Relearnability – how to keep your disabled users through a website redesign

If you’re an Evernote user like me, you may have not had a good week last week.

In the blink of a product update I couldn’t find my favourite note-taking app in my Mac Applications Menu. My usual visual scan didn’t find it. Did the update have a bug? No. Searching through the menu alphabetically revealed what had happened. The usual distinctive green logo had been replaced with a white one, with a subtler green elephant on it. There was nothing wrong with the new logo. To my accessibility trained eye, it had more colour contrast than the previous version. But the fact was, I missed it. I was scanning for green not white. And, one week later I’m still getting used to having to scan for white. Not a good week.

Not an Evernote fan? Is Twitter more your style? If so, do you remember the furore when they changed to a more rounded design in 2017?

“The #NewTwitter layout gets worse and worse every time I open the app. How is it even possible???”
— maria (@nimmostratus) June 16, 2017

I rarely turn to the UK freebie paper ‘The Metro’ for incisive technology journalism. But their article “Why do we always hate it when a social media site gets a redesign?” brilliantly summed up many people’s feelings at the time:

“You happen to log in one day and find that things have changed. The font is slightly bigger. There’s a bit missing from the side. The button that you usually click in one spot is now somewhere else. You take a moment to take in the damage, to observe all that has changed. You decide that you hate this redesign with a burning passion. In fact, you’re now considering giving up said social media site entirely. You despise it now. You are filled with rage and cannot bear to scroll onwards.”

If we hate change, why do things keep on changing?

Despite our aversion to change, new versions of sites and apps are being released at an increasing rate. Product Managers do this to add new functionality, restructure creaking information hierarchies, or just to keep up with current design trends. When I was at the BBC, for example, we redesigned most sites every 18 months. These days it seems more like every 6 months.

One of the qualities that marks out an experienced product manager is how they plan for, and handle, these major updates. It’s the aim of every digital product update to deliver a better product than the previous version.

However, whenever you change a product in any big way there will be a period in which your existing users may feel uncomfortable, as they have to re-learn how to use it. Because of this the number of people using the product immediately after its relaunch often goes through a dip as existing users decide whether to go to the bother of relearning how to use the product, and you wait for the new users that your redesign aims to reach to establish a relationship with your product that makes them want to return to it frequently.

While these ‘audience dips’ are common for most sites and their users, they are most marked for disabled and older people. And I’m not talking about issues that arise from accessibility errors in the new site here. Even if the new site is more accessible than the previous one, if it’s structured differently you can actually lose users, as the challenge of re-learning how to use a site can be a big challenge for people with impairments.

This “relearning inertia” is normally useful for website owners. If your website can attract disabled users, and they can learn how to use it, then they are less likely than most other users to switch from your site to your competitor’s on a whim. As G3ict’s Axel Leblois said in my interview with him in 2014:

“Accessibility is the best loyalty programme you can dream of. More effective than any mileage card, any loyalty card, anything…”

However, when you launch a new version of your site, this can tip the other way. At that point, it may be as easier for your loyal disabled users to learn to use another site than to re-learn your new version.

How this feels for a blind person

In my interview with Jennison Asuncion a few years ago, he gives a great personal perspective on this issue. Watch it here, or read the transcript below the video:

Jennison: As fully seeing people, even if your website changes, if you go to a website and it was one way before and it’s another now… Because you can see, you can get a full screen’s view. You can eyeball the entire screen quickly and see how everything is laid out. Whereas a screen reader is very linear. It’s left to right, top to bottom. So if things have moved around, like if you’ve moved a link from the top left to the bottom right, for a sighted person, sure it might take you a second but you’ll see. You’ll look down, because of the way your eyes will dart around a screen, you’ll see it. But for the average blind person who’s going to your site, it may take them a bit of time or they might not even see that the new link is buried somewhere else on the site.

It’s almost like if you’ve rearranged a house. You’ve decided to move the coffee table to another part of the living room, for example. When I walk in, I’m used to it being on the left-hand side. You as a sighted person are walking into the room and you see the coffee table has moved. I walk into the room, and if no one else is with me, I’ll whack myself right into the coffee table. From then on, I’ll know it’s there, but it’s one of those things I don’t think people think about from that perspective. When you’re totally blind like myself, I definitely notice.

How to guide your users through change

So how do you prevent this? To keep your users’ loyalty, especially that of disabled and older users, you need to make sure that you actively support them in easily relearning how to use your new site. This isn’t difficult. You just need to provide guidance for how they can now do what they used to do in the old version. You’re used to doing this for ‘onboarding’ new users. Applying the same care and attention to re-onboarding them when you make changes will pay dividends.

You also need to make sure you don’t change the page structure or navigation of your site too often. Changes that might be easy to handle for sighted people or people who are confident users of technology may not be as easy for disabled and older users.

Get these wrong, and changing the product too often without providing help, could lose you as many of your existing users as the number of new users your new product attracts. Permanently.

Finally, when you update a major version, I’d recommend that you make sure that your product’s accessibility policy and statement are updated. Detail any accessibility deficiencies fixed or any new deficiencies introduced. An out-of-date accessibility statement is not of any use to anyone, which is why accessibility statements should include a ‘last updated’ date.

To go back to my interview with Jennison:

Jonathan: BS 8878 suggests how to handle that. How you ensure that as a website goes through its versions you provide some help. If you have to move the coffee table, if it’s imperative to do that as part of the redesign, then you need to give people a map between how things used to be and how things are.

Jennison: Yes, the learnability is important. I’m not saying people can’t change around their sites, because that’s important to do; you want to keep things fresh. But as you were saying, Jonathan, to provide even a ‘What’s new?’ link where people can activate that link and there might be some information that says, ‘For screen reader users or for assistive technology users or for people with disabilities, just so you know, we’ve redesigned the site in this way.’ Then just put that information there. I bet you that information would be useful to people without disabilities, too.

It’s interesting because internally – and I know this because in my previous life helping with large technology implementations in-house in an organization – we spent a lot of time on change management and communication, because we needed people to buy into using that application, whatever it is or was, on day one. It’s interesting that from a customer or e-commerce or just an outside facing thing, we need to have a step in the process when doing the enhancements or maintenance releases that is a change management and communications piece. It’s a step in there to say, ‘Is there anything we need to communicate?’ ‘What’s new?’ first of all, ‘How is that going to impact the customers? Do we need to create any change management or communication pieces to go with it?’

So maybe three months ahead of time, before those changes go into the website, you might start having little banners or little things that are just saying to people, ‘Coming soon, a new website, a new look and feel.’ Maybe they can click on a link or activate a link and maybe there’s a video or some text there that says, ‘This is what we’re planning to do.’

So why should we care?

If a huge company like Twitter, which provides an essential social media platform and has few real competitors, has challenges with this, then the average company that has many competitors should take care here. Companies that don’t mind losing customers are free to redesign their sites whenever they see fit. But for the rest of us, for whom user experience and engagement are key to our success, we have a lot to learn.

And if you’re wondering why this issue is uppermost in my mind at the moment… Yes, it may be because Hassell Inclusion will be undergoing a rebrand and redesign some time in the next few months. We promise to do all we can to support our users through the early days of relearning our new design, when it goes live. We’ll be making the changes as organic as we can, and we hope you’ll like them. But providing a map to change is always useful…

“Coming soon, a new website.”

What do you think?

We hope these insights are useful to you, and would love to hear your experiences around this issues. Please share your comments below.

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