Severe Change and the Sudden Loss of Competence

Jared Spool

November 29th, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Four Stages of Competence. These four stages are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. As someone learns and adapts to your design, they are working their way through the stages. The ultimate is the user who is unconsciously competent — they can seemingly move through the design with ease, accomplishing their goals without much attention to the interface itself.

I’ve met many of unconsciously competent users in my research. They are fast and efficient. When people talk about “power users”, these are the folks they have in mind.

Now, imagine what happens when you make a sudden, major change to your design — a change that rethinks and redistributes all the functionality and the way it’s used. Suddenly, those unconsciously competent users can no longer rely on their knowledge of the design. They have to think about things that they never had to think about.

That severe change you made to the design rendered those users, at best, consciously competent, and, at worst, consciously incompetent. They now have to think about how they get their work done, in addition to what they are trying to do.

In the worst case, they can’t figure out the new design because it’s so radically different from the design they are used to. Even if the new design is more efficient than past designs for other users, these users are rendered helpless because they are forced back to a world where they have to learn the interface.

This sudden loss of competence is even worse when, as often happens, there is no new functionality in the design. They are slowed down and made to feel incompetent without any new benefits.

If you really want to piss them off, do this as a software as a service (SaaS) automatic upgrade where they get no choice on the timing. At least, when a desktop app makes this type of severe design change, the user controls when they install it. But with SaaS, the service provide decides on the transition date, often without any warning or preparation.

If you’re wondering why your most effective users are really upset about sudden upgrades, I’d look to a sudden loss of competence.

2 Responses to “Severe Change and the Sudden Loss of Competence”

  1. John Dalton Says:

    This sort of thing can really scramble your market. Just ask Apple, which had to refund a lot of angry users (like me) who “upgraded” to the new Final Cut Pro only to find that it is nothing like the old reliable workhorse that app once was. How bad it is it? I’m transitioning to Adobe Premiere . . . not the sort of “switch” one usually associates with Apple. But there you have it.

    Sad thing is, I would not be so peeved if Apple had communicated what they were up to prior to the release.

  2. Soo Says:

    How do we bring the “power users” on board for radical changes? Just a documentation of the old-to-new transitions before the launch would not be enough, I’m sure.

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