The Mythical User

Taking the mystery out of User-Centered Design

Evolution vs. Revolution: How to effect change

on 26 September, 2008

There’s a term that people use for a job that is everything you could ever want, right off the bat: a pony.  For a designer, the pony job is one in which you come in to a well thought out, well researched product that has no pre-existing interface and will be built using the best technology for the job, after you’ve had ample time to do  your user research and design.

But that NEVER happens.

More often than not, the case is that you hire on to a company that either has an existing product with established design conventions (good or bad), or an emerging product whose original design was done by engineers and the CEO while they tried to find and hire you.  Don’t get me wrong – great products can and have come out of these situations.  But frequently a designer joins a team or a company and in addition to designing the ever-flowing panoply of new features required to stay competitive and build brand, they also have a mess to clean up.

So how do you do this, without losing ground a competitive marketplace?  Design takes resources – Product, Marketing, Engineering, QA, sometimes even executive.  While those people are working on requirements, testing, coding and verifying all these fancy fixes you want, they’re not doing the things necessary to whoop your competitors into forlorn lumps of also-ran.

Yes, we all know that having a usable website or application is an integral part of remaining competitive.  I take great pleasure in reciting a story about a director of E-commerce at a Fortune 500 company that hired me as a consultant.  When I was giving him the standard ROI speech on usability, he actually said to me “We got this far without doing any usability.  Why should we start now?”
That director no longer works for that company.

Joking aside, though, it is a tricky balancing act – how do we update our past code while still driving forward with new?

The answer is evolution.
Evolution is a multi-general process in which an organism changes to adapt to its environment.  Your website or application SHOULD be a living organism of sorts, growing and shedding and hopefully healthy.  There’s no reason your website can’t evolve.

If you think about it, stopping everything to have a revolution – major relaunches, complete identity changes – is an enormous and painful act.  It costs unimaginable amounts in money and time, not to mention your users’ pain as they relearn everything they were comfortable with.  It sets you back in brand identity, because you have to rebuild everything you’ve built.  And the potential for things to go wrong, the risk of failure, is enormous.
It’s not that there’s never a time for revolution.  We can all think of one or two incredibly successful relaunches, or prominent redesigns.  But honestly, it’s a drastic measure that should be left to the giant behemoth corporations, or used as a last resort.

Because you can always evolve.
Start with a plan, a vision for your end goal.  I like to draw pictures and make spreadsheets, but other people might work differently.  This becomes your strategy, and is much more powerful than any buzzword-filled strategy statement will ever be.
Then take the most heinous wrongs and right them first.  What are the usability holes your users are complaining about?  Will converting static pages to AJAX enable ten other improvements later?  Can you revamp the golden path all in one fell swoop?  Start one at a time and break out all the tiny tasks that make up the grand vision.  Let your site mutate.

Your users will complain.  Unless you have the most complacent user community on the interwebs, SOMEONE is going to complain about every single thing you change.  I have actually had users complain when I reduced clicks.  Listen, but don’t be discouraged.  Most of the time, if you did your research well enough, those same users will fall in love with the new stuff after a few uses.  They’re habit driven.  And if you were wrong, and what you did actually DID make things worse, well, you only have a small mutation to roll back, rather than a huge redesign.

It’s not ideal.  Who wants to change one page at a time and have potential inconsistencies with their names attached?  Who wants to wait a year or two for pages to be tiled?  But in the big scheme of things, it’s worth the wait, and it’s a great way for a design team to empower the corporate strategy, rather than slowing it down.

Today’s Glossary Term:
Golden Path -The primary task flow or navigation flow of a website or application.  If you can’t instantly identify the golden path for your app, you should immediately sit down and figure it out.  What is the one thing that everyone should or wants to do when they come to you?  And how do they do it?

Today’s Interesting Link:– Both beautiful and brilliant.  Imagine a web interface in which you don’t click.  Then follow that link and go experience it.

Today’s Usability Quote:
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” Elbert Hubbard

Today’s Music To Design To:
Dead Can Dance have been around for too many years and have too many albums for me to recommend just one.  Honestly, almost anything you find from them is great, and it’s all got a mellow, exotic groove that lends itself amazingly well to creative work.
Check them out at


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