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Users usually consider changes in the UI of a product as very negative. Two examples:

  • The Facebook's timeline (with its two columns display of the events) was subject to controversy for a long time until some users understood the benefit of it, and others just accept it,

  • The ribbon in Microsoft Office products raised a huge number of angry voices from users who wanted their old menus back.

Such reaction is due to the disruptive nature of those changes and the fact that users should spend some time to learn the new UI. Instead, one can change the UX by making small, not particularly disruptive changes, moving step by step to the new way of interacting with the product. Google Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps or Google Search are a few examples of this approach: while all those products had changed substantially over the years, they did it incrementally with no major, disruptive changes in the way the users interact with those products.

The frequent incremental changes, on the other hand, have their drawback as well: the users can be pissed off by the fact that they should constantly adapt themselves to the changes in the UI. For instance, the introduction of hotdog icon in Google Maps lead some people, including me, to think that there is no way any longer to get the terrain view, which was previously available as a button on the main screen.

When I need to improve the UI of a product, what should I take in mind to decide between a disruptive big change and a series of small incremental changes? What should I do to make the move less painful for the users?

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The choice depends on how drastic the change is. If it's too far from the current state of affairs, and there is absolutely no possibility to derive the desired state from the existing state by a sequence of evolutional steps, the only way is to introduce a big revamp.

Also, big changes sometimes are used to reflect or communicate a drastic change of the mission or a strategy. In this case a series of small changes doesn't really make sense as it won't convey the impact.

That being said, I try to stick to evolution changes at all times, for two reasons. 1. In this case users at least have time to adapt, whereas if the change is too drastic to take, they are more prone to leave the service altogether. 2. Evolutionary changes are naturally more cohesive with the agile workflow.

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I think big change vs small incremental changes are very situational and heavily depend on what the change is.

If you're trying to overhaul a whole user experience that definitely may get negative feedback even if the new flow is better It could potentially be affecting how millions of people do things (depending on the magnitude of the company but you're still affecting people). But, introducing bits and pieces of a new experience can be great depending on execution and thoughtfulness.

On the subject of rebrands I've seen a lot of companies rebrand lately and what I can say is rebranding affects how people perceive your company or product. Rebrands can be positive or negative depending on how they are executed it.

Long story short It all depends on the reasons for the change, what goals you're trying to accomplish and just making sure they align with the majority of your current user bases needs. The best thing you could do is throw surveys out their on your platform or show the users directly the changes you're making with some wireframes or even simple sketches. Unfortunately user feedback can be hard to get but If you can get it I would go for it. Balance your intuition, research, quantitative data and qualitative data from your users.

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Small incremental are less jarring for users, so I'd always recommend that option when possible.

That's not always an option, though. I don't see how Microsoft could have introduced the ribbon incrementally, and I doubt Gmail would shy away from a large change if they were convinced it was the direction the product needed to go.

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