At least a couple times a year, Facebook, Twitter or your favorite website goes through what appears to be a midlife crisis and changes on you. For the majority of users, these changes feel like the loss of useful features or the disruption of a comfortable routine. Both Facebook and Twitter are in the midst of launching redesigns, and you can count on indignant tweets or status updates crying about the cruel injustice of the new timeline format or profile layout.
So what drives companies to fundamentally change a user experience on a regular basis?
The simple answer is that changes, redesigns and altered functionality are good – for the business and, ultimately, for users. As marketers and web owners, the biggest challenge we face when iterating on our online properties is that the digital age has made change visible and impactful on a daily basis.
But beyond that: It’s just so easy to do.
The Perceived Value of Change
As consumers, we deal with change all the time. Usually, we look forward to it, sometimes maniacally. Change is often baked into the products we buy. Your iPhone isn’t going to last much more than 2 years. Your computer is going to need upgraded hardware every few years. A modern car may last 10 – 15 years, but you may grow envious of a new model 5 years down the road. With these items, we don’t begrudge change. We welcome it, even pursue it.
For all of these – cars, smartphones, computers – we can see a real depreciation of value as time moves on, and we look for alternatives. For digital services like Facebook or Twitter, the value is in the increased connections we share with our social circles. Since any change seems like an interruption to those connections, many users devalue the changes they see.
But, unlike the hardware changes we look forward to, digital services have a distinct advantage when it comes to making change: They typically know that the changes they make will improve your user experience, and they’ve got the data to prove it. But even digital services occasionally miss the mark. For a while, MySpace was the undisputed king of social networking. But other than occasional tweaks, MySpace did little to improve user experience and ultimately people got bored and found a better service in Facebook.
All That Sweet, Sweet Data
People like to complain about Facebook and Twitter changes because they’re so visual. But you may never even notice changes to the service you use the most: Google. Behind the scenes of every search you make, Google is making contextual changes to your search results based on your location, your recent search history, your Google+ friends (ok, your Google+ friend) sharing habits and more. That’s because Google has the data that allows them to make changes on a timescale that automakers would kill for.
Digital services are constantly testing and iterating their services because you are constantly using that service. Google doesn’t have to wait 8 years to see if you found what you were looking. They don’t have to wait until your contract is about to expire to see which offer or new phone features will interest you. It’s instantaneous.
Any digital service worth its salt is constantly monitoring analytics, pursuing user feedback and testing new features to see what works. It’s called the user feedback cycle, and it’s not hard to implement – even in your business.
Change is Opportunity, If Done Right
Most startups aim for one thing (beyond making money): Disruption. They want a dramatic shift in the way a company can meet the needs of a particular market. Netflix was disruptive and was created because Reed Hastings was upset he had to pay a late fee at a rental store. Uber is disrupting transportation because Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp saw a gap in unreliable taxi service.
But disruption isn’t a just a startup’s game. Giant companies like Google or Facebook got their start by being disruptive, and they must continue to be so through fostering change and innovation. Beyond the need to keep growing their services, the only way to avoid being overtaken by a new, disruptive competitor is to continue rolling out innovative services before someone else beats you to the punch. Sometimes, you can’t afford not to change.
And since they have access to massive amounts of data and user feedback, the changes our favorite sites make are always designed to improve the service or add functionality that many users didn’t even know they wanted. Though Facebook’s algorithm updates have wreaked havoc on many a timeline, none of their changes messed with the core functionality of the service: to connect with your friends and family.
Having the data to predict which change will resonate with users – even after a slight warming period – is invaluable but only if a company is smart enough to pay attention.
The Cost of Ignoring Change
You don’t have to look much further than the domestic automobile industry to get a sense of what happens when titans resist change. Through the 1980s and ‘90s, domestic auto manufacturing took a huge hit when international companies were able to make cars that were cheaper, more efficient and lasted longer.
American automakers ignored trends they probably should have seen coming and spent years trying to catch up to what their customers wanted. But you only have to look at Ford’s rebound in the last few years to see how powerful using data to drive change can be. Still, Ford is still limited by the years-long buying cycles of most of its customers. While data can inform the changes it makes, it still must wait years to capture new customers with the lessons it has learned.
The good news is your company doesn’t have to wait that long to implement meaningful change that will drive new business.
Iteration is Fundamental
Change and iteration are at the core of digital. Tactics can easily be launched, tested and improved upon with user feedback, testing and data in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. And the nice thing about change online is that isn’t limited to huge companies.
We all have the tools to successfully implement change that will have a positive impact on your bottom-line and for your users. You just have to know how to use them. Change shouldn’t be feared; it should be a fundamental part of your company vision. With the right data to back you up, change isn’t scary – it’s just smart.