Change is good. When a product becomes more fun or makes us more efficient, we embrace change. Technology startups often lead the way, rapidly iterating in an ongoing effort to create better experiences for their users.

But dealing with change can be difficult. We’ve all experienced it. For example, moving to a new city or changing jobs might be positive in the long term, but can be formidable in the short term. When products change and advanced users suddenly become novices, you should expect anxiety to result.

What is change aversion?

Change aversion is the negative short-term reaction to changes in a product or service. It’s entirely natural, but it can be avoided — or at least mitigated. I’ll share what we’ve learned and offer some principles for minimizing the negative consequences of change aversion.

Stakes are higher than ever to launch changes in a way that minimizes anxiety and discomfort. Users of technology products (especially online) often face sudden changes they can’t control. When these changes generate strong reactions, people often turn to social media to vent — amplifying individual voices into a torrent of angry petitioners, digital torches in hand, demanding a return to the familiar, older, “better” product.

As a startup, you may not (yet) have a large user base to upset when you change your product. Early on, changes are expected and the risks of alienating users are often outweighed by the benefits of a better product experience for users. But keep in mind that at some point the balance may shift, and people who are happily using your product will react negatively to changes — unless you’ve planned ahead to minimize their change aversion.

Here are the broad categories of software product changes:

  • Infrastructure changes: improvements to speed, reliability, and scalability of existing functions
  • Functional changes: adding or modifying product features
  • Interface changes: visual redesigns, interaction changes, information re-architecture

Of these, interface changes are the real hornet’s nest, where upsetting users’ established habits and expectations can have dire consequences.

How to avoid (or mitigate) change aversion

A savvy change-management strategy can cut down on negative reactions, focus users on benefits, and make the change more successful. While we’re still learning with every launch, some principles are emerging to mitigate change aversion:

1. Warn users about major changes. Unexpected changes catch people off-guard and can provoke a defensive response. A simple message can set users’ expectations, for example: “Soon we’ll be introducing a redesigned site with new features to improve your experience. Stay tuned!”

2. Clearly communicate the nature and value of the changes. An explicit description can help users to appreciate the changes from your perspective. For example: “We’ve redesigned our site. It’s now cleaner to save you time. Here’s how it’ll help you…”. With framing like that, users will be less prone to change aversion, such as: “Ugh, it looks totally different. I don’t know why they did this, and I wish they hadn’t messed with it.”

3. Let users toggle between old and new versions. Giving users control over the timing of the change can cut down on feelings of helplessness. Allow them to play in the new sandbox before removing the old one.

4. Provide transition instructions and support. If a city changes its street layout, residents need a map of the new streets and a way to direct lost people to their destinations. The same principle applies for your product’s alterations.

5. Offer users a dedicated feedback channel. Without a way to connect with those responsible for the changes, users will vent publicly and further entrench their negativity. Users will respect you more if you actively solicit their opinions.

6. Tell users how you’re addressing key issues they’ve raised. This completes the feedback loop and assures users that their feedback is critical to prioritizing improvements. Try a simple message like: “We’ve been listening to your feedback about the changes we’ve made. Based on your comments, here’s what we’re doing…”

How Google understands change aversion

At Google, we’re studying the nature of change aversion to better understand its dimensions and influences. With our growing knowledge, we’re trying to make our products’ changes less stressful for users and more successful overall.

First, we aim to comprehensively test proposed changes and include time to modify them before launching to all users. This often includes usability studies, “dogfooding” with internal users, and partial launches (e.g. showing a new interface to 1% of users). Including a control group enables valid comparisons of appropriate metrics to inform decisionmaking. Kerry Rodden’s post on UX metrics explains the types of behavioral and attitudinal data we analyze within the HEART framework.

Second, when we launch changes, we track their impact on users to gauge the success of the launch and prioritize next steps. In addition to logs analysis and monitoring feedback channels, we use happiness tracking surveys to measure the effects of change on users’ satisfaction. By sampling a small percentage of users continuously, we can see attitudinal shifts that signal how much pain users are experiencing as they adjust to the changes we’ve launched.

Change aversion and attraction patterns

We expect some degree of change aversion with noticeable launches, but we also expect satisfaction to recover as users go beyond the transition phase and acclimate to the “new normal.” A variety of satisfaction patterns are possible, depending on the degree of change aversion and the ultimate value and appeal of the new version:

Trends over time of satisfaction, corresponding to common patterns of change aversion or attraction.

The depth and duration of the satisfaction decline tells you how severe the adjustment is for users and how long it takes for attitudes to recover. If your changes are truly an improvement for users, you should see at least a recovery to the pre-launch satisfaction level, or ideally an increase to a higher plateau. But if you degrade your product for users beyond an adjustment period (think Netflix and their ill-fated split of streaming and DVD services), you’ll settle at a lower baseline than before. So remember: Change aversion isn’t an excuse for worsening user experience, and you’ll be able to see the difference by tracking attitudes.

Especially in times of change, users’ attitudes may be a more sensitive barometer of experience than their behaviors. While a confusing launch may not cause mass abandonment or even a usage drop, it nonetheless writes a chapter in users’ relationships with your product, influencing their attitudes and trust thereafter.

The following chart shows that when Acme reformulated their Iron Bird Seed, customer satisfaction dropped considerably and took many weeks to fully recover. If the change had been carefully managed, and if the new product was obviously better, customers wouldn’t have expressed such deep, protracted aversion. (Satisfaction is measured via survey on a seven-point scale. See Elizabeth Ferrall-Nunge’s post on survey design for details.)

Trends over time of satisfaction, showing drop in satisfaction after a change and eventual recovery.

While change is naturally difficult to absorb, the principles I’ve described can soften the transition, prime users to recognize improvements, and generate valuable feedback to use in subsequent improvements. Remember to be mindful of the effects of change aversion on your users — it can make the difference between a launch celebration and a launch revolt.

Have you seen change aversion after updating your company’s products? If so, did it push you to proactively manage subsequent changes? Share your stories, learning, and advice!

Editor’s note: For additional discussion of change aversion, see Jared Spool’s reaction and Aaron Sedley’s subsequent response.