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Every time Facebook changes its interface, lots of its users complain about it. The same happens when Microsoft upgrades Office. Is there a lesson about implementing change we can learn from this?

Facebook recently upgraded its system. This isn’t an unwelcome development: People want their products and services to get better. Yet the reaction by many was mixed: Where’s this old feature? Why does this work this way? How do I ensure my privacy?

Millions of users first reaction to the changes was I’m confused! 

Facebook should be asking itself: Is that acceptable? First impressions matter, even on upgrades. And Facebook has had this first-reaction to its changes many times already. Nor are they alone. When Microsoft upgrades Office or Windows, users complain they were happy with the previous version. Most of the complaints come from simply being disoriented. They had come to expect things were “in the right place.” Most airport complaint stem from travelers who simply don’t understand what’s happening in the security line, or to the delayed flight.

It’s an important lesson in change and disruption. It’s true, we all mostly adapt to these changes. But along the way, a lot of stress, anxiety and negative user experience occurs. Why would companies risk damaging their brand that way?

[Watch a quick video summary of this blog entry from Matthew!]

We all know that Facebook’s users aren’t its customers. Advertisers may be totally happy with the Facebook changes. Microsoft knows that its purchases are made by IT departments, so should it care that their employees have to re-learn the mail merge function for the tenth time? Perhaps these companies have decided that end-user complaining doesn’t matter.

I’m not convinced. Even if the users aren’t the customer, Facebook still need us. It makes no sense to create anxiety, confusion and ill-will amongst them.

Even cattle ranchers know that happy cattle make for better steaks.

Some companies work hard to avoid this problem: My Apple iPad didn’t come with a manual. Unfortunately, few companies’ products as intuitive as Apple’s. Even then, their upgrade of Final Cut was so different, so disorienting, its users forced it to maintain its previous version. No such option exists for Facebook users.

Facebook did host a big event to announce the changes, but 700 million people weren’t watching. Facebook has a help section but few people learn by poking around help files. Pop-up messages attempt to explain new features when users see them the first time: but pop-up boxes are insufficient for many people’s learning style.

Still, Facebook is free and optional. Users who don’t like it can simply stop using it. Sure, but why would Facebook ever want to send that message to the public? 

A better question we might ask Facebook, Microsoft and others is: What could they do differently when rolling out changes to their products. Three suggestions come to mind.

First, focus on the fact that most people work from rote habit. Young or old, our brains are wired to acquire a skill, master it, and then repeat it. We can learn new things at any age. But our cognitive functions are built around a process that takes new data and integrates it into our lives by making it transparent. Most of what we do becomes second nature. 

Learning new skills is inherently destabilizing. For example, babies learn to walk on shaky legs. Eventually, we spend our lives never thinking about how we walk, until interrupted by injury or old age. We’re then forced to learn new habits. Every change in rote habit is accompanied by great anxiety, fear and unsteadiness, even though we eventually master it.

Facebook shouldn’t just sit back and let people “go all wobbly” when they roll out changes. They should offer assistance, security, encouragement. Parents hold their children’s hands. We’re human intelligences, not artificial ones. People need time, assistance, instruction and transitional tools when asked to walk a new walk. How hard would it be for a multi-billion dollar company to write better help files, construct better tutorials and do some pre-education in the weeks leading up to new releases?

Second, Facebook should consider a strategy that maintains good will during transitions, rather than simply waiting out the complaints. This doesn’t mean catering to every complaint. But it’s bizarre for any company to think its users will get over it in time. Nor should they forget that big players are building big alternatives to capitalize on every little user dissatisfaction.

Companies whose product is their users should ensure that every experience contributes to their loyalty, not reluctant acceptance. Anybody who has spent time in an Apple store knows this. More sales are made by its current customers hanging around helping prospective customers than by Apple’s staff themselves.

That’s not just loyalty; that’s brand immortality.

Third, companies who touch people’s privacy should err on the side of over-disclosure, over-education and over-protection. Google threw away the entire Chinese market, not because it was fighting evil, but because it understood that the moment its users feared their personal data was unsafe, Google was done for. Users can go back to storing files on their hard drives. Most of Google’s email, document and spreadsheet users aren’t paying customers, either. When it comes to privacy, being pro-active, not tone-deaf, to people’s concerns is critical.

These lessons apply to any businesses. Every product and service changes our customer’s lives. The scale doesn’t matter. The ease by which customers integrate that change, understand it, feel safe with it, matters. That’s what determines loyalty, good will and willingness to refer others to engage the brand.

Might complaining users be the growing pains of a new industry like social media? Hardly. The teachings of Piaget, Drucker, Sloan, Dichter and others are fully digitized for Zuckerberg to download to his iPad. Millions of users are mostly telling Facebook to give them more clarity, explain it, simplify it. They know they are being fattened for Facebook’s success. They’re mostly willing to play, too. So it makes no sense for Facebook not to want to cultivate happy, smiling herds of customers. Feeding them a little better information should be a core strategy, not an option.

Steve Jobs once quipped that the only problem with Microsoft was that they “had no taste.” Facebook might want to look at the way it’s seasoning its users, and ask itself if not preparing a similarly flavorless meal.