I've seen a lot of people wondering about recent changes or proposed changes to LiveJournal's navigation and user interface, and asking why they're necessary. We've talked about our individual goals for some of the changes in the lj_design
community, but we haven't talked about why we're working on the project overall, and I wanted to take a minute and explain what the problem is, what we're trying to solve, and why we're trying to solve it the way we are.
See, we've done a bunch of studies and data-gathering, including usability tests with both new and existing users. The data are conclusive, and they're kind of scary: people have trouble completing even the most basic tasks on LiveJournal. Our experienced and long-term users have adapted to working around these user interface (UI) problems really well -- well enough that they've forgotten the steep learning curve they had in the beginning -- but new users don't want to read 15 FAQs before they can get started with their new journals, and even people who have been using LJ for years have trouble finding and using all of our features.
LJ grew organically over the years, and a lot of the UI decisions made quickly at the very beginning have stuck around for a long time. We've seen people get so frustrated at trying to figure out the basic taskflow that they throw up their hands in disgust and give up. One study shows that there are a lot of people who don't know there's anything other than the Friends page on LJ. (I'm not kidding. I wish I were.)
I've heard a lot of people saying that we're trying to 'dumb down' the site. We're not, but we know why it might look like we are: people who mountain-climbed that initial learning curve have blocked out how steep it really was, or were fortunate enough to have a set of expectations that match LiveJournal's UI assumptions. When you use LJ every day, you get used used to all the little quirks and annoyances, and they seem like second nature to a lot of you by now. Try finding a friend who's never used LJ before, and sit them down to create an account. I'm pretty confident in saying: they're going to have a lot of problems.
Last week I was trying to show my sister -- a smart, computer-savvy professional woman -- how to set up a feature, and I finally just took the keyboard away and set it up for her myself. It was easier than explaining.
We think websites shouldn't need an owner's manual. We think you should be able to sit down in front of a site and be using the basic functionality in ten minutes. We know we're not there yet, and maybe we never will be, but we're trying. Fixing a lot of the problems with the site's navigation, UI, and workflow is important enough that it's one of our top priorities for the rest of 2006. (I'll let some other people talk about our specific plans for doing that, and over the coming weeks and months I'll make a few more posts about what our goals are and how we think we're doing with them.)
We're armed with lists of tasks people have demonstrated trouble figuring out how to accomplish, with data about where people give up while they're trying to get things done, and with a whole wealth of research into LiveJournal's navigation, usability, and UI. We never had a lot of this stuff before, so when we made changes, we couldn't tell if they made things better or worse. We've got it now, so we're making choices and decisions based on fact, not on guesswork or statistically-inaccurate samples. (Like our friends lists. We're all users too, but our friends tend to be the kind of people who find scavenger hunts for hidden features fun.)
We know that any change to make things better will wind up irritating some people who are used to doing it the old way. Trust me, I hate change too -- I'm still using the same instant messaging client I used in 1997, because I can't find a newer one that doesn't make UI decisions that contradict what I've trained myself into. Just because something's familiar, though, doesn't mean it's necessarily "usable".
I know that a lot of you are really passionate about LJ, and that you love it, warts and all. We love it, too. I love it so much that every time I hear someone say "I tried using LJ, but I couldn't figure out how to do anything, so I just gave up," it makes me want to bang my head against the keyboard. We're trying to fix that.
It might be a rough ride for those of you who are used to the way LJ used to be, and I'm sorry for that. We're trying our best to make our changes as unobtrusive as possible, but it's not always practical, and we don't always have the time or the resources to maintain two or more different versions of the site, with the "old way" and the "new way". I know it's obnoxious to have to retrain yourself on new user interfaces, especially when you can't figure out the exact reason for the change. We don't make change lightly, though. Every UI change we've done or are contemplating is to address something our data have identified as a critical problem.
We are listening to you when you give us feedback, even if we can't always respond. I know it doesn't always look like we are, and we are trying to make it more clear. Because so many people are using LiveJournal in so many varied and diverse ways, sometimes something aimed at making it easier for one group of people to use LiveJournal looks like something that's actually designed to annoy people.
That's never our intent, though. Everybody on staff here knows and recognizes what an amazing product LiveJournal is, and every change we make is designed to address some problem that's preventing people from making full use of the awesomeness that is LiveJournal. We know we're not always going to get things right the first time, but we're trying our best to make sure that LiveJournal remains a stable, usable, relevant site with the widest possible attraction to all groups of users, new and old, and I wanted to make sure you guys know that.
(I'm going to leave the comments on for this post, because I love hearing what you guys have to say, but please don't be offended if I can't reply to them. I am reading, though!)