us choices and how-to examples. We’re permitted to explore our options online. We feel good about this and we’ll return to web sites that understand this about us. Sometimes we want to feel as though we’re being listened-to and supported. The health-related web site that understands this about us will attract better loyalty.

Control is a big area of importance to us. We want to know for sure that we have it. Can we turn off the sound or pause the video? Can we find and set our preferences with ease? Who can connect to us and may we block those we wish to avoid? Does a community site offer a place of refuge, peace, friendship? Consumers want good service. We’re happy when we find helpful resources and return to sites that consistently offer them. Sometimes we just want to reflect and look for inspiration.

I know you’ve heard it said repeatedly that your mission as a marketer and user experience designer is to truly know your targeted user. It’s boring to keep tracking new and related keywords to create content with. The challenge is figuring out why those words are used. Is your potential visitor concerned over something? You can make changes that people like when you understand the importance of that information.

It used to be that web site users were passive consumers of products, data and services. Today, we understand that they are the agents for change.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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