By Jim Grey (about)
Delivering software on the Web is great. Especially with continuous delivery, we can deliver changes large and small anytime we want. And then we can get quick feedback from our users and the market, adjust the software accordingly, and push those updates fast, too. It’s utopia and the Holy Grail rolled into one!
Except that users are not very excited when we change things. They want software to stay as it is. Well, mostly: they want us to fix the bugs that affect them, of course, or even to add this or that little feature. But please, they plead, don’t make it work differently than it does now.
Meanwhile, we face various pressures. Markets shift; new needs emerge and old needs become less important. Technologies shift; old frameworks become outdated, new frameworks enable us to keep pace. Today everything has to not only work on mobile, but feel native to mobile — and all run on a single codebase. This is shifting product direction across our industry.
That’s the backdrop against which WordPress, the content engine behind one out of every four Web sites, rolled out a new editor last week. It was part of a complete rewrite of all of WordPress.com. Their old technologies just couldn’t stretch to where the world was moving. So they threw it out and started from scratch. Their new editor is fast — fast! — and works fluidly, while looking great both in my browser and on my phone.
But boy, were users pissed. Pissed! Check the WordPress.com forum: 19 pages of complaints and counting. Sometimes, I swear, users wouldn’t be happy if you sent them gold bars, because they preferred the silver bars you used to send them. But very often users have a point: they’ve gotten into the swing of your software, and now you’ve changed it and they have to learn it all again. Worse, maybe now something they used to be able to do isn’t there anymore, or if it is, they can’t find it.
For the record, I was the first commenter on that thread, because I experienced some of those frustrations. I tried to be kind, but several features I use either went missing or were accessed in a way that I couldn’t easily discover. Argh! And I wished the editing space were wider; it felt awfully cramped. I wasn’t alone in any of these complaints.
I wanted to just edit a post. I didn’t want to learn a new interface. But I found that there’s no way to just revert to the previous editor. It is simply gone.
I understand what drives changes like this and know that this is a monumental achievement this is for WordPress. Still, because I’m a heavy WordPress user, more than anything else I feel frustrated. The new editor breaks all of my usage flows, and I’m having to rediscover everything. I didn’t want this.
It’s the same, by the way, with Microsoft Office’s ribbon, which replaced an older menu structure way back in Office 2007. That’s forever ago in software terms. Yet there are still features I can tell you exactly how to find in those old menus, but I have to Google where they are on the ribbon.
Users don’t give a rip about your business or the future of technology. They use your product to accomplish a thing. As long as they can consistently and easily accomplish that thing, they stay happy. Many users learn your product’s nuances and become quite adept with them. When you suddenly change the UI and all of their flows are interrupted, of course they’re frustrated.
So what would happen if you followed Basecamp’s model? Their software helps companies small and large manage projects. Last month, they released Basecamp 3, a ground-up rewrite — yet they received not a single complaint from existing users. That’s because Basecamp 2, and for that matter Basecamp 1, remain fully active. Existing users can upgrade if they want, or stay put if they don’t. There are compelling reasons to move to Basecamp 3. But if you’re a happy Basecamp 1 or 2 user, those products will be there, fully supported, for as long as you want to use them.
Maybe your company can’t do that. But what can you do to ease the transition for your users, so they can stay fully productive? Think this through. It’s more important than any technology or implementation decision you make.
Fortunately, WordPress does, for some reason, still provide back-door access to an even older editor.
I don’t care that this is based on outdated technology: it’s fully featured, and I know how to make it sing. I cut my blogging teeth on this editor when I started my personal blog in 2007. I’ve written over a thousand posts in it. I hope it never goes away.