Communication Breakdown

Last week I received a group email from a friend. The subject line was simply “fb” and the original message was quite clear: “What the hell. Stop changing.” That was followed up by a dozen responses, some in agreement (“Argh”), some pragmatic (“What the hell else are their engineers going to do but change things?”), and some positive (“change is good”). To the shock of no one, a Facebook design change received strong reactions. As probably the best comment in the thread put it: “Yeah – put it back to the way we complained about when it changed last time! We LOVE that way!”

Why do we always complain when a site like Facebook, or Google or AV Club makes these changes? Websites rarely seek input from the users, and often they don’t explain why they’re making the changes until after the switch. In addition, new sites might be shiny and fancy looking, but they lose some key functionality. This lack of two-way communication and lack of understanding what previously worked leads to disgruntled users. As Dan M. Brown — not that Dan Brown — writes in his book Communicating Design, “if we can’t communicate an idea effectively, how can we hope to create a website around it?”

From personal experience, I can’t agree more. A few years ago my old organization redesigned its website.* Though we hired a website developer to do the actual coding, one of my colleagues was in charge of developing the vision for the new site. She created the wireframes, content inventories and other “deliverables” that Brown discusses in detail. But unfortunately the project took longer than initially anticipated, and she quit in the middle for maternity leave. That left me to take over some of the responsibilities until we hired a replacement. Unfortunately, there was not a good trail of communication between the developer and my colleague. Items that were in one draft of the wireframe weren’t ‘t in the next and vice versa. The developer had also promised several features to my colleague orally — and yes they were worth the paper they were written on. That led to games of he said she said. Eventually, it got to the point where I was constantly singing this song in my head.

Awesome Led Zeppelin riffs aside, it was not the most pleasant project. Eventually we figured it out and the website worked, albeit without some of the initial functionality we had envisioned. No one person was to blame, but it still was frustrating. As Brown argues, “Communicating design is about combining words and pictures into a story that elaborates on a vision.” Sadly, our vision was not achieved thanks to a communication breakdown.

What about you? Do you hate it when sites like Facebook redesign features you’ve grown accustomed to? Do you wish websites better communicated their website redesigns? On a scale of 1-10 how angry would you be if I completely changed my WordPress theme tomorrow?

*I’m not going to link to the website, partially so that I don’t draw attention to my old company, but also because it’s already been updated.

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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

4 responses to “Communication Breakdown”

  1. drdankerr says :

    I would be very angry if I saw you changed the theme one day. You are right on to highlight the communication aspect of his argument. That is why you are reading his book in my class! Now stop remining me of high school with Led Zepplin references.

  2. zk9098a says :

    Do you have a favorite Led Zeppelin song from high school?

  3. joannadressel says :

    Great commentary Zach. Like you said, I’ve heard that websites often base their changes on visitors’ interactions with the site, not on direct feedback. I’ve always been interested in knowing what kind of information people working on user experience on FB have found, and how it shaped their decisions to design websites. I hope FB and other socially important websites are archiving their design communication documents, I’m sure they’ll be a great resource for web-historians of the coming decades.

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