By Frank Spillers

VivaJakobBrightRed_0_0 Sometimes some of the best usability advice comes from users directly. In some recent usability testing, a user said something which I found very perceptive.

He said: "The designs this company produces seem to be evolutionary, not revolutionary". He explained, "They tend to do small updates that don't really make a substantial difference or change the core problems with the interface...if I am going to spend my money on upgrading, I want something more revolutionary than evolutionary".

What's the difference between Evolutionary versus Revolutionary Design?

Evolutionary design is the way of a managed release schedule (regardless of whether users want the features or upgrades being made to the new release). The problem with evolutionary design is that users might notice the updates (often they do not) and if updates are too frequent and last a long time (years for example), users can get the feeling the software or web application is aging without changing or getting stale.

Revolutionary design, like the current rolling rebellions in the Middle East, overthrows the old order of design and interaction paradigms and introduces fresher, faster and easier ways to interact with the product.

Many organizations avoid revolutionary design for fear of unleashing too much change on users and creating a back lash. This should not happen if a proper user centered design process is followed. New designs that synch with users (see my research paper PDF) and their habits, expectations and cultural, social and biological rhythms are more likely to succeed.

A moment of panic came over me when testing a new web application with users at HSBC in London...the user said "Why the hell are you redesigning it again? You better NOT MAKE ME LEARN it all over again!". He then breezed through six tasks in less than ten minutes (compared to 30 minutes on the old design). When we finished, I asked if the new design would cause him to waste time learning it, he replied confidently: "No, not this one". Whew!

Take-away: Start out by understanding users environments intimately and test your ideas and you can avoid a coup by your users.

Examples of Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary design

Revolutionary designs often set the trend for the category, out-pace competitors and keep everyone smiling.

Evolutionary designs often are in need of bigger strategic and paradigm-shifting updates. Users are "managed" instead of liberated from the business objectives behind the interface. The spate of website redesigns is evidence of the feeling many organizations have to 'shake off' the limitations of evolutionary design.

Facebook: Evolutionary

Facebook is due for a revolution. It has all the signs: Small updates faster than users can track them; rebelling users, grumbling and mumbling, constant changes and dancing in public around shabby privacy user experience. Changes few users notice, or when they do it's because they changed simple tasks like Finding Friends, for example, for the worse.

MySpace: Evolutionary

The redesign of this once popular social networking site sees its logo reflecting the hollow feeling of its once loyal fan base. The user experience is almost as lousy and lackluster as it was during its demise in 2007. Unless they tackle the complete redefining of music-based social networking, re-skinning won't save MySpace.

Mint.com: Revolutionary

Fresh, seamless and praise worthy. Mint users love the service, everything seems to be designed deliberately.

iPhone: Revolutionary

The entire category of smartphones was redefined by the touch interface. Almost every feature is user-centered in the iPhone, including apps- which have generated a new business model for the industry.

iPad: What do you think?

iPad is more 'magical' than revolutionary ;-) Even though it has outsold every single device in the past 30 years (as of Oct 2010) and its effect might be revolutionary for the industry, strictly from a design and user experience perspective it is being compared to a larger version of the iPhone (touch, icons, apps). Not to say that's bad... I believe iPad is so successful because the competition is non-existent or sucks so bad e.g tablet PC usability is lackluster.

When do you decide to go revolutionary over evolutionary?

1. Get real, in depth user input. This depends on how much you know about your current design from your users perspective. Usability testing (having users walk through your design) is a great way to gain an understanding of how bad the design is getting. Surveys or focus groups are limited by their opinion based research focus (over actual observed behavior).

2. Assess the value and priority of release features for how much impact they will make to users. Remember how Amazon.com waited until it got really bad before they did a major design overhaul? That's one strategy. There are others. If you are 90% certain users will benefit hands down from feature updates, then release them. But avoid managing product changes and user experience enhancements by release. Look for paradigm shifts you can make that will cause usability changes to increase conversions, loyalties and the perception that your company is ahead of the competitors.

3. Make the redesign or improvement the big-bang. Users should be surprised, compelled and moved by a redesign. Usability enhancements are often applied incrementally (Microsoft Office 2010 for example) without making fundamental improvements to desirability (how well users needs and expectations are served). Instead, the latest versions ought to focus on what matters most for users with improvements aimed at making a bigger difference in their product owernship experience.

Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS