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When Is The Right Time For A Product Redesign?

Looking at how and why Apple rolled out Final Cut Pro X--as well as a few notable failures--provides a few rules of thumb.

This is the first post in a series by Victor Lombardi, excerpted from his forthcoming book Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Customer Experience Failures.

In June 2011, Apple released the latest version of its professional video editing software, Final Cut Pro X, and close to half the reviews on Apple’s App Store read like this:


“A Disaster.”


To understand this reaction, we need to look back at the history of the product. Apple released Final Cut Pro in 1999. In a world of difficult-to-use software and awkward hardware configurations, Apple's product streamlined it all. By 2001, it was used to edit major films. In 2002, it won a Primetime Emmy Engineering Award for its impact on the television industry. By 2010, it had almost 50% market share.

But the underlying technology was over a decade old. It seems that Final Cut Pro had experienced what I call a “tech-design shift,” a major shift in technology that makes possible--or necessary--a major overhaul in product design. Products that emerge from a tech-design shift can offer us experiences we didn’t have before. In the case of Final Cut Pro X, harnessing 64-bit computer architecture and other new technologies required a wholesale rewrite of the software, which enabled ground-breaking changes like incredibly fast rendering, an open platform for third-party effects, and the seamless use of dozens of video formats, called “codecs.”

The problem is that Final Cut Pro X doesn’t have some features that professional video editors relied on in previous versions, such as the ability to synchronize and edit footage from multiple cameras. This enraged customers who depended on such capabilities, resulting in a public relations problem that threatened to alienate a portion of the product’s customer base.

Shocking Success
But what can look like failure in the short term is actually a successful long-term approach for Apple. If we look back at the company’s product portfolio, we can see a pattern of major design changes, including the recent transition from MobileMe to iCloud or the older Macintosh transition from PowerPC to Intel processors.

Apple moves quickly to avoid stagnation. While such an approach scares other companies, the aversion to change often results in obsolescence. Apple’s customers have to cope with frequent updates, but that’s less disruptive than the disappearance of an entire platform or company. Many customers understand this: Although many App Store users left scathing 1-star reviews, even more wrote raving 5-star reviews, and by the end of the summer, Final Cut Pro was the second-highest-grossing app in the App Store.

Here are three rules that guide Apple-style change:

1. Embrace Tech-Design Shifts

When technology has advanced to the point of enabling new designs and new experiences, embrace it, even if it means a short-term customer disruption.

Nokia's Symbian mobile operating system is quickly dying because it missed the mobile technology shift from keypad to touchscreen interface, specifically the capacitive touchscreen popularized by the iPhone. Symbian market share plunged from 72.8% in Q3 2006 to 36% in Q3 2010. By the time the new Symbian 3 was ready in 2010, it was too late, and Nokia announced it would transition to using Microsoft's Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform (Microsoft had embraced this tech-design shift years earlier, leaving behind the Windows Mobile operating system to focus on a new, touchscreen-oriented system, even at the expense of breaking backward compatibility).

Looking back further in time, it’s not hard to find more examples of this trend. WordPerfect dominated the PC word-processing market during the 1980s but fumbled the shift from DOS to Windows. It entered the market two years later than the competition with a buggy, difficult–to-install product. Microsoft Word, which had trailed WordPerfect in market share for over seven years, pounced on the weakened competitor and captured almost the entire market.

Conversely, if you don't have a tech-design shift, a drastic redesign may not be justified. Look at, for example: Since 1999, it has gradually updated its website design as the business evolved, avoiding big redesigns, even as it embraced other kinds of tech-design shifts with mobile apps and the Kindle e-reader.

2. Offer a Clear Customer Benefit

If customers don’t feel there is a clear benefit for them, they may reject the redesign.

That sounds obvious, right? But we release products for other reasons. Earlier this year, Gawker rolled out a redesign of its news websites using unconventional navigation oriented around the type of content published, instead of how people wanted to browse, and subsequently faced a firestorm of criticism and lost viewers. They rolled back the design a few weeks later.

Sometimes you won’t know if a new design benefits customers until you try it, and these cases are best treated as experiments. As one of their Labs experiments, Google launched Wave, a new kind of real-time messaging platform. Wave was too radical for most people, and Google discontinued it after less than a year.

3. Avoid Backlash with an Outstanding Ownership Experience

Customers will overlook flaws if their overall experience is good enough. Apple succeeds despite missing features because its products are “magical.” In more concrete terms, they push the limits of industrial design and software design to achieve unexpectedly high usability and aesthetics. The iPhone was long criticized for lacking features other systems had, such as multitasking, but the experience of using the iPhone is so delightful that customers generally overlook what’s missing.