Curb Your [Upgrade] Enthusiasm

Most print database publishers have learned -- often the hard way -- that you don't mess with success, or even failure for that matter. Directory users are highly resistant to change, so even improvements come with real risk attached. What particularly fascinates me is that the it is the most poorly designed directories that have the subscribers most vocally opposed to making changes to layout, indexes and overall organization.

The explanation for this is partly that directory users are creatures of habit. Once they are comfortable with how something works, they don't want to have to re-learn the product. There's also a secret club aspect to it -- once users accustom themselves to cryptic codes, unintuitive indexing and arrangement, and non-standard abbreviations, it's as if they've cracked a code and joined a secret society that makes them a little smarter and a little more valuable in their organizations.

Not surprisingly, this passionate preference for the status quo extends to Internet-based directories as well. Unfortunately the ease of making changes to user interfaces has tempted more than one publisher to begin an endless series of "improvements" to their online products, leaving a trail of customer anger and frustration in its wake. On several occasions, I have experienced this myself, finding the online database I logged into on Friday bears no resemblance to the one I logged into on Monday. My first reaction, "why did they mess with something that worked just fine?"

In many cases, publishers have abdicated control over design of their Web products to their IT departments. Good intentions notwithstanding, IT-designed Web sites tend to favor neat and cool over functional an intuitive. This mindset even extends to colors. A professional site designer believes "less is more" in terms of color; a programmer believes that if there are 64 million available color combinations available, as many of them should be used as possible.

Publishers should monitor and discourage gratuitous "upgrades" to their Web sites. Changes to layout, navigation and functionality should be implemented slowly and only after customer testing. Familiarity with your interface is a form of subscriber "lock in," don't throw it away on a whim