Don’t change it! – 8 ways to wean reluctant users off legacy systems

No doubt, the biggest mantra for a UX professional is to focus on the user, and rightfully so. Even though most users should never design a system by themselves, it makes perfect sense to talk to them, observe as they perform routine tasks, and engage them in workshops and usability testing.

After all, users know what’s best for them. Or do they?

The question applies to just about every software project but is especially relevant to the redesign of legacy software. Every now and then I meet end users who proudly show me some ancient interface (grey background, fields everywhere, hideous highly saturated colors) and tell me it’s exactly what they need and want – “just make it web enabled, but also make it work offline like it does today.” It’s another Dilbert moment. All my best intentions – improving the usability, streamlining processes, reducing clutter, making the experience pleasant and interactive – are suddenly called into question. Time to take a deep breath and plan my escape remain patient.

These interfaces have often evolved over decades into a patchwork of screens and dialog windows. Some can be really scary, others are confusing or too complex, and a few are just downright funny.

Here is a little snippet from my crown jewels collection:

Confirmation message

“Never ask me again” seems like the best option to me!

So why do these users love their legacy systems so much?

Let’s face it: we are all change averse. Even if we are looking for new experiences and challenges, we rarely want to move out of our comfort zone. With a little compassion, it’s actually easy to understand someone’s reluctance to change, especially if he or she has been living with the legacy system for ages.

Here are a few reasons why some users might be reluctant to change their habits:

  • They may have worked hard to master the tool and are proud of this accomplishment. Actually, their knowledge is power, even if they do not rank very high in the hierarchy.
  • They may have grown so used to the system that it has become second nature to them. They are able to complete tasks quickly and feel comfortable with the system’s idiosyncrasies. Even though they must have noticed that the world has moved on, they don’t mind a few archaic touches or illogical behavior.
  • They may also be afraid that a new system would dramatically streamline current procedures and render many of their day-to-day tasks obsolete.

So here’s the dilemma. As UX people, we are supposed to empathize with the users. But how can we convince them to adopt a new system when it has (perceived or real) downsides for them? How do we help them see the light?

  1. The first thing to consider is psychology. Do not lecture, talk down, or make them feel ridiculous. “Honestly, you are actually satisfied with THIS system?”
  2. Listen carefully and read between the lines. Also try to spend time one-on-one – you never know what you will discover. Users might say one thing in front of their peers or management yet share a different opinion in a more neutral setting.
  3. Take them seriously. For example, if their need is to have an offline version because of poor connectivity in certain parts of the world, don’t argue that this will soon become a thing of the past (it may not). Or, if they are not interested in the bells and whistles you have in mind, maybe there really is no need.
  4. Ask them about their favorite websites – or show them a few that may be of interest. This may help encourage them to think that “yes, we can (too)”.
  5. Engage them in hands-on brainstorming activities, card sorting, or even creation of their own personas. This may be not the conventional “research” way, but can be a lot of fun.
  6. Figure out how this new system may actually help them “look good” – e.g. a new report they can easily generate.
  7. Show them an early prototype and / or design and have them test-drive the new interface.
  8. When all else fails, bribe them with chocolate. Works every time. On second thought, might as well start with the chocolate since it can have a profound psychological effect (see #1 above).

Finally, keep in mind that while usability plays a key role in re-thinking legacy systems, one of the most important success factors remains performance. If it’s worse than before – and in many cases, web apps are slower than client software – the user adoption will be a painful one. Now you may say that this is not a UX but a development issue, and I partially agree. However, in order to achieve optimal performance, both sides have to work together to make it happen: UXs have to conceive of light-weight interfaces, handy shortcuts, auto-completes and other convenience helpers, while developers have to engage in the dialog and work their magic.