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2010-02-10 19:19:14

Facebook’s Big Reset Mistake


If it’s one thing technology companies just can’t seem to learn, it’s that their users hate it when they are forced to learn – all over again – how to use their products.
Whether it’s Microsoft’s incessant rearranging of menus and folders, or Facebook’s latest face lift, users are getting quite fed up with having to suddenly “look around” to figure out how to do today what they did yesterday without effort. It’s a lesson for all businesses  that consumers prefer it when we stick to it.
Imagine if automobile manufacturers did what technology vendors did every so often: Changed around the reliable basics. Your new car might have the steering wheel on the right, where your current one was on the left. The brake goes from a foot pedal to a hand crank. And just where the heck did they put the horn now? Oh, under the seat. Right next to your Windows button and your Facebook news feed…
Somebody please tell companies to cut it out!
Consumers love predictability. Consistency is the promise of branding. Great companies build reputations around establishing and fulfilling a set of expectations for consumers. And while they “upgrade” their features from time to time – like new LCD televisions at the Ritz Carlton or a GPS in your new Acura – these modifications never get in the way of the expected (and valued) methods by which their customers enjoy their products or services.
This is the mistake that companies like Facebook make when they suddenly change their user interface. When their members log in one morning to find significant differences in how they use the system, it causes distress. It’s fairly certain that thousands, perhaps millions of users will express their displeasure in their status box when it happens.  And this cannot possibly be good for the Facebook brand.
Even if its members will eventually get over it.
There’s a big difference between upgrading how consumers access a product or service and how they consume it. For example, when Hertz put its rental system online, it made it possible for its customers to access their cars in new ways. But the changes had no impact on how the customer actually used the car. The online system sent their reservation by email, but when the consumer arrived at the airport, everything else stayed the same. Take the bus, look up your name on the board, go directly to the car, get in and drive away. The innovations to the reservation process had no effect on the use of the rental service; and possibly it made it even better.
Ironically, Facebook’s recent face lift did the exact opposite.
Users didn’t wake up to find newer or better access to the system – such as a much-needed upgrade to the Blackberry Facebook app or the ability to access Facebook from their cable television network. Instead, they found everything moved around, hidden under new menus, flipped from bottom to top, and generally discombobulated.
Millions of users didn’t use the system, but instead had to waste time posting “how do I now do this or that,” to their friends. Even a few days later, users are still asking how to do things, where to find content, how old features work anew, and even when some are going to get the new interface, because the change didn’t happen to everyone.
Just the unlucky members.
Of course, it’s not just Facebook that makes these big “reset” mistakes with its customers. They are just the most recent ones to do it, and on the scale of hundreds of millions of people at once. But it’s a lesson for all companies not to disorient your customers in the process of improving your products or services. Innovation should enhance the experience. It should build upon what a consumer already knows, but also not disorient them. Asking customers to relearn their computer, television or automobile dashboard cause anxiety and dissatisfaction. An extreme example is relearning cell phone menus: it’s why so many customers stick to older models, rather than reset their hard-won mastery. Customers just don’t like having to fight with their products, even if they eventually conquer them. So while Facebook’s members will quickly get over the new changes, their sense of frustration will linger on, as a fear of the “next time’ it will happen.
That’s no way to create confidence in a brand.
Even service industries without hard-wired products, like real estate brokers, appraisers or mortgage bankers need to bear this in mind. When the rules change radically, it causes deep confusion and lingering frustration in the minds of consumers. Innovation – whether moving from the phone to email or from printed documents to a paperless transaction – can cause consumers to hesitate to engage in the future. It can be worse if there is little help for the consumer when they get stuck – such as wondering why an email remains  unanswered when they reach their agent. It can be a nightmare when the innovation leaves customers bewildered about what is exactly going on with their information or account. Facebook is free, so it didn’t provide support other than some online screenshots.
When customers are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for service, innovations must increase the value, not cloud it.
This year there will be hundreds of innovations in the real estate industry. Some will be in technology, others will be in service. They will all aim at improving how the business is done – for companies and for consumers. Brokers will upgrade their web sites, move agents from cell phones to smartphones and transition large parts of the transaction online. Bankers will create new loan procedures and documentation. And the government keeps changing the rules every day. It’s enough to cause consumers to give up – and shut down.
It could send consumers back to the sidelines rather than into the market.
While real estate sales has never really followed a consistent set of rules from agent to agent, office to office, major systems over which the consumer has little control, but affect their personal deal have set some expectations. Facebook isn’t the only site to move things around and confuse customers. REALTOR.COM does it just about every time.  MLS systems are certain to do it, too, with rules that expand or prohibit or simply rearrange how photos or text or videos are used. Sometimes it will work for the better; other times it will not.
Hopefully before any of it is done, the industry and the programming geeks will ask an important question:
Are we about to press the Facebook reset button?
(Matthew Ferrara is CEO of Matthew Ferrara & Company, a technology organization that delivers training, consulting and technical support to real estate companies worldwide, including their new "Support on Demand" REALTOR help desk service available at 866-316-4209.)   

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