The BBC, Facebook and ‘The Supermarket Effect’

With the BBC unveiling a new homepage and Facebook rolling out a whole raft of new features, the predictable ensuing uproar at change is taking place.

Back in 2008, I wrote about what I termed ‘The Supermarket Effect‘ when launching a new design or features on an existing site. As Hugh McLeod once memorably illustraed – ‘Technology Changes, Humans Don’t‘. And I’m not sure the business/media owner approach to unleashing their latest effort to guess what we all want has changed much in the last 3 years, either…

Why Mark Zuckerberg is right to dismiss Facebook users

As a specialist in online communities and social media, it may seem a little strange that I would suggest Mark Zuckerberg is right to ignore the complaints of Facebook users over the recent changes to the social network, but stick with me on this one.

Mark Zuckerberg by Leafar. on Flickr (CC Licence)

Mark Zuckerberg by Leafar. on Flickr (CC Licence)

The story so far:

Facebook releases a redesign which shows more of a Friendfeed/Twitter influence. Users react badly and an app is introduced to vote on the new design. The app has over 1 million votes so far, with 94% against the new layout and 600,000 comments – Facebook has over 175 million users for context. (A suitable time to remind everyone of ‘the supermarket effect‘ when it comes to redesigns?)

Then on Friday, Gawker posted details of a memo by Mark Zuckerberg to Facebook employees, supplied by an anonymous tipster.  ‘He said something like ‘the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers’

Sadly, the memo hasn’t been published anywhere, so like everyone else, I’m going on the third-hand hearsay. Cnet has a reasonable summary of the split between people attacking Facebook/Zuckerberg for his apparent lack of concern about users, and those who are supporting Facebook. So far, though, only Robert Scoble appears to have addressed why Zuckerberg is right to dismiss user concerns in this instance.

So why is Mark Zuckerberg right?

There’s a difference between collaboration and co-creation (which I evangelise), and, as Scoble puts it, ‘letting the customers run our business mode’. Think of every product that has been dulled by focus groups until it fails to ignite any interest from anyone.

Zuckerberg wants to keep Facebook disruptive – which is completely correct if it will avoid the loss of interest associated with the previous big social networks – look at the current state of Friendster and  Myspace. Both are still sizeable, but when did either of them ignite any sense of passion or controversy?

Too often, a great idea gets lost in repeated meetings, discussions and trying to meet the expectations of everyone involved – now try applying the views of 175 million people to a business plan.

Leadership by Dunechaser on Flickr (CC Licence)

Leadership by Dunechaser on Flickr (CC Licence)

And it takes strong leadership to lead any project, no matter how democratic in nature – from Wikipedia to Twitter, users contribute, collaborate, create, build-on and influence – but eventually someone has to pick a strategy and run with it.

And the redesign is leading to reports of the benefits for brands and for Facebook advertising.

Meanwhile Scoble points to user data and recommendations leading to businesses. And the fact that people may claim they’re rushing to leave since the redesign, but what people say is often different to what they do, and with such a critical mass, there are a lot of strong ties to break, with no like-for-like alternative really getting any attention.

They just don’t get it:

Part of my reason for posting is an article by Frank Reed over at Marketing Pilgrim, and others like it. We shouldn’t confuse customer service with customers dictating business strategy simply by an immediate backlash – all customer input should be acknowledged, and then a decision has to be made to act on it. It’s the same confusion that portrays Open Source as impossible to make money from, or social media as the only place to bother marketing in.

(And for the record, I don’t like the new design, I’m not going to leave over it, and I probably use Facebook 1-2 times a day for pleasure and 3-4 times a day for work, preferring Twitter and Friendfeed).

‘The Supermarket effect’, and how to minimise it…

I’ve coined the term ‘the supermarket effect’ in conversation and in passing, and never really publicly defined it. So for future reference:

The Supermarket Effect: The initial response to a new layout to a website, which echoes your first reaction to a supermarket changing it’s layout; ‘Oh, for crying out loud, where have they put the sodding milk’. Despite the fact that the change may actually be an improvement.

Chinese supermarket by gab on Flickr (CC Licence)

Chinese supermarket by gab on Flickr (CC Licence)

Even after a decade of making, changing, relaunching and tweaking websites, I’m as guilty of letting myself have the same reaction occasionally, before taking a deep breathe and evaluating what the changes actually mean.

And that effect can be devastating when you’re just launched a design you (or your team) worked on for days or weeks, and the first responses from users is to complain about every change. But if you understand that a percentage of shock is inevitable, you can start to seperate the valid and constructive comments from those of surprise – just remember that if they’re regular users of the site, it’s akin to walking into your local pub, or you living room, and finding someone has moved everything.

But there are ways you can minimise ‘the supermarket effect’.

  • Warn users that change is coming. Give them time to prepare themselves.
  • Explain in detail to key users what the changes will be, why they are being made, and give them an advanced preview. Get them onside, and they will evangelise the changes on a personal level which you wouldn’t reach as quickly.
  • Use A/B testing to reveal the changes to a small group and evaluate which changes are making the important differences.
  • Consider changing in phases, or offering a choice of old and new. Eventually you’ll have to force the late adopters across but it gives some of your audience a chance to get used to the new layout and help the latecomers.
  • Don’t dismiss the responses – even those which are purely critical of any change – politely explain the reasoning behind the changes, and the evaluation of them.

One famous example of reaction to change was Facebook’s unveiling of a new design. It led to vehement opposition, but over time, people do accept the changes, as long as there is value in making them for users. And if not – why are you making the change?

So are there other ways you can make a substantial change to your website, and minimise ‘the supermarket effect’?