Rhodri Marsden: Why we all hate website redesigns

Cyberclinic

We don't always react calmly when change is forced upon us. We draw comfort and solace from things staying as they are, but in a world populated by excitable human beings drunk on free will, sometimes we have to simply deal with it. "Turn and face the strain," advised David Bowie; his ability to deal with changes clearly eclipses that of most internet users who, rather than "face the strain" when a website is redesigned, prefer to draw up a furious petition. It's a curious symptom of life on the web; we spend a huge amount of time within online environments to source information, seek entertainment or socialise, but the look and feel of those environments can change without warning. We're utterly beholden to the designers. And it can leave us feeling disorientated, confused and unsettled – a bit like coming home from the shops to discover that all our furniture has been rearranged, and someone's stuck a load of Viagra adverts up in the hallway.

This year, major redesigns have taken place on sites such as the BBC, Flickr, Google News, ask.com, and Twitter, while others – Google, Facebook, Yahoo – are constantly tweaked. It's understandable; they have to keep up with web technology, and because they're aware of the way we're clicking and typing, they can make well-judged improvements. But the more popular a site is, the more likely it is that things will kick off when users suddenly can't find something. Last summer's big overhaul of Facebook was a perfect example; mantras such as "Why mess with something if it already works?" and "I preferred it the way it was before" appeared with monotonous regularity on Facebook groups set up in a desperate attempt to force the site to revert. A www.wordle.net analysis of posts on Facebook over that period showed that the words "Hate" and "Change" were the two most frequently occurring. Which says it all.

But of course, the complaints quickly subsided. They always do, because people simply get used to the new look. When the BBC News website had a revamp a few weeks ago, the online screeching was deafening; now, it just looks normal, and if the old one reappeared it would feel equally odd. We experience a sudden shock, we register that shock loudly and publicly, and then forget about it. As a result, it must be tough for websites to separate constructive feedback from childlike whining. But get it too wrong, and people leave in droves. The website digg.com, a user-driven news hub where stories and links from around the web are voted up and down by the community, has experienced a huge exodus – traffic from Britain down 34 per cent – since a substantial redesign about four weeks ago. Digg had good reasons for doing it; they rightly felt that too much power was held by too few users (the so-called Diggerati) and so, in the spirit of equality, they implemented a new system. But the Diggerati didn't like it, and they have largely decamped to a competing site, www.reddit.com. Digg made alterations in response to some of the criticisms, but the fiasco has been described as "a textbook example of how to alienate your users". Sometimes, though, you have nothing to lose. MySpace, a website so neglected by us that logging in feels like an archaeology dig, relaunches with a new look in a fortnight. The outcry will be minimal; whether it lures us back is another question.



***



The last few weeks have seen a number of high-profile cases where big companies exercise their legal might to prevent smaller ones using standard English words in their products. We've seen Stelios's Easygroup come down hard on EasyDate – an organisation that's been around for five years; Teachbook has incurred the wrath of Facebook, while Sky was revealed to have been embroiled in a lengthy battle with Skype, for obvious reasons. Now, Apple have a gripe with Sector Labs, an innovations company who, incidentally, produce a rather spiffy temperature-sensitive light for kitchen taps: red glowing water for hot, blue for cold. But they also produce a projection system called a Video Pod. Whoops. I'd just like to note that I own a guitar amp simulator called a Pod that predated the iPod by two years; there have also been unshelled peas for sale at my local market for decades. Just saying. So far, Apple haven't gone after a Californian Vietnamese restaurant called iPho, but it's surely only a matter of time.

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