Oh Noes! They Changed [Insert Service Name Here]!

I'm sure it's happened to you, probably recently: You're surfing the web, minding your own business, and you log into some or other website that you use all the time (like Facebook, Gmail or Twitter)... horror of horrors! They've changed it!

The world is upside-down, nothing makes sense anymore! How are you going to get things done? How will you know when your friends' birthdays are? How will you tend your virtual crops? Why, Internet? WHYYY?!?!

It's a reality of the Internet that the services we use online (especially the "free" ones) will change from time to time. It's not only necessary, it's a good thing. They're trying to make their services better for you. Yes, you.

The companies that offer those services usually make money using an advertising model, meaning that you "pay" for using the service by being exposed to ads down the side of the page. The better, nicer and more useful they can make their products, the more likely you are to spend time on their site, looking at those ads and, perhaps, buying something from time to time. They know that making you happy is good business for them.

Because of that, those sorts of products are almost never "finished" - they're perpetual works-in-progress, constantly adding new features, tweaking the interface and enabling you to do more and more things.

But that can sometimes be a scary thing. A familiar place where you spend a lot of your time is suddenly different - it's enough to make you feel nervous, overwhelmed or even completely lost. Here's how to deal with those changes.


Douglas Adams' words are very relevant here. When you log into Facebook and things are different, the first thing to remember is to keep calm - they've changed it for a reason, and things are probably a bit better now. Just give it a few minutes to explore, and you might just find that you like it better this way.

Another important thing to remember is that they usually don't remove features. If there was a button on the front page that you used all the time, it's probably still around somewhere. They might just have moved it to a drop-down menu or something in order to make way for other, more popular features.

I had a moment like this when Google+ changed its front-page layout a few weeks ago. I was always comforted by the little "Send feedback" button at the bottom-right corner of the screen. It meant that if I was having trouble with the site, I could send them some feedback, and they'd hopefully be able to fix it. I think I only actually used it once or twice, but it was good to know it was there.

Little button in the corner

But when the new layout came, I used it happily for a few days. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. I spotted a problem I was having with the site, and when I moved my cursor down to report the problem, I couldn't find the button!

I took a deep breath, and spent a few seconds looking around. I soon found that the button had been moved to a drop-down menu at the top of the page, along with a few other items that probably don't get used that often.

In a drop-down menu

These guys are very clever, and they monitor things like click-rates for various buttons. If a button that's taking up some valuable real-estate on an important part of the page isn't getting clicked very often (on average - some users probably use it more than others), it makes more sense for them to move it elsewhere to make space for something else.

What if they actually have removed a feature?

Although they'll seldom actually remove a feature, it does happen from time to time - a specific feature just isn't popular enough, or works in a way that it interferes with other, more popular features, and they decide to take it away. Or sometimes they change the way it works in an important way. It can be a bit frustrating if you were one of the few users who were using it for a specific purpose, but can't do it that way anymore.

When this happens, they'll seldom drop you in the deep end. Most of the time, when a feature is removed, they'll generally offer you a different way of accomplishing the same thing. It might take a little more work from you to do it, but it should, in theory, be possible.

This happened to me a month or so ago when Facebook made a change that made my life a little harder. I belong to a local community with a shared interest, and we have a Facebook Group that we use for various things. One of the things we used it for was to create Facebook Events and automatically invite everyone on the group.

About a month ago, Facebook removed that auto-invite feature. At first I was furious. How dare they take away this feature that I relied upon so heavily? It actually took me a few weeks to get over it (I don't use Facebook that often, so the time-scale for these things can be pretty long). I eventually saw that it was still possible for me to invite all the group members to the events we were creating, even if it wasn't possible to invite them all with one click.

For us, this change means we have to now manually invite everyone in the group who might want to attend, rather than spamming everyone in the group (about 300 people) most of whom aren't interested. So although it's an added burden for the group admins, it does make sense.

What if they change it so much that it's completely useless?

Sometimes that does happen. From time to time one of these changes will make it so you can't use the service for what you were using it for before. What do you do then?

The nice thing about the Internet is that it's really, really big. For any given service, there's probably at least one other service out there that does the same thing just as well, or better.

When Facebook changed their group events feature, the first thing I did was look for alternative services. I found two that seem to work pretty well: Meetup and Plancast. Neither works exactly the same way (and Meetup isn't free), but both are probably close enough to be useful.

A little bit of Googling (and usually a visit to LifeHacker's archives) should help you find an alternative that's close enough to what you need.

How do I protect myself from these changes?

Having learned the hard way, I think it's important to guard against becoming too invested in any given product or service that could, potentially, be changed or removed in the future. To that end, here are a few tips:

  • Check for portability. A good online service will provide a way for you to export your data any time you want. Google is particularly good with that sort of thing, and Facebook provides those services too. Ask a geek friend to check a service for "data portability" for you before you get too invested.
  • Don't spend too much time on it. If you find that you're spending more than 20 minutes customising or setting up a service or tool, that's probably 20 minutes you've wasted. Most of these things need you to customise them a little, but be wary: the more customisation a tool needs, the less likely it is to survive. Try to stick to the "vanilla" experience as much as possible.
  • Think like a geek: learn your way around. Spending a few minutes exploring the menus and settings screens will help give you a bit of insight into the logic behind a service's design. If you understand that logic better, it'll be that much easier for you to cope with changes intuitively.
  • Try new things. If you hear about a new product or service that does something similar to one you already use, give it a go. The more you try, the more alternatives you'll already know about if one of them is changed. Also, these services tend to work with each other (especially Facebook), so your exploration might reveal some fun or useful new ways of interacting with services you already use.
Dealing with change is not only part of the online experience, but it's part of the human condition. But if we're prepared for it, we can make the most of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment