Iterate and release often

You’ve spent the last six months or more working on a major overhaul of your app. You’ve refreshed the UI. Improved the app icon. You’ve even added a bunch of new features and removed the crusty old stuff that no one ever uses. You release it expecting universal praise. Instead, you're met with a barrage of angry tweets and a bunch of 1 star reviews from your once happy users.

What went wrong?

It turns out most users don’t like it when an app gets drastically overhauled behind their backs. They launch the app to do the thing they always do, and because everything is new and different they have to stop and think. It adds an extra cognitive load that should’t be there. They are forced to relearn parts of the app they thought they already knew.

When you look at this from a customers perspective, it’s no wonder they get annoyed and confused when things get changed without good reason or warning.

There are users that love change, but they are often much less vocal than the ones you’ve upset. Negative feedback can really throw you off as you scramble to course correct and make your users happy again.

Even Apple gets it wrong sometimes. The redesign of iMovie, Numbers, Pages, and iOS 7 spring to mind. Most users would have been much happier with incremental changes made over a number of years. Users avoided updating to iOS 7 because they don’t want the new look. Had Apple done this design change incrementally users would have stayed happy and kept upgrading. Instead it created a polarising effect, some users loved it while others hated it. It's only now that iOS 9 is almost upon us that a lot of the holdouts will finally upgrade. Big changes are hard to get right.

As developers and designers we love to wow customers with brand new version of our products, but most of the time that’s not what users want. Users like frequent, incremental updates that improve their productivity without breaking anything. Big updates are the exact opposite of what customers want.

I had first hand experience of this when Realmac launched RapidWeaver 6.0 late last year. It was a huge update and overhauled a lot of things within the app, including the UI. Some users were happy, but of course there was a large portion of users that weren't too happy with such drastic changes. We've since moved to releasing a few updates a month, with almost weekly public betas. Our users absolutely love this, and we've been getting more praise than ever before.

An iconic example

It’s not just the UI and UX. Users can also become very attached to an app icon. If the icon changes metaphor and colour between versions it can completely throw a user when they next want to launch it.

Clear icon for iOS

The icon of Clear changed during the (RED) App Store promotion, it was only temporary but it still got received a large dose of hate on Twitter, and received a lot of negative 1 star reviews because of it. We changed the icon for a good cause, but yet people still complained.

When the promotion was over and the icon went back to normal a lot of users were happy. But then there were those who now wanted the (RED) icon back. If the icon had never changed, or the changes were more subtle, all of these users would have been happy. Instead we annoyed and confused a lot of our customers.

Final thoughts

When trying to improve the design and experience of an app, you should keep in mind your existing user base, and think about what they really want. Most of the time, it's not a fancy redesign. We're all guilty of doing redesigns because we think that's what users want. But honestly, smaller incremental changes will win the hearts of your users. If you’re about to embark on a major update to your app, here’s some things to consider.

  • Make more incremental changes, and release often
  • Don’t remove features unless you have to
  • Consider doing an early public beta so users can follow along with the changes as you make them
  • Don’t change things for the sake of change
  • It’s easy to think you know best, but listen to your users. If they are all saying the same thing, give them what they want

To keep all of your users happy you should refine, adjust, and improve things over time. Never remove features unless you really honestly believe it's the right thing to do.

Consistent updates gives customers as sense that the app is cared for, alive, and still being worked on. If you go off grid for six months developing the next big update users will assume development has stopped.

Regular, incremental updates are a win for everyone. Tweak and improve your app gradually. Your users will love you for it.

Dan Counsell

I'm the Founder of Realmac Software. I've been designing, building, and shipping products for over fifteen years. I write new articles every month on how to run a profitable online business.

Brighton, well Hove actually.