Sudden Interface Changes: Why Disorienting Users Can Hurt

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Sudden interface changes can be a nightmare for unprepared users, and service providers often find that the smallest alterations generate much confusion - even anger.

In the digital world, even small changes to the tools we use on a daily basis can have big consequences. Think about the software applications that you are used to working with – from Facebook or email or different kinds of database tools or software interfaces.

Now, imagine coming to work and booting up your computer, only to see a bewildering array of new icons, text boxes and other controls in a thoroughly unfamiliar desktop. Some of us don’t have to imagine this because we’ve been through it one or more times. Many seniors, in particular, can relate to squinting at a complex, colorful screen and feeling disarmingly lost. However, even those who "grew up with technology" aren’t immune.

Sudden interface changes can be a nightmare for users. New material must be learned, and these changes, whether visual or functional, jar us out of our comfort zone. Some experts refer to this tendency as "change aversion," but you could also call it "interface whiplash" because that’s what it can feel like. Without preparing users for change, service providers and others can find that even the smallest alterations often generate confusion – and even anger.

Theoretical Case Study: Visual Changes to a CMS

Consider the kinds of interfaces that multi-user environments often use to keep communications consistent and straightforward. This includes software products, like Basecamp, or other systems that individual developers whip up for specific clients.

In building original content management systems (CMS), engineers and developers try to make them as user friendly as possible. They try to position icons, buttons and more in the right places, so that they make intuitive sense to the average person.

If someone changes these items later – even if they are improving the theoretical access – longtime users are almost always going to have big problems. There is a kind of panic that sets in as you stare at the screen, wondering – Where was that thing that used to do this? What about those menu controls that aren’t there anymore? And what are these new symbols across the top (or margin, text box-bar, etc.) of the page?


Real World Examples

One of the best examples of interface change "epic fail" happened with successive versions of Microsoft Word, where engineers messed with the traditional design that helped us all understand Windows-based computing. From the earliest versions of MS Word through the 1990s, we got used to the same types of menu commands, keyboard shortcuts and everything else that’s a part of the software. Then, with recent editions, Microsoft decided to hide the controls.

Obviously, a storm erupted over this substantial tweaking of nearly everyone’s favorite word processing software. It’s all over the Internet. But some companies and service providers still choose to make these types of big changes without informing the public.

If you are a Yahoo Mail user, you may have gotten a crash course in this during late fall 2013. New Yahoo interfaces change the way that email is processed. A different display is supposed to "facilitate conversations," but for people who have spent hours and hours with the old version, it’s just confusing. At least Yahoo has included this control under settings: "switch back," and many long-term Yahoo users have taken advantage of this after putting out their own mayday calls to sites like

Supporting Users: The Gaming World

Unlike other areas of digital or IT services, jarring interface changes are rare and met with dedicated responses in the gaming world. Sometimes, interface changes occur, but advanced, state of the art technologies help bail out gaming users (gamers).

Denny Thorley is the General Manager of Wargaming West in Chicago. This year, the Cyprus-based Wargaming company bought Day 1 Studios, where Thorley previously worked on a variety of multi-platform games. Thorley and others are now at work on the free-to-play World of Tanks (WoT), which will run on the Xbox 360 and PC platforms via their proprietary game engine – informally nicknamed "Despair."

In the WoT world, the user is king, and this company brings a lot of firepower to its testing and usability work.

"We try to always present a simplified interface." says Thorley, noting that migrating a game from a PC environment to the Xbox comes with its own challenges. For one thing, he says, using text is more difficult in an atmosphere where the player is lounging on the couch, controller in hand, and basking in surround sound – versus being stuck behind a desktop or laptop screen. In response, he says, developers have tried to "visualize" some aspects of the game.

"There’s a fine line you have to walk." says Thorley. "You never want them to think you dumbed it down."

So how do developer teams handle these sizable responsibilities, and how do they keep players from ultimately getting confused, frustrated, bored or experiencing "interface whiplash" if the previously familiar world changes in successive versions?

First, says Thorley, the first draft of something is not the final product, and developers get to "iterate" games to improve user experience (UX). He also refers to some "aces up our sleeve" opportunities for his company to analyze and interpret player behavior.

Front and center in all of this is Microsoft’s usability lab, where Wargaming designers can actually monitor player response in real-time. Microsoft has partnered with Wargaming in the WoT project, which has resulted in a truly innovative method for game testing.

In the usability lab, cameras on the player’s face and hands clue watchers into player activity – and even emotional reactions.

"You can tell whether they are confused or not." says Thorley. Also, he adds, player actions can provide more evidence that they are being constrained or bewildered by the game, such as when a player repeats incorrect behaviors.

In addition, WoT makers can track massive amounts of data. They can match up players by skill level. They can look at artillery metrics or determine whether map areas are underutilized. The company uses their technology in their own tool development to collect data on customer play style to evaluate the efficiency of their tool suite, track bugs and log suggestions and complaints for designers. Along with all of this, they can get direct user feedback.

Thorley talks about a relatively small set of players that he calls a "vocal minority," and says these individuals are more than just "heard." When game makers receive a complaint or other feedback, he says, they go deeper than the initial response to develop a "hypothesis" before returning to the data to look for solutions.

In the end, says Thorley, there’s no sure thing when it comes to user response.

"You don’t know how successful you’ve been until the product gets out on the market." says Thorley.

At the same time, game makers with these kinds of resources can be fairly confident they’re not going to encounter hordes of addled, angry customers, in large part because of a culture that has brought cutting-edge technology to the problem of the user interface (UI) and its innate challenges.

Maybe in the future, other software makers will jump on that bandwagon. Until then, you might have to put up with some crazy activity from your Web freeware, work dashboard or office suite.


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Justin Stoltzfus
Justin Stoltzfus

Justin Stoltzfus is an independent blogger and business consultant assisting a range of businesses in developing media solutions for new campaigns and ongoing operations. He is a graduate of James Madison University.Stoltzfus spent several years as a staffer at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Penn., before the merger of the city’s two daily newspapers in 2007. He also reported for the twin weekly newspapers in the area, the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record.More recently, he has cultivated connections with various companies as an independent consultant, writer and trainer, collecting bylines in print and Web publications, and establishing a reputation…