Change and be damned

This week I made a significant design change to one of my forums that I have been running since the middle of 2007. It is the second major update since the birth of the site and something I have been working on for quite some time. In my naivety I expected applause, excitement, maybe even a “thanks” from the forum members… oh how I was wrong! What I got from many posters was ridicule, abuse, hatred and the odd expletive… it really knocked me for six. Should I be surprised… on reflection, perhaps not.

When I started the site in 2007 the initial design was the phpBB bulletin board plain theme, with the logo in the top right. It stayed like this for a month or two as we got the membership started. After a while I gave the forum a graphical touch and some colour…. a few people liked it but most said they preferred it how it was. This should have been my first clue.

The new design was in my opinion (obviously!) much better. It separated our forum from those other plain ones out there and gave a bit of branding. After a while things calmed down and people got used to it. New members never knew the old look and so appreciated it for what it was then, not what it used to be.

Even in those early days the backlash was surprising, yet we only had around 50 members. Now we have nearly 3000 members, so I guess if the same percentage had something negative to say now as did back then, then that will be 60 times the amount of people…. oh boy, did it feel like it!


Looking back on my experience it is quite clear that in general people just do not like change. I could have suggested any design change, or got the best design house in the world to work for us and still there would be a significant amount of people upset that I changed “their” forum.

It’s not just me

Looking into it further I found it is not just me. This should be obvious, of course, but the best example I can find is Microsoft. I have yet to find anyone who opened Office 2007 for the first time and said “wow, this is great”, at least not someone who uses Office every day. It seemed awkward, different, unfriendly and unfamiliar. People were up in arms about it and could not understand the change. Thinking back the same went for old variants of Windows too. People always have something to say and it is the negative people who generally get heard above the rest.

So what’s the point?

The point of this post is really to say that if you get negative feedback about your changes then don’t lose heart. It does not necessarily mean you are “wrong” per se. It may be worth taking these peoples views into consideration if they are constructive, but generally trying to please a community in a design sense is futile to say the least and you will end up with bland.

This is a party political broadcast by the design party

Think of your role as designer for your community like you would a politician (this doesn’t mean steal their money and buy flash cars and houses!). Politicians are elected to make decisions on behalf of the people, some who voted for them and some who didn’t. If a political party had a public vote for every decision they made, not only would the country be in chaos, decisions would not get made and even more people would be disgruntled.

So why change?

The easiest thing to do would be to simply not change, right? Give the people what they are happy with (or not complaining about) and have an easy life? Maybe. That is certainly one option, but as I explained earlier it is a sure fire way for your design to get stagnant and stale. Most people see community sites from a usability angle. They want it to be familiar and see any change to the look and feel as an attack on “their” site. Providing you don’t make the site more confusing or laborious to use, stand up for your design principals and go for it. The fact you get complaints is more a sign you have done something bold than you have in fact done something wrong.

Re-design 101 – Get a thick skin!

The lesson I have taken from this is not to care too much what people say. People (especially internet folk… just look at YouTube commenters!) tend to go overboard, especially with an audience. I am quite sure most of the people who slammed my redesign would not have done it to my face, and the fact it all calmed down in 24 hours also means that it can’t have been that bad. In 6 months time I will likely do another re-design. Will I worry about the negative comments? No… Will I expect them… Hell Yeah!

Bring it on! 😀