Inertia and Separation Anxiety Drive Design

We fear change.

We fear change.

This article about reluctance among users to give up Outlook as their mail client of choice underscores an issue that everyone in product design/development faces.

People hate change, especially at work.

When it comes to computers, most people have a very low tolerance threshold for failure, even if the service or web app is free. Remember the many Facebook revolts each time the UI changed or they opened up the community to new members?

People tend to freak out when apps change, even if it’s for the better.

This problem is worse when you talk about apps that they use for work.

During my time in consulting, every project I worked on built in time for user training, natch. That was always a fun time because it never went off without at least a few people voicing their understandable annoyance and frustration at having to learn how to do their jobs all over again on a new system.I worked on the technical side, customizing and extending EBS R11 apps.

My entire job revolved around accommodating these requests, i.e. making EBS work like the old apps did. In most cases, this meant replicating mainframe apps in the R11, client-server framework.

I spent lots of hours sitting with the people who actually did the work, listening to them vent about how the change would affect them. I did a lot of Forms and Reports work, moving fields around the canvas, changing the tab order, tweaking the default queries, all so they could replicate the keyboard entry they had used for years or the reports they were accustomed to using.

This is a serious concern when you factor in the loss of efficiency across an entire company. So, we did everything we could to make the transition smooth and easy.

Microsoft’s years of domination have deeply entrenched Windows, IE and Office as the de facto ways to get stuff done at work. So, it’s not surprising that user revolt frequently drives purchase decisions, even when change could benefit the bottom line of the organization as a whole.

It also puts a heavy load on the product team supporting the software, as can be seen from Microsoft’s experiences with Windows and IE. Thanks to Gary for sending along this fascinating look into the Windows development process that led into what became Vista.

These product teams struggled with the older, but still very popular, versions of their software, and because of the absolute necessity for backward compatibility, had to build in tolerances for software that was out-dated by modern standards and practices.

Have I mentioned lately that software is hard?

The article in PCWorld also has an interesting tie to our old friend email. I don’t know if there are any reliable usage stats on mail clients, but I think it’s safe to say that Outlook is the mostly used installed client, i.e. not a webmail client.

I have a personal distaste for Outlook dating back to the late 90s. I used our internal mail clients (Oracle Office and Oracle Interoffice) for several years, until we switched to IMAP, allowing me to move to Netscape Mail.

Then I left Oracle and was forced to use Outlook, which I immediately disliked, mainly because it was different. So, even for a very tolerant user, changing my primary work tool got me cranky. Plus, there’s the whole issue of an Outlook mailbox being proprietary, thereby making an export impossible and making recovery challenging.

That may have changed, but I swore to avoid it like the Plague if I could.

Luckily, I’ve been able to do that and happily use Thunderbird and OS X Mail (for reading, not portability) instead.

I guess it all comes down to getting stuff done, which is they pay us in the first place. Change makes that tougher, so naturally, people are resistant.

What do you think? Find the comments.




  1. I hate inertia.

    I spent my whole life adapting to change…it's the world we live in now. While I will usually accede to the demands, it won't be without some coaxing to try something different. But…I have not done it on your scale either. Makes sense (in that regard)…I think.

    One story I like to tell are about my cousins who all live in Indiana…they all expect(ed) to go to work for Delco (a GM parts supplier) to make ridiculous sums of money for hardly any work (unions, but that's another rant). Seriously, they would, out of high school, make $30 an hour. WTF? I've busted my ass trying to keep up with the latest and greatest (and complicated) technology and I've only just reached that point.

    You should expect change. Chaos is your friend. Change is the new…what's a good word?…not change? nah. You know what I mean.

  2. Sure. I'm with you re. change generally.

    I tend to err on the user's side when it comes to work, as long as I can get a real use case, e.g. I won't put chat into every web app I build, but I'll consider bacn emails, assuming time/resource constraints allow.

    Change a big problem for innovative stuff though b/c people want work to go smoothly. After all, doing the job outranks how to do it. It's a major balancing act.

  3. That's why you are where you are. You've learned to cave…I mean balance. 🙂

    I get it though. Curious as to how you balance the innovative (Google Wave?) with traditional? That's a sea-change from what I can tell. I guess that's not going on people's desktops (yet)…i.e. they're not forced to use it.

  4. Wave seems to be accommodating to the old ways, via robots. Tough to tell for sure.

    I should have mentioned this in the post. Edge-in apps (social stuff, e.g.) helps b/c people recognize what you're trying to do and feel more at home with it, but even so, they want training, etc.

    It's not easy by any means.

  5. Then again, there are large corporations (do I need to name names?) that will make policy / technology decisions and just force them through. People are expected to adapt to changes in the workplace, technical or otherwise. The temporary loss in efficiency while people pick up the new ways is just a drop in the ocean in many cases, especially if the change can otherwise streamline processes or workflows. (Your mileage may vary.)

    But I hear what you mean. While I was working in internal I.T. and we were doing the rollout of Office 2003 (from Office 2k), I couldn't wait to get it over and done with as O2k3 was such a better product from I.T.'s point of view. Still, most of the support cases from users were asking to configure things “back to the way they were”.

  6. Sure, top-down IT is pretty standard, and it generally makes sense. The problem is with user unrest, which contributes to “workarounds” and unnecessary customizations.

    It's just disappointing that IT's point of view and the user's point of view don't seem to overlap in enough cases.

  7. I know, right? I think people would be surprised at how much really goes into even the simplest of software.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.