Why Do We Get So Upset When Facebook Changes Its Interface?

by Joanna Pineda Posted on March 11, 2010

In the last twelve months, Facebook has made some major and minor changes to its interface. Each time they did this, there was hundreds of blog posts decrying or applauding the changes.  There’s even a group called “I Automatically Hate The New Facebook Home Page.”

Why do we get so upset when Facebook changes its interface?

In looking at some of the blog posts and news articles, I can understand many of the complaints. For my part, I cannot figure out the difference between News Feed and Live Feed. But I love that it’s easier to get to my Inbox and see which of my friends is currently online. I also think that Facebook generally does a great job of explaining why they have implemented specific changes.  I thought this Guide to the new Facebook Home Page was especially good.

Psychologists tell us that most humans are averse to change. With over 350M users, any change then to Facebook, no matter how small, is bound to upset some segment of the user base. And if just 1% is unhappy and vocal, that’s still 3.5M people.  If 0.1 were unhappy, that would be 350,000 people!

All of this got me thinking. Matrix Group is in the business of redesigning Web sites. We work with clients who want to redesign their sites for all kinds of reasons: name change, the navigation is not intuitive, the company’s focus has changed, yada, yada. But if Facebook users are any indication of how averse we are to change, no matter how rational, articulated or needed, there is always going to be a segment that is unhappy. This unhappy user base may be vocal about it, which I think is a good thing because then you have an opportunity to respond to the concerns.  If the user base is unhappy and silent, then you’re in trouble because you don’t know you have a problem.

If you know you need a redesign, here are my thoughts for managing the change:

How about you?  What kind of reaction did you get to your last site redesign?  What did youdo to prep your audience?

6 replies on “Why Do We Get So Upset When Facebook Changes Its Interface?”

In his book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky suggests that when users have change imposed on them, it reminds them of their ultimate powerlessness to control a site managed by someone else. This is threatening and triggers a strong backlash as users try to reassert their control, illusory though it might be.

If this is correct, explaining the rationale after-the-fact may not help much. It would be better to let users feel like they have some say, perhaps by running polls on which features to implement in a revision.

Andrew, thanks for the great comment. I agree that involving users in the change process through polls, town hall meetings and the like is the way to go. I think about the Town Hall meeting that we conducted for MatrixMaxx clients last January; clients loved the opportunity to provide feedback and the team learned a ton from the discussions.

And thanks for the book recommendation!

(Copying over my comments on this subject from Joanna’s Facebook page…)

For me, it’s the same as when my local store rearranges their departments/items without warning. I lose time trying to relearn the system, and more importantly, no one has told me in advance. FB does this all the time. 🙁 And just because it’s “free” doesn’t make it ok… if you’re providing a service, you need to also provide support and information to your users, free or otherwise.

Working in Web, I learned the key to facilitating change on our sites wasn’t only about the technical… it was about communicating the change to our users. My team used (and still does) Communication Plans to announce upcoming changes. We make users partners to the change instead of victims of it. They do own their experience, and being a global university with thousands of students, this is important. Again, whether the service is free or not is immaterial.

Facebook’s “Guide to the New Facebook Homepage” was an excellent idea, if anyone could find it. :-/ They just don’t do a good job IMO of communicating change to users.

I like your thoughts on how MatrixMaxx keeps the user in the loop, not only by communicating in advance of the change but helping clients it, and being there after the fact. Town Halls serve as efficient two-way communication vehicles, completely agree with you there.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


Great post. Unrelated to Web site redesigns, but in relation to prepping your audience and customers for big changes – after I read your post, I went to my local Trader Joe’s where, to my surprise, had recently undergone a major store layout change. I can’t say I didn’t feel a little bit inconvenienced, and spent an extra 20 minutes finding everything, but I can say, they worked extra hard to ask customers “what can I help you find?” and had more staff than usual standing in the entryway, and aisles holding huge signs indicating where there had been major product changes.

So, speaking to your point, they understood that there would be some confusion and frustration over the store “redesign” and staffed adequately for it, as well as made sure that people did not feel alienated over the change and were still leaving the store with everything they came in for and needed, much as it’s important to let any type of client know when there has been a major change in any type of operation that will affect them, whether it be store layout or a Web site redesign to a new logo or brand.

Thanks for another thoughtful post!

Back in the 1960s, there was a theory about unexpected changes (greiving theory), followed by a theory about deliberate changes. The latter f(as I recall) proposed four stages of response when a planned change goes online:

(1) unrealistic expectations (mood rises above normal),
(2) disappointment upon encountering difficulties (mood peaks, then falls, perhaps rapidly),
(3) regret for making changes and nostalgia for “the way it was” (mood bottoms out),
(4) adaptation to the new situation (mood gradually returns to normal).

When change happens (whether deliberate or unexpected), mood oscillates, then returns to normal. With any change that doesn’t simply drive people away, mood will soon return to normal. What is “normal”? Normal mood is what accompanies doing things that you can do without thinking about them. Naturally, when change happens, you find that things you used to be able to do without thinking about them, now require thinking about. Thinking is always — ALWAYS — uncomfortable. Being able to do group-related things confidently is part of feeling safe within a group. When you can no longer do group-related things without thinking about them, you may feel emotional distance from the group itself. It can seem like “nobody really cares about me or understands me any more.” This can require “handholding” by still-confident group members.

What to do? Don’t just try to build support for the changes you plan to make (letting people “have a voice” doesn’t alter the fact that these are often things you “have to do”). Manage user expectations (don’t let them get too high, don’t oversell), acknowledge beforehand that dome difficulties will accompany the benefits, provide handholding, and expect that some user complaints will require more from you than handholding.

Well, let me turn it around: why *wouldn’t* we be upset?

Imagine if you took your car in to get an oil change, and while it was there they completely rearranged the controls because their engineers had decided that it was more efficient. You’re not allowed to put anything back, but they do give you a video explaining why it’s better that they changed everything. (We found that 68% of people drink coffee while they drive, so we added an extra cupholder on the right side, so we had to move the gearshift to the left door. We’re sure you’ll come to find this even more efficient!) Wouldn’t you be upset and frustrated? I sure would be! I *like* stability.

I especially like stability with technology. I have a computer science degree, so I’m probably in the top 0.1 percentile in terms of being able to understand computers, and I still think they’re confusing. Computers are basically magic, in that they can act and show anything at all. Stability is the only thing that I’ve got going for me. The web is the first system (computer or otherwise) I’ve used where it’s entirely up to the engineer, rather than the user, if and when to upgrade. That’s a recipe for frustration.

I also like being good at things. When interfaces change, it means someone else decided to make my existing knowledge much less useful. (It’s also a reminder that I’ve spent hours of my life learning how to use Facebook.) It’s becoming a world where people don’t get good at using things — you buy and use things that somebody else designed to adapt to the average person. How well it works depends on how close to average I am! I find that rather depressing.

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