I’ve been thinking about and observing how people react to change and how best to manage it in an online community – whether it’s a blog, a forum or a ‘portal’.

This week Jeff Croft – one of the designers whose blog I read – made a sudden and dramatic change to his blog design. He’s been busy responding to feedback and queries about the design and posted more details about the design and colors in a blog post response. How he has dealt with response to the redesign has been the most fascinating part of the whole thing for me.

Meanwhile, in an online community I help run, we made a number of changes about a month ago after much thought and research.

One was adding a new feature to vote up or down others’ comments in a forum.
Another was moving the forum options sidebar from the left to the right of the screen.

Both these changes generated a lot of discussion on the site and in this post I’ll document how people reacted to the changes and some of the ways I’ve managed the feedback.

We all know that many people don’t like change. Why?

Reactions to adding a new feature

Initial reactions to a new feature seemed to fall along three lines (in order of magnitude):

  • Users who love a new toy and get straight to work at giving it a go, experimenting with it.
  • Users who are happy to carry on doing what they normally do and aren’t interested in something new or don’t feel like they have a need for it.
  • Users who love a new toy but quickly get frustrated as they can’t seem to figure out how to work it.

After some time, reactions changed to (in order of magnitude):

  • Users who found the new feature a useful part of their regular life on the site.
  • Users who ignored the new feature and carried on as usual.
  • Users who wished the new feature would just disappear and things went back to how they once were. How other people were using the new feature bothered them.

Managing feedback from adding a new feature

When we introduced the new feature, we gave clear examples of how a person might use the new feature.

We opened a forum topic for discussion about how people were using the new feature, what they liked and disliked – so that people with opinions had a place to express them.

We made some minor tweaks in response but deliberately didn’t add on new features to the new feature.

We said the new feature was a trial for a month. After a month, we are now running a deliberately short private survey of online members for two weeks. A month seems about the right time to evaluate a website change. Initial reactions have calmed (whether positive or negative) and patterns of usage have formed.

Instead of emailing all members asking for them to complete the survey, we wanted to focus on the regular site members (defined as logging into the site over a two week period) cared about the issue enough to respond to a short survey.

The questions were (generalised here):

  • Have you used the new feature in the past week?
  • Do you think the new feature should stay, go or you don’t mind either way? Why?
  • Any other comments about the new feature?

Members have been grateful for the opportunity to have a say in the direction of where the website goes via the survey. We haven’t promised that the “majority rules” in the survey, but are noticing that the final decision will please almost everyone. We’ll then look at adding new features suggested by members and manage that change process separately from the initial implementation.

A question I have been pondering in light of the way people initially react to change:

Are people are not as resistant to change itself as they are to being changed?

Read Part two: managing reactions to changing a site’s design

“Any architect who tells you that the bathroom always needs to be in a certain place in every house is obviously insane or a control freak. Why do we think any different from “usability gurus”? (Dan Saffer – UX Week 2007)”

Get actionable tips to grow your website

Thoughtful weekly insights (no hype!) on improving your website