An Interface Refresh Can Revitalize Existing Features

Refreshing an interface feels new, even when it does nothing that actually is new.


The Strategic Brief:
Applications are not always brand new. We all use many applications that have been in use for years, perhaps decades. For mobile applications, refreshing the interface is a requirement, rather than a nice to have. If you are lucky, it will be delivered by updates to the underlying OS at little development cost (e.g. notifications in iOS 10). If unlucky, matching your interface to the esthetic of an OS may require you to redesign your app from the ground up. If done well, redesign can be more than refreshing for customers, it can be reengaging.


Refreshing an application interface can reenergize your users
In kicking the tires of iOS 10, there are clear changes in experience for existing features. A noticeable one is notifications. Notifications still do what they always did – an application calls an API to let the owner know a piece of information by displaying it on the lock screen. It is still notifying .. but it looks like a new feature.
I reacted viscerally and immediately to the new notification style. It feels like a new feature. It makes me want to pay attention to the notifications more often and more deeply. I am re-engaged with notifications. It feels new, though it does nothing that actually is new.
See the before and after shots from Politico below.
before

iOS 9 Notifications

after

iOS 10 Notifications

The design, coding, testing and quality assurance around refreshing an interface costs money. It can even cost more than adding a new feature. If the user interface code is not isolated within the application code, a refresh can involve changes to a significant number of modules.

Public Betas are a two-edged sword

In the above example, Apple invested even further by offering a public beta as well. A beta means your feature receives significant testing before general availability. A public beta also introduces risk. If early reactions are negative, the release’s reputation is sullied. This uncertainty is mitigated by the ability to address problems before the product is released. Coordinating and supporting all the people involved in a public beta is an additional expense for a refresh.

Is refreshing an interface a good or bad idea?

Like everything in technology, the answer is .. “it depends”. If you are lucky, you may get a free refresh. In iOS10 – your code calls the same API but the underlying operating system gives the result a refreshed appearance. The display looks different, as in the Notifications example above.(1) Sometimes, the operating system or framework will force a refresh on you.If it changes it’s navigation esthetic, you may have to redesign your app from the ground up to match. Users expect consistency in their experience.

Making happier customers

If your goal is to improve the user experience, you will need usage details from your customers. If you have enough specifics to understand how your customers use the feature today, you stand a good chance of reworking the interface to optimize the common tasks. If you are not tracking usage, then an interface refresh is more likely to be an egotistical exercise of how your developers think it should be used.

Refreshing an interface may elongate an aging product’s lifespan

A young application grows by adding more features. Eventually the application matures and may not need more features. To keep the revenue alive, product managers will still want further releases. The good news is that every year the industry identifies new and more efficient navigation techniques. Adding these into an aging product is a valuable way to revitalize the product, and give yourself an additional version to release.


1. Though a little cheeky, you could try to claim this as an application refresh.

Why aren’t they using my new feature?

 

 

The Strategic Brief:

When users are not using a feature that was popular in early testing, consider whether you explained the value of the feature as well as the function. Even when the use of a feature may be easily self-taught, the benefit or purpose may not be so obvious. This is a necessary lesson for manual writers and even for those writing simple help pages. Consider asking your writers and editors to bring in samples of good and bad writing. Practising on other peoples work can remove the personal feelings of reviewing written work.

A recent question from a product manager asked why users were not using a new feature. In beta testing, users enthused about the feature. Now it was in the field, only the beta testers seemed to be using it. My response was a simple question, “Did you tell them why they should be using it?” Lack of awareness is the most common reason not to use a beneficial feature.

For years, I used Canon’s point and shoot cameras, but one of my pet peeves was their manuals. The point and shoot camera is intended for the amateur photographer. Taking a good photo can be complex and Canon builds features into the camera to allow for those special opportunities. Below is their attempt to describe the fish-eye effect.

canon-screenshot

Canon Manual Example

In the Advanced Guide part of the User Manual in a section titled “Shooting with a Fish-Eye Lens Effect (Fish-Eye Effect)”. The description of the feature is detailed as .. wait for it .. “Shoot with the distorting effect of a fish-eye lens”. Well, thanks for that! They do include a sample photo of a dog’s nose using the effect.Most of us are amateurs who never went to photography school and never used a fish-eye lens. Hmm, is this a special feature for shooting dog’s noses? Canon described the feature, but failed to describe why they had bothered to put the feature in the camera. (See the end of this article for my attempt at a rewrite.)Now let’s take a look at how the Nikon S1 manual describes their Creative Modes.

nikon-s1-screenshot

Nikon Manual Example

Still quite brief – but what a difference! Nikon describes the feature, breaking it out into what you should do and what the camera will do (especially for Night landscape). Then they add a brief overview of why the feature exists. That extra sentence in each description helps you learn why to use a feature. Nikon’s manual helps you be a better photographer.Technology produces a lot of user guides, technical manuals, and quick start guides. Some are excellent, like the actionable guidance found in most IBM ‘Red’ books. Some are terrible, merely listing the available settings with no guidance as to why the developers thought that feature was worth including in the product. Yes, even for software costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.One habit I picked up as a public speaker was re-writing other peoples speeches. Today when listening to speakers, I try to rephrase statements to improve the ‘punch’ and clarify the goal of the statement. This is a good habit to get yourself and your team into. Get your writers to bring in an example of good and bad manuals. Discuss why they see them as good or bad. Then get them to rewrite a portion of the bad one. As a quick example, here is my rewritten description for the Canon example above:

Shooting with a Fish-Eye Lens Effect (Fish-Eye Effect).This mode simulates the style of a wide-angle lens known as a fisheye lens. The center of the photo is distorted to appear closer to the camera and the edges made to appear more distant. Use this mode to create the impression of being as close as possible to the subject in the photo. In the sample photo of a dog, the full head appears, while the snout gains attention by appearing out of proportion.

Feel free to improve on my rewrite in the comment section.