Is Change Good? Ask the User

We hear a lot about change in the business world, and it is characterized in many ways:

  • A sea change has taken place.

  • The more things change, the more they stay the same.
  • Change is for the better.
  • Don’t change horses in midstream.
  • Change is as good as a rest.

Businesspeople often disagree whether change is a good thing. I would argue that it is up to the end user or consumer of your products to decide.

Many companies in the Wild West environment that has defined e-business have been forced to change what they’ve been doing to make their money. From business-to-consumer (B2C) to business-to-business (B2B) to peer-to-peer (P2P), from broadband to wireless, companies have shifted focus to achieve many different goals. Some have changed to enter more profitable niches, some to gain the notice of analysts, some to narrow their business models, and some to extend their reach beyond one market.

Whatever the reason for the change, it all comes down to how the user is served. If the change makes life simpler for users and allows them to more easily complete their tasks, the change is good. If it makes users confused and distracted by offering other possible tasks, the change is bad.

Most everyone is familiar with Amazon.com. It has made some changes in the past, branching out from books and music to lawn furniture and power tools. These changes, though, have not adversely affected the way its users have been served (except for the shipping price on a 10-pound box of nails). The story is still the same: A user looks for an item to purchase, then purchases it. These changes have been well within the scope of providing a positive experience for the user.

Imagine, then, that Amazon.com made a different change, one that did affect the user’s experience. What if the company started selling external ads on its site? Now users’ experiences would be different. They go to look for an item to purchase but are coerced into leaving to do something else. Users might become confused and stymied in their efforts.

We can all appreciate that companies need to tweak or totally rewrite their business plans from time to time. This is perfectly understandable. We are all still trying to figure out what’s going to make money online. My caution is against straddling two competing business models or trying to make the user do two things at one time. An example would be the Disney Web site. If users try to obtain information about the Disney corporation, they are surrounded by offers to buy merchandise from Disney and ad banners from different sites. The user is trying to perform one task, but the site is trying to pull the user away from that task.

If you’re going to make a change, make it. Move from one market to another. Stop being a (your old market here) site and be a (your new market here) site. But make it clear. If you can’t seem to make yourself give up the old plan completely, you’ll make it very hard for users to understand the new one. It’s already hard enough for them to use existing sites.

According to Jupiter Research, 68 percent of Web site visitors leave because they are “unable to find needed information.” Users come to your site to do something. If you offer them two or more totally different somethings, they’ll find it much harder to do the one they want.

When companies try to serve multiple masters — and their Web sites show it — the user loses. When the user loses, you usually do, too. And that correlation probably won’t change anytime soon.

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