The usual saying is that “familiarity breeds contempt”, but that’s not entirely true. When it comes to your readers and customers, unfamiliarity can breed contempt.

With daily activities and the things we make a regular part of our lives–reading a blog, using an app–the familiar brings peace. Changing things up for our readers and users can be upsetting, sometimes enough so that they leave. When it comes to our daily activities, we can’t be familiar enough.

The reality is that change is inevitable.

stages of change

Why We Like The Familiar

Familiar restaurant, favorite food, just get me the usual. It’s upsetting when your favorite restaurant changes the menu on you, isn’t it? When things are familiar to us, we don’t have to make as many decisions.

Professor Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D talks about the enjoyment of familiarity, and says that “…things that are familiar are likely to be safer than things that are not. If something is familiar, we have clearly survived exposure to it, and our brain, recognizing this, steers us towards it. Thus, one could say that we are hardwired to feel that the “known devil is better than the unknown angel.”

People prefer what they already know for a few reasons, according to Raghunathan:

  1. We dislike unfamiliar stimuli. Our first reaction to something new is dislike, and we mistake that first unpleasant reaction as if it were a permanent feeling towards the new thing. It’s new, we don’t know it, we don’t like it, and we never will. That’s how we function if we’re not careful.
  2. Our ego forbids the unfamiliar. Our tastes and preferences are often a matter of pride, and we are loathe to acquire that new taste, that new interest, because it would seem to lessen what we have loved for so long. Plus, new things mean we have to start at the bottom and be a “newbie” and most of us don’t like feeling like the freshman again. We stick with what we know because we’re good at it, and we don’t have to embarrass ourselves in front of others learning something new.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should always keep repeatedly exposing yourself to something you don’t like in order to like it. I’ve never liked coffee or beer, and I’m always told that it is an “acquired taste.” But why do I have to acquire it? I’m more than fine without either, and excessive consumption of them can lead to problems. So I’m quite happy with my distaste for them. The point here is that we often have the option of learning to like new things if we decide they are worth the effort.

Think Carefully About Making Changes

Make changes with caution.

I’m not talking about A/B testing changes that you are using to tweak and fine tune a website. Those are done piecemeal to get to a place where things are exactly as they should be, and then monitored and maintained.

I’m talking about the very common desire of making big, arbitrary changes just because you can, or because you get bored. If you’re like me you want to redo the design of your blog as soon as you have the latest one finished, right? I struggle with the desire to do that all the time. After the fun of digging into a new design and getting everything in working order, it is disappointing when it is completed and it’s tempting to change it again.

Arbitrary change can be dangerous.

You create a distraction.

Every time I changed my personal blog (and I used to do it nearly twice a year), the first few blog posts after the change would have comments that were all about “I see you changed your blog” and nothing to do with the actual topic of the posts, as if readers couldn’t read or comment on the content, but could only fixate on the changes. The constant changing created a distraction for the real purpose of the blog.

Change is distracting and creates confusion. Be careful how often you use it.

You lose recognition.

People grow to recognize your blog, and visual identification is one of the first (and quickest) methods people use to associate something with you or your brand. One of the dangers of using a template for your WordPress blog is that, if you don’t tweak it and customize it at least a bit, it will look like so many other blogs out there.

When you change your blog, you strip away the efforts people make to get comfortable with you because the blog or app they recognized is gone.

You lose loyalty.

We stay loyal to what’s familiar because we’ve already done the work to decide we should. It’s easy to stick with what we know. When confronted with something new (like a blog or app redesign), people have to start over and you give them the option to re-evaluate that loyalty.

In other words, new things give previously loyal people an opportunity to get out if they want to.

You create anger or frustration.

We introduced some major changes to CoSchedule this past week, and I found myself using an unfamiliar interface.

The change wasn’t huge, but it was one that completely upended how I handled social messages. While creating each message one at a time was tedious, I had gotten used to it and didn’t really think about it. It was what I knew. It was as if I ran a counter in my head while I made the messages, spreading them out to all of the different Twitter accounts, determining which accounts got what when, spacing out the image posts, the times, etc. I had a system. It was complex. But it was what I knew. And though I knew the changes were better, and though I knew I would learn them as well as the old system, and though I knew it would make things faster in the long run, I was frustrated with myself for how I fumbled around trying to figure out a new system.

Some of that frustration that your readers and users get with themselves when having to deal with a new blog design or a new app design is quickly turned towards you.

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How Can You Help Users With Change?

You can’t control whether your reader or user is willing to do the work. Some people are more readily willing to try new things and go with the flow, while others are not built that way. You’ll know it immediately by the emails you start receiving which or your readers and users fit into which category. This is out of your control.

There are a few things, though, that you can do to help contribute towards making the changes acceptable. If a reader or user has even a modicum of tendency towards giving it a try, it’ll work.

Approachable learning.

I can’t say that I love jazz, but I felt it was important to know at least a working knowledge of its history and components to be a well-rounded person. So, I took a few introductory classes in college and learned about the history, the styles, the movements–enough to have a conversation if need be, and at least appreciate what I was hearing on an intellectual level even if the music didn’t grab me on an emotional level. While you can’t make your readers or users  willing learners (that’s the part out of your control), you can at least offer it to those who would be.

Make a video about your new app changes. Write a detailed blog post explaining why you made the changes you did. Give them an opportunity to learn the reasoning behind the changes, and what they can expect from the changes, rather than just dumping them on them and assuming they’ll figure it out.

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Value their opinions.

Let them vent their frustrations and give their opinions. Provide a forum for it, so they aren’t forced to take complaints to social media or to their blogs. Let them tell you directly.

With CoSchedule, we have a very easy access point, a chat with us link on every page. While it isn’t fun being told why people don’t like the new changes, you let them get that frustration out, you listen, you acknowledge their frustration, and then you offer to help. Perhaps they have a legitimate complaint or suggestion that could make things better. At the very least, they aren’t left feeling like change was dumped on them without recourse.

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Find a bridge.

Raghunathan uses an excellent example in illustrating the idea of finding a bridge between something familiar and something unfamiliar. He suggests that if a person is most used to Indian food, Japanese food might be too difficult at first, but Thai food might be similar enough to Indian food with enough leanings towards Japanese food that it would make an excellent intermediary step.

Before you institute change, consider if you can’t make it happen in smaller steps, or if there is a way you can provide a bridge from what your readers or users knew to where you wanted to take them.

Expose your changes regularly.

The mere-exposure effect is powerful, and rests on the idea that by merely exposing people to unfamiliar things, they will develop a preference for them. This is very commonly used in social issues; putting things on TV or in advertising that were unfamiliar has a way of making it familiar to the people watching. Think of how some brands use teaser ads and content to let their customers know changes are coming. Sure, they’re doing it to build a little excitement, but they are also exposing them to the changes and the idea of change. They are helping to make it familiar.

Talk about the changes that you will be implementing. Preview them on your blog. Give them a sandbox version to play in. Help people get familiar to them before they are put into place.

Toggle your changes.

Google often does this by allowing people to “try out” a new version of their Gmail or Google Docs for a period of time before making the switch complete. This lets people choose to try the change, maybe go back, choose again…all before making it a no-turning-back situation.

unfamiliarity

Can you provide the changes as something readers and users can opt into? Do you have to roll them out permanently right away? Sometimes you have no other choice, but if you do, consider giving users the chance to choose when they are ready to make the leap. Some curmudgeons never will change without being forced to, but you can’t help that.

Change is inevitable, even though most of us don’t like it. Some of us prepare for it and are resigned to accept it, and some of us blindly hope it never happens and are caught wildly off-guard. When it comes to your readers and users, though, you want to make sure that when you bring change into play, you make it as painless as possible for them.