How to Change Direction

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 6 min read

Two pieces of software that I absolutely LOVE recently redesigned their software.

I guess I should clarify by saying they “re-interfaced” their software since I’m so sure that “design” would really be accurate.

I’m still not being clear enough. Let me try again. I guess what I mean to say is that they ruined their software.

Now, I’m not going to call either of them out, because I love both of these pieces of software. But, I think there’s a good topic to explore.

So, let’s talk about changes of direction.

Changing Direction -vs- Pivoting

aerial view of highway near trees

I purposely didn’t call this post “pivot” since not only am I tired of that term but it also doesn’t accurately describe what I’d like to talk about. A pivot is more of a drastic of direction where the new direction barely resembles the previous. That’s not what we’re talking about today. But just to illustrate the point…

Instagram used to be called Burbn. It was a foursquare-like app for checking in — remember the check-in craze/phase? The founders noticed that people were going crazy for photos but less so for the check in. So, they pivoted and started focusing on photos and no more check-ins. That is a pivot, one based on user feedback.

In the years since, Instagram has been changing directions. They redesigned the feed, brought in an algorithm, added video, added stories, added reels, etc. Those are all changes in direction and most were brought about by the competitive environment and sought to increase engagement and drive revenue. Most changes were eventually well received or adopted but at the very least didn’t cause major problems or deviate from the core product.

Unfortunately, some changes of direction don’t go as smoothly.

photo of burning house

Since taking over Twitter, Elon Musk has made significant changes. Many of those changes have led to a rise in far-right wing rhetoric, banning of left wing accounts, some of the most active accounts leaving, advertisers fleeing, and initiatives like the verification changes being shut down in short order after imposters costs companies billions with impersonations. P.S. I’m glad Eli Lilly lost billions as there’s a special place in hell for those who price gouge for insulin.

The example that inspired this post includes two software companies that changed a familiar interface and highly functional user interface only to offer a product that is more difficult to use and less functional for the sake of looking pretty. That’s a change of direction. The direction was backwards.

Why you shouldn’t change direction

While doing research for this post, I came across a blog post by crowdfavorite.com about software design mistakes. They NAILED it. The article mentions 4 problems which I will list below, though I do recommend reading the entire article.

  • Problem #1: User design to decorate instead of solve problems
  • Problem #2: Building software without doing proper user research
  • Problem #3: Treating users like they did something wrong
  • Problem #4: Designing around technology instead of around the user

To all of this, I say: yes, yes, yes, and yes.

  • Both pieces of software that inspired this post engaged in user interface design to decorate instead of actually solve any problems.
  • Neither did ANY research and it is shockingly obvious given the changes they made. It would not be out of line to ask either company if they even use their own software.
  • Both pieces of software gave error messages for things that used to work, leaving the user feeling frustrated and confused.
  • Both of them tried to incorporate new technologies, but did so at the expense of existing core functionality.

So what gave them the idea to redesign and what are the good reasons to actually make a change of direction?

Why you should change direction

David Pogue, a tech writer for the New York Times did a TEDTalk back in 2006 and tells the story of meeting a Palm employee following a talk he gave to the company (at 11:06).

He says, “Nice talk.” And I said, “Thank you. What do you do here?” He said, “I’m a tap counter.” I’m like, “You’re a what?” He goes, “Well Jeff Hawkins, the CEO, says, ‘If any task on the Palm Pilot takes more than three taps of the stylus, it’s too long, and it has to be redesigned.’ So I’m the tap counter.”

Steve Jobs famously said…

“You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology”

And herein lies the answer…

Changing direction should ALWAYS be the result of trying to fix something for the end-user.

The ONLY other exception is if you can change direction or fix something that helps internally and also does not come at the expense of the end user. In almost every case of a redesign gone wrong or a change of direction that fails, we find that someone’s ego wandered into the wrong meeting.

How to pick a direction

If you’re going to make a change, here’s some advice.

1. Move your ego to the side, and stop being convinced of your own brilliance and/or cleverness.

Instead, talk to the people who will be most effected by a change. As the brilliant Lea Jovy-Ford and Sharon Hurley Hall from Mission Equality recently said — and I’m paraphrasing — create safety (and design solutions) for the person most likely to be harmed, and you ensure everyone else will be taken care of.

Twitter didn’t talk to people who suffer harassment on the platform. They didn’t think about the real problems with verification on Twitter. They probably didn’t even talk about their advertisers, judging from what’s happening.

Instead, Elon Musk was probably convinced of his own brilliance through sheer narcissism, a room full of yes-men, and a hefty following from black-pilled libertarians who really think it’s time we talked about “the Jewish question.”

2. Use your own stuff and talk to others who use your stuff

If you make software, use it. Poke it, try and break it.

Then, ask others who use it. Ask them to try and break it. Ask them what they love, what they hate and what they wish it could do.

If you don’t understand the ways people might use the thing you make, how in the world are you going to make it better? You shouldn’t redesign anything until you aren’t 100% sure you’re not removing the most important feature (ahem…👀).

3. Ask yourself if it’s worth the change

This is the final and quite possibly the most important question to ask. Everything else sets you up for this question.

People resist change. Your new solution needs to be significantly better than the pain they’ll feel from change.

Don’t move people’s cheese. Not unless you’ve got more cheese, and better cheese waiting for them.

Remember, changing direction is fine, just take it slow so you don’t spin out of control or flip.

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