I, for one, am all for changing the rules if it makes things better for the customer. Many companies have taken the old way of doing business in their vertical and have created new markets by shifting the old rules. Netflix, Wikipedia, Target are all examples of companies who are changing the world.
I would also group Apple into that lot with their innovative approaches to industrial design and user interface. Tonight, however, I had a mixed experience at my local Apple retail store due to a miscommunicated shift in the rules of retail. I went in to the store to pick up a copy of iWork 08 (I give presentations using Keynote) and to check out the new iMac. I picked up the software, strolled around and grabbed a couple of other things that struck me (there is always something), played around with the iMac and got ready to go.
When I first walked into the store I noticed that they had done some remodeling. The Genius Bar was positioned in the back of the store where the checkout counter had been and the checkout counter itself had been removed completely. Now, I frequent the Apple store so I know that they've had hand-held checkout systems in place for a while now and that any Apple staff member can check you out without having to go to the counter.
The problem is that I am in the minority of the people who know this. There was a line 15 people deep at one point for people ready to checkout, but they were all standing in the genius bar line because that's where the checkout counter always was plus it was a counter with people standing behind it (lemmings I tell you). The other staff members were all helping people and so the line continued to build. Finally a couple of the staff broke away and started going through this impromptu line one-by-one. It was horribly inefficient and defeated the whole purpose of the change in rules.
Apple's innovative point of sale system is cutting-edge and the store concept is beautiful and much more utilitarian. The problem is that they changed the rules without telling anybody or helping them to understand. I am a loyal Apple user and I almost went home without purchasing. What would it have hurt to have a greeter at the door to offer a welcome and tell you that when you are ready any staff member could check you out. Even more cost effectively, why not print something on their uniform t-shirts that says something to that effect?
Like I said, I am all for changing rules, but not telling anybody could hurt the brand and really irritate people who just want to give you money. I've seen this manifest itself in the digital space many times. Think about what happens when a major site that you use goes through a re-design. Things get renamed and moved around in the name of progress. Major navigation or checkout changes can be catastrophic. Imagine if Amazon renamed the "Shopping Cart" to "My Backpack" for some reason. You may get it down eventually, but you shouldn't have to think about something that mission-critical.
So what can you do when the rules need an update?
- Keep the end-user in mind at every stage
- Identify your key paths/clickstreams through the site
- Maintain crucial paths or, if you must change them, make it painfully clear what the user should do
- Use a value index to rate changes (does it add value, lower the value or keep the value where it is) and strive to add value along each path
- Test, test, test some more and then test again
- State the changes you made and show how to do the same things in a newer (hopefully better) way
- Use video, audio or screencasts to usher people through the site in the way they choose to engage you
Has there ever been a site that made changes that should have been good (or you eventually found were nice), but they were poorly communicated? If the rules need to change, how do you lead the way and bring your customers with you?