Change and the Habit of the Present

Christina Wodtke gave some needed depth to an old cliché: people don’t like change. Whether or not change is adopted, she argues, is not determined by a simplistic and innate dislike for new things. It’s determined by how well the change is communicated and how smoothly people transition to it. Wodtke writes:

“…when a big change comes, the end user is focused on what they have lost: productivity, comfort, familiarity. And the user weighs that loss as three times more important that any gain that company professes to offer.”

Her thoughts are like those that underly the ‘habit of the present,’ one of the four Progress Making Forces. Understanding why people stick with their present set of products, services and solutions is fundamental for product designers who want to grow their customer base. Two important points are highlighted in Wodtke’s work and we’ll explore them below:

  • Good enough: Two different solutions to the same problem can co-exist, even if one is clearly superior to the other. How? Via Clayton Christensen’s “good enough” concept– some people actively expend extra effort that an inferior solution requires compared to its superior alternative because switching has too many costs in terms of productivity, comfort and familiarity. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon yourself. Think about a product or service that a friend has recommended you use, but you haven’t. Why haven’t you? It may be because your current solution gets the job done well enough and switching to the new solution will cost you too much in other ways.
  • Active resistance: Better solutions may be actively fought by people and systems that stand to lose in some way if it’s adopted. Lobbyists , for instance, will do all they can to torpedo new laws that threaten the status quo and the mechanisms by which they benefit from them. David Gray has researched change within organizations and has concluded that to affect change necessitates a deep understanding of culture– knowing what is and isn’t possible so that opportunities can be taken advantage of while challenges can be addressed before they cause trouble.

To overcome the good enough mentality will not only require you to sell the advantages of the better solution, but also require a transition plan for those using the existing (i.e. “inferior”) solution. Wodtke gives examples of how some sites have done this, but ultimately failed in their execution. Why? Because not enough effort was expended to acclimate customers to the improvements so that they would feel impelled to adopt it.

Active resistance is often political. It requires good salesmanship toward customers, but also to other stakeholders, direct or indirect, who feel they’ll lose something real or perceived. You may need to haggle, coerce or compromise in order to ease the pathway for these constituents who could otherwise actively work to thwart your efforts.

Of course, all of this is moot unless the new thing is actually an improvement over the old. Your ideas are vetted along the way, right?