Question 244 of 365: Why do users revolt?

Image representing Digg as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

Over the past week, something strange has been happening on Digg. Ever since they changed over to a new format for the website and a different submission process, an absolute torrent of users have decided that this site no longer has their best interests in mind. Whether it is the removal of the bury button (the ability to demote stories that are not relevant or interesting) or in the total site redesign, users have given more than an earful to the makers of Digg, including spamming the site with articles from competing news aggregators. They want it to go back to the way it was before, or at least to fix the glaring errors that are starring them in the face every time they use the site.

In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter. A single web portal changed its platform and a few users (mostly hipster geeks) aren’t happy about it. It isn’t a tragedy or a massive privacy breach. It isn’t a power grab or a diabolical plan for torture. The website changed. That’s it. It is a blip on the timeline of the web, but it may be a symptom of a much larger problem. User revolts are becoming more common and more pronounced.

Facebook‘s privacy changes prompted congressional letters, a number of different startups to be created, and huge numbers of users to up and quit. Google‘s inclusion of Buzz into gmail without any notice prompted huge shifts in our understanding of what a company can do with a product that we have all come to rely on for our daily workflow. Even something like Microsoft‘s use of the .docx standard for all current generation word programs has been a slow burning user revolt that has many saving files in open formats or uploading them to Google Docs for fear of not being able to open them on other’s computers.

This may just be the fear of change that is the same in every generation, but I feel as though there is something different going on here. Users are revolting based upon the idea that their requirements for a service are no longer being met. This type of change is akin to an employees benefits being changed via a form letter, with no recourse whatsoever. One day, a switch gets thrown and the services we have come to expect have changed because the company responsible has other motives.

Users revolt because their trust has been compromised. They revolt over not knowing what the future holds and believing that the direction and progress is all wrong. Fear of change is warranted when the process for change is secret. Companies have every right to introduce new features and to try and advance into new markets, but their interests should still be to collaborate with users (all users) to find out what their needs are. Too many companies are advocating for fictional needs rather than focusing on the core pain that their software or service actually eases.

Facebook made up the need that people have for publishing all demographic information in a public (or easily monitized) way. Google made up the need that people have for having a social network in their e-mail (while I like this idea very much… it isn’t one that I hear a lot of people clamoring for). Microsoft made up the need that people have for proprietary document formats. All three of them did this because they saw a future opportunity based upon those fictional needs. Facebook could target better ads, Google could get more of the social graph information, and Microsoft could hold on to formatting standards. These are real opportunities, but they don’t necessarily lead to happier users. Because each of these needs are fictionalized, the cost benefit analysis that these companies are doing is severely flawed. The cost of the change is much higher for each user and the benefits are much lower for the company because the users revolt.

I understand that the vast majority of the services where users revolt are free. This may lead companies to believe that they can change anything they want to without repercussions from users. In essence, we should all just be glad to have the service at all. I would make the case that we have a social contract with Google and Facebook even if we don’t have a signature and a payment plan in place. This social contract includes the idea that major changes made to the service should be vetted. It includes working with users to establish needs rather than making them up. It also includes transparency. The process of creating something new should be an open one, and that is how revolts are stopped before they start. By making everyone a part of the new version, you will create buy-in and ownership and you may even find the elusive needs that are both beneficial to users and lucrative for the company.

Otherwise, we will continue to see more user revolts, more splintering of user groups, and more distrust of really great pieces of technology. I also like the idea of an undo button somewhere in the top left corner of everything, just in case.

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