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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wear blinders and you can justify anything

Here's a pattern I keep seeing. I don't understand it.

There's some software product or web site. It has an interface which has pretty much remained the same for three or four years. A couple of dropdown menus or chooser lists might have gotten a little bit longer as features were added, but it's basically the same thing. Someone who had been away from the product for several years would still know their way around.

You're wary of interface changes, so you don't switch to it immediately when it first comes out. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn't going anywhere and it's a stable experience, so you try it out. The experience seems to agree with you, and so you slowly use it more and more. Before long, it's a part of your daily routine. You know how it will behave and there are no surprises. You can count on it being the same when you come back every day.

Then, one day, something changes. There's been a change of leadership on the product, and soon they want to start moving things around. Some options are hidden behind new menus and are no longer directly accessible. Others disappear entirely. A handful of strange new things which you really don't need and never asked for are forced in your face to get you to pay attention to them.

You deal with it at first, but the changes slowly migrate around the interface until eventually it starts impacting your day to day behavior. Perhaps something you used to be able to do is no longer possible, or it's become complicated where before it was simple. It's a new source of friction, and it's not going away.

This inspires you to push back on the changes. How can the product people know there's a problem unless they hear from the users, right? So, you write in and report that the removal of feature X and the hiding of feature Y is really crimping your style. You even write up a detailed explanation of how you used to use the system so they can better appreciate your use case.

It's no good. Someone on the team responds and says that they have metrics, and the metrics say that only 0.7% of all users used feature Y, and even fewer used feature X. That's their story and they're sticking to it.

But, they say, it's okay. This interface is good stuff. It passes all sorts of approval metrics and allows you to do this, and that, and this other thing. It's the new direction for this product, so you might as well get on board now.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you accept this and you get on board with the changes. You re-learn the interface and find different ways to do whatever it was you need to do. You find some way to live without the features which have evaporated completely. You still feel the friction every time you run into a situation where the old feature would have helped, but you tell yourself to ignore it. After all, you don't want to be one of "those people". Managers read books about "those people" and try to peck them out of the organization for not being "team players".

About a year passes. Then, without warning, they throw out that new interface and drop in yet another interface. This third interface has no relation to either the first one that you liked or the second one which you were making yourself use. You have to start all over again, and there are even more features missing or otherwise behaving differently.

The users suffer through two major upheavals in a short span of time.

When this happens, all sorts of questions pop up in my head. If the second one was so good, why did they switch to the third one? Was there some initial condition which made the second one good, and that condition is now gone? Were the claims of the second system being good even valid? If they weren't, why should anyone believe their claims about the third system?

I think it's more like this. Someone decides they are going to make a new interface. They get it ready for launch, and they also prepare a nice package of justifications. They can even do bad science to back it up -- that is, run experiments, and only keep the results which support your desired outcome. Then, they launch it.

When it's time to do it again, they just follow the same pattern. Notice that the past has absolutely no influence on this routine. They want to make a change and they don't care about what may have been there before. Maybe the old stuff came from someone else and they want to "make their mark" somehow.

Making their marks? Sounds like a duck story to me.