Can a change management process help your company survive users’ negativity towards necessary changes to your digital product?

Every year, without fail, Facebook and Twitter make minor changes to their UI. Far from a major overhaul, they’re usually just a reduction in clutter or an extra little bit of functionality. Without fail, everyone despises it. This is simple, pure human nature. The familiar is comfortable; change is upsetting. Nowhere is that more true than in a process that you follow every day, especially when it’s one you use to rant out your frustrations.

So what do we do as site designers? We can’t leave our sites exactly as they are forever. We need to drive engagement, keep up with new technology and compete with other sites. How do we make improvements to our sites without annoying our users?

Change management

Companies talk about something called Change Management. It’s a discipline informed by human psychology that has been majorly invested in by firms worldwide, and most large companies will have entire Change Management teams focused entirely on reducing the frustration felt by people during necessary changes to processes.

Change Managers follow the Prosci ADKAR process, which takes you step-by-step through managing natural human resistance to change:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to participate in and support the change
  • Knowledge on how to change
  • Ability to implement required skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement to sustain the change

Essentially, you begin by explaining to people why a change is required. You then explain to them the advantages that the change will offer them to persuade them that it’s a good idea. Next, you explain to them how the changes will come about and make sure that they have the capability to deal with the change. Lastly, you support the change by reminding them how much better everything is after.

Moving on from Prosci

So what does that mean for your site? Well, you would likely begin by contacting your users and telling them that you plan to make a change to your site. You would then offer some pilot users the opportunity to try out the new feature to drum up some excitement about it and give them some self-service instructions about how the new features work. You would then keep your users informed about how the trial is going.

Once your pilot has run its course, you would then take your learnings and use those to improve the full roll-out to users. Lastly, you’d follow up with your users to get feedback and ensure they remember the feature is there.

Moving on from Prosci, you probably want to run this through another cycle; taking the user feedback and implementing some improvements. You’d want to notify your users that their feedback is actually being actioned.

… or maybe you don’t…

If you know anything about Twitter and Facebook, you’ll be aware this is not the process these sites use for changes. There will indeed be significant internal testing of features and there will likely also be a small pilot group of users, but Twitter and Facebook will regularly drop changes onto their normal customers out of the blue with no warning at all.

The social giants won’t bother telling users much about the new features and probably won’t offer any instructions, relying on their users’ to explore the innovations and figure them out for themselves. Likewise, they won’t take feedback or suggestions; Twitter, particularly, is notorious for ignoring user requests for new features.

Are the biggest websites on the planet getting this whole process horribly wrong? Personally, I don’t think so.

Should you bother?

Notice, while everyone complains about the changes every time they happen, no-one leaves Twitter and Facebook as a result. In fact, the annual meltdown over new features serves to drum up press for the sites – all publicity is good publicity.

To some extent, this is simply a case of the big social networks being popular enough to do whatever they want and not care what their users think, because their tools are too relied on to be abandoned. I don’t think that’s all that’s happening here though. Bigger giants have fallen for less, after all.

Proper change management is a long, laborious process, requiring a great deal of investment and compromise with your users. At the end of the process, you’re still going to get groups of users who dig their heels in and just insist they don’t like the change.

Change management, at its worst, can halt innovation and stifle your developers’ creativity with pointless naysaying, but ultimately it still won’t perform any magic spells to hypnotise users into loving what you do. So why bother?

Does it, perhaps, make more sense to simply rip off the bandage? Should you just change whatever you want and leave your customers to just deal with it? Meh. Maybe.

Twitter and Facebook can get away with that. Your app probably can’t. Still, full change management is little bit old-fashioned and not especially Agile.

Faster horses

Henry Ford famously said that if he’d asked people what they wanted for the future of transport, they’d have asked for faster horses. Your job as an innovator is to give people the things they don’t even know they need. If you do, and their reaction is “WTF is this?” you shouldn’t take it all back. Let them try it out and see that your new car is better than any old nag.

Rather than spending your time and money on ADKAR, invest it in user research before the fact. Find out what your users need and give it to them. If your new feature or redesign fits their needs, it will carry it past any resistance to change. If it’s mediocre, your users’ irritation will solidify.

Taking some elements of Prosci, like letting your users know why you’re making the change and how it benefits them, can soften that blow, especially if your change doesn’t turn out to be as popular as you hope. However, if your research really shows your change is going to be a banger, then let it speak for itself and just stoically ride out any negativity until everyone sees the value in it.

Ultimately, your job is to make a site that converts. If your users keep using your site, does it really matter if they complain about it? Actions speak a lot louder than words, so do your research and then let the results turn that “nope” into a “yep.”


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Main image by Daniel Herron