Editor's note: The following is a guest post from Hunter Jensen, CEO and founder of California-based agency Barefoot Solutions.
Before you move every button, change every icon and reorganize every drop-down menu in a massive app redesign, make sure you're making these changes for the right reasons — and implementing them in ways that don't alienate your audience.
Visual and functional changes to an app's user interface (UI) are a few of the most obvious tactics for a total digital makeover. The UI communicates directly with consumers. It's the part of an app they see, touch and interact with. So because an app's UI is the bridge between a brand and its users, every change made in this area must be made for the users. Each change must make it easier for them to navigate the app or deliver value that wasn't there before.
Smart companies will habitually modify and update their UI to avoid making mistakes and keep up with the speed at which visual information and consumer trends change. The smartest companies, moreover, understand that each adjustment must be strategic and intentional. They know that redesigning icons or menus at random (or just for the sake of making a change) offers nothing to users and may even turn them off of a product they've grown familiar with.
What are the potential pitfalls of radical — or even slight — UI changes? What are the benefits of such risks? To answer these questions, we can turn to leading tech companies who instituted dramatic UI changes that not only made waves among their audiences but made the right kind of waves.
Overhauling a UI is risky
Effective UI design revolves around clear and concise usage of color, typeface, text and layout. A UI that's simple, purposeful and attuned to consumer needs will give users the best experience and reduce friction when engaging with a brand's digital platforms. A UI that's overwhelming, confusing to navigate or seemingly randomized will likely have the opposite effect, increasing frustration for users and likely turning many consumers off.
Changing the look and feel of a UI is risky business. Existing users who've grown accustomed to a particular UI can be resistant to any changes, even minor ones. We see people's complaints and commentary on social media time and time again after major players like Facebook or Apple's iOS roll out updates.
Imagine if you got into your car in the morning and found that someone had changed the layout of your dashboard overnight. The ignition was no longer in the same place, the buttons for the headlights and windshield wipers were swapped and your old twist knob for the radio volume was now a sliding tab. As frustration ensues, you're forced to relearn how to perform even the simplest tasks. If you found those new controls made things even more difficult or inconvenient to do, you'd soon be ready to give up and get a different car.
This is how users feel when businesses change the UI they've grown to know and understand in an app. A UI makeover requires them to relearn how to navigate and perform basic tasks they'd already mastered. If those tasks are now easier or smoother, the slight learning curve can turn into a pleasant surprise. If the changes don't quickly and clearly make their lives easier, users will be much more likely to ditch the app altogether.
UI overhauls that triumphed
To better understand the purpose of redesigning an app's existing UI, consider the following case studies of tech companies who reaped the rewards of significant product changes. These companies saw an opportunity to improve communication with their audience and made drastic and highly calculated changes to achieve this.
iOS 7: When less is more again
Though Apple continually updates its signature mobile software (and has now reached double-digits in generations of its operating system), perhaps the most seismic updates occurred between iOS 6 and 7. Sensing an opportunity to streamline and modernize its aesthetic, Apple's iOS 7, released in the early fall of 2013, fundamentally changed the look, feel and utility of the iPhone forever.
In standardizing to a grid system, Apple dispensed with charming but antiquated skeuomorphic details (icons designed to resemble their real-world counterparts). Instead, the company took a comprehensive approach in switching to minimalist icon designs and flat, transparent layers. They also responded to consumer frustration by improving the ability to multitask with a more intuitive layout, adding more legible typography and simplified camera controls.
Many of these changes were begrudgingly accepted by users at first, then admired for the added convenience they delivered and ultimately deemed indispensable. Think of how frequently a user might swipe up to toggle WiFi, activate airplane mode or switch on the flashlight. This was an interaction Apple discovered users liked from using social media apps and successfully adapted for its own UI.
Waze: Driving consumer interactions via UI
The Google-owned live-traffic app Waze updated the UI for its Apple and Android users with a goal of prioritizing drivers' experience and crafting a social driving engagement platform. Newly prominent animations and a significant reduction in clutter allowed users to quickly process their navigation. For the latter, improved alert systems and new icons provided a streamlined process for reporting traffic and accidents.
By focusing on the interactivity of its UI and removing redundant or confusing elements, Waze gave the user more control. Much of the appeal of Waze lies in the app's ability to report and update traffic information in real time. With timeliness at the core of the product, it was both fitting and functional to implement UI updates geared toward making user interactions simpler and smoother. What's been labeled a complete refresh has been lauded for establishing an appealing, minimalist aesthetic without sacrificing functionality.
Instagram: A fresh coat of candy-colored paint
One of the biggest UI changes in recent memory, Instagram's renovations in spring 2016 sent shockwaves through its loyal user base. Gone was the retro-inspired camera icon with depth and natural colors, replaced with a flat outline of the former camera featuring bright purples, pinks and oranges. With borders and banners stripped of color, users' feeds seemed a bit emptier at first but soon felt limitless, defined only by the user's own timeline of friends' photos. In a later iteration, Instagram added a horizontally aligned Stories function to that newly freed space, accommodating users' desire for increased video sharing.
Users initially revolted — especially to the camera icon changes they knew and loved — and then slowly grew to appreciate the makeover. Instagram tested no fewer than 300 icons and worked on the design for months before launch, all with the goal of increasing user engagement. As for functionally, little changed, meaning users found buttons and notifications in all their old places. Instagram had revamped simply by tidying up its aesthetic and modernizing its appeal, important for a company whose user base skews younger.
When to consider changing a UI
Hesitation before altering UI is normal. A total makeover can elevate an app to new heights, but if not approached with the right strategy, it can just as easily ruin an app. The above examples are inspiring success stories that hinge on the fact that each company thought carefully about what its users wanted and needed from the product. Every change was made with the user top of mind. After all, this is the user interface. If it's not working for a brand's users, it's not working at all.
Keep in mind these basic guidelines as you consider whether it's time to take an airbrush (or a jackhammer) to your app's UI:
1. Listen to your users. Before you devise ways to reach out to a target audience for their opinions, listen to what they may already be telling you with their actions. Consumers are likely already providing feedback about a product unprompted. Find and read qualified complaints or suggestions on your brand's website, social media pages or third-party forums. Is there a consistent complaint across multiple demographics? If so, this is something to highlight with your designers.
2. Create a survey. If you don't have a place to read user comments, consider building an online survey. Design questions around your app's specific features as well as generalized questions about users' overall level of satisfaction with the app. Be sure to include an open-ended text box where users can provide additional feedback. Gathering insight from a randomized sample of your user base can yield interesting and valuable results.
3. Set up focus groups and beta testing. Focus groups and beta-test users are a great option to comment on the functionality of UI, making them indispensable tools.
4. Use A/B testing. This allows a business to directly compare two interfaces to see which resonates better with an audience. By showing different versions of an interface to different customers, A/B testing is a fast way to gain measurable data and insights to guide future strategy and a great method of collecting data on the changes before fully committing to a new layout.
5. Use analytics. Examine the app's analytics to see if users are getting lost or stuck on a certain page rather than moving through the intended funnel. Consider implementing heat-mapping software to get a better idea of where users are clicking and spending time within an app.
6. Play devil’s advocate. Don't underestimate the value of this step. Skipping this can lead a great product down the road of unnecessary software changes, doomed to upset or alienate users. Sit down with the principal members of your team and consider simply leaving your UI as is. What are the consequences of doing nothing? Can the business afford the opportunity cost of not redesigning?
7. Remember the core of UI design: form follows function. Good design is important. The look of an app can draw people in, create a positive association and strengthen a brand. UI should be as beautiful and clean as possible without prioritizing aesthetic over usability. Let the purpose of a UI dictate what the package should look like. No matter how good it looks, if an app doesn't deliver what users want — and make it easy for them to achieve — they'll go elsewhere.