Change and Choice: A Misunderstanding

3 minute read

“Users don’t hate change. Users hate change that doesn’t make their life better, but makes them have to relearn everything they knew.”
— Christina Wodtke (2014) Users don’t hate change. They hate you.

I appreciate Christina a lot, and even in this article she is saying a lot of really good things, like for example the “you moved my cheese and I am not happy about it” effect or that a problem are lazy app onboarding processes or sloppy web design.

However I have an issue with the “why” she points at in her title and quote, which is that people don’t hate change.

People do hate change. There are tons and tons of studies in psychology that deal with that and you can find them even with a quick search. Personal changes, habits, comfort zone, fear of new, and so on, are all factors that make change difficult. BJ Fogg even defined a practical model to help behaviour change.

On the other side, we also see context where change is well received and people happily transform their own behaviours.

This split is something that baffles most of the time: you look at two “changes” and you see that one is resisted and one is accepted, even more: one generates hate, one generates happiness.

Why is that?

The reason for that is obvious to me in this passage from Christina’s article:

“If users hated change, Google would have failed, and we’d be happy with Altavista.”

This isn’t change. This is choice. Which in literature is the key element of any change and transformation. Every step to a different condition a person take that is outside of control is felt as imposed, every step to a different condition that is done by one own’s will, is choice.

I worked on this specific topic for years now, both in corporations and with no-profits like Participle, and that’s absolutely key. Social programs fail all the time because they are imposed, but once you give people choices… the success rate skyrockets.

Or using Jared Spool’s words:

“But what the post doesn’t do is look at the underlying reasons why people hate change. It’s not because of a fear of change itself.”
— Jared Spool (2012) Google’s Take on “Change Aversion” Misses the Point

Which, ironically, it’s an answer to another article that gets the motivation wrong, exactly as I’m doing here.

The confusion is long dated, as we can see from this article quoting a change process to try to lower criminality:

“In 1976, letters went out to 200 randomly selected families among the 44,000 living in Chicago public housing, asking whether they wanted to move out to the suburbs.”

“When the Dixie Homes housing project was demolished, in 2006, a group of residents moved to a place called Springdale Creek Apartments in North Memphis, on Doug Barnes’s beat. They were not handpicked, nor part of any study, and nobody told them to move to a low-poverty neighborhood. Like tens of thousands of others, they moved because they had to, into a place they could afford.”
— Hanna Rosin (2008) American Murder Mystery

Once you get this concept in place, you see clearly why the rest of the article still works:

  1. Sites that update suddenly aren’t under user control, so it’s not a user choice = bad
  2. New services work because are choices = good
  3. Perception of value of change is important, once it becomes a user choice = good
  4. Invite-only releases work because people ask to join = good
  5. Involving people in the design process, before change happen, empowers again the people and makes that a choice = good
  6. Apple works because pretty much any update is a choice. They don’t update stuff without me installing or buying new hardware (generally…). You don’t like iOS8? You have pressures, but I know people that never updated.

Another good example is YouTube, that has been an incredible case study over the years. They changed everything one tiny piece at time. If only I had taken monthly screenshots since it was bought by Google.

To be fair, Christina herself at one passage points out this distinction, when she mentions:

“Research has long shown that the #1 predictor of happiness is a sense of control”

So: she knows that, it’s just that the article goes for a view that is too black and white (and maybe a bit too much hype in the title).

Please, don’t confuse the change and choice.
That’s a really huge misunderstanding.