Analysis: The power of user feedback in web site design

Two of the web’s most popular communication providers, Facebook and Hotmail,
have recently updated their services, but the moves have raised questions about
the influence of their respective users.

How much power do users have over the design of free web sites that they use
for communication purposes? Why do web site redesigns have the potential to
create so much user distress? And why do some vendors listen to user redesign
feedback more than others?

While Facebook’s update caused its users to join petitioning groups on its
site against the new design, some amounting to more than 200,000 members, the
firm has largely ignored the criticism.

But Microsoft, in response to more than 2,000 complaints about its updated
Hotmail look and features, issued a statement promising to investigate the
problems and remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Microsoft posted a blog entry listing ways in which it would answer user
demands, including the promise of more themes and an increase in the default
number of messages users can see per screen.

So, why have these two companies responded so differently to user reactions?
IDC analyst Caroline Dangson suggested that one of the main reasons is the
nature of the complaints.

Firstly, most of the user complaints to Hotmail were technical and therefore
required rectifying, while Facebook users were most concerned with the new

According to the Hotmail postings, users have had trouble accessing folders
and emails, and forwarding and replying to messages. Other Hotmail users have
complained that the new design does not sit well with their screen size.
Microsoft has promised to give inboxes more space to satisfy users with smaller

But Dangson also pointed out that Hotmail has the potential to lose more
business than Facebook from its redesign.

A recent IDC survey found that about a third of Hotmail users also use Yahoo,
and 40 per cent also use Gmail. “If Hotmail chose to ignore user feedback, it
risks a large number of users jumping ship,” she said.

This contrasts with angry Facebook users generally staying put and,
importantly, increasing interaction with the site by joining Facebook groups.

Additionally, Microsoft’s co-operative stance could be an attempt to offer an
olive branch to users after its decision not to give them a choice to revert
back to its old design.

When Hotmail previously made updates, it kept both old and new versions of
the sites going for a while, which users could switch between at a click of a
button, Dangson explained.

In contrast, Facebook’s latest update gave users a choice between a new site
design and their old version. Therefore the firm could argue that it had showed
consideration by slowly easing users into its new layout.

“Users need a choice between old and new because so much of what draws them
in to web communication sites is habit,” Dangson said.

“Also, a new way of using something is less efficient and therefore makes
users angry if they are forced to update when they don’t have time.

“There is no perfect solution for updating free web communication services,
but it must be gradual. The firms must notify users beforehand and make sure
they have some kind of choice in the matter.”

To further illustrate her point, Dangson pointed to Hotmail competitor Yahoo
allowing users to test out its new My Yahoo homepage at the same time as keeping
the traditional interface.

“And it is much less problematic changing a homepage than an email because
email pages are so much more personal,” noted Dangson.

“It is perhaps ironic that consumers get so annoyed at these updates when
these sites are free, but it is because of the amount of time people have

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