Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cognitive Lock-In, in Living Color: The AOL FDO Message Boards

In my feedreader today was an item from Joe Manna in the AIM Social Media Blog (the group blog I spearheaded before I got canned) that AOL is finally retiring its legacy FDO message board interface.

The FDO front-end is the old ("Classic") view of the message boards seen only from inside the proprietary AOL client. It was superseded by the Web board front-end a couple of years ago, though you could still backdoor your way into the FDO view.

And many people did just that -- partially because the Web front-end had some problems, but also because they were simply used to things as they were. And why wouldn't they be? Outside of a back-end transition near the beginning of the millennium, the FDO message board interface was substantially the same as it had been, going back to the early days of the AOL service. It wasn't fancy, but it worked (mostly), it was pretty fast, and most important, people were used to it.

We've Always Done It This Way: Cognitive Lock-In

So, this is a particularly dramatic example of cognitive lock-in (an issue I'd written about in the AIM Social Media Blog last year: THIS SUCKS! Or, Cognitive Lock-In: The Familiar Is Better (Even When It's Not) .

Cognitive lock-in is a fancy term for "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," usually combined with a flavor of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It means that once people learn one way of doing things, they usually prefer it to a newer way, even if the newer way is "better" (by any objective standard -- like it takes 3 steps to do something instead of 5).

Which means that, even if the new product is a lot better, it would still have a couple of strikes against it, simply because people -- especially the stereotypically non-tech savvy AOL users -- were so invested in the old version.

It doesn't help, if, as in this case, the newer Web front-end is not a lot better. It had a lot of problems, dropped a few features, and still lacked many, many features any Web board user-at-large would take for granted (I remember a new internal employee who could not believe that people couldn't edit or delete their own posts.)

Psychology Strikes Again: Emotional Lock-In

So, when change like this happens, people complain. Often and loudly.

You can't expect people to understand the business and technology rationale for doing stuff like this (even if it's valid, which isn't always the case). And sometimes, you just outgrow the product, or the product outgrows you. In cases like these, I often wondered why people didn't just vote with their feet: If things were so bad, why didn't they just... leave?

If you weren't one of those paying customers who needed the dialup, there wouldn't seemingly be a lot to hold you -- there are lots and lots of robust interest communities out on the Web that match or surpass the communities that had developed on AOL, and they've definitely got more features.

This is where psychology comes into play -- especially for long-time community users, there's a sense of ownership and entitlement. For the folks who got to be the old guard, who were the big dogs and got to feel like they owned the joint: If you go to a new community, you're starting over from scratch -- a newbie all over again. If you've already paid your dues, why should you have to do that again? It's a powerful disincentive to leave, so you stay and complain, even beyond the point where it makes any rational sense to an outside observer (there's community in complaint and commiseration, too).

We saw another prominent example of this in the recent Digg algorithm change top user revolt. If you're an outsider, it looks silly and self-important there, too.

So What Can You Do?

You can't not update your products -- that way lies stagnation and the death spiral. The lesson to companies, then, is make sure that when you're making changes that could hit the walls of cognitive and emotional lock-in:
  • Don't do it unless you can make demonstrable, positive improvements with clear benefits you can show regular users (Note: Telling people about the cost-savings you'll realize because you're not trying to support dead or multiple platforms is not a user benefit)
  • Don't just add new features -- Make sure that you don't lose any of the old ones
  • Find user advocates to help evangelize and message the changes
  • Communicate the changes early, incorporate meaningful user feedback, and tell people what you do as you do it.
  • Prepare to take your lumps, because there will always be those folks who hate any kind of change... and in that group, you'll find the folks who won't leave unless they absolutely have to.
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Daniel Poehlman said...

Actually, I didn't have much of a problem with the notion of AOL upgrading its message board to something a little more "modern" and potentially streamlined; however, the heap they replaced it with was so riddled with problems and glitches that I, and a whole lot of other people, inevitably stopped using the message boards altogether.

So, it wasn't really about teaching an old dog a new trick, so to speak. It was more like replacing your shiny new car with a skateboard from the 1970's. AOL should have waited and maybe tested the product at some level before installing it.

Anyway, I do see what you're getting at. No matter how much for the better the change, there will always be people who dislike the new thing for the simple reason that it is different.

Personally, I don't care if things change so long as they change for the better. What AOL did was a disaster and a complete embarrassment. It was like a throwback to the days of Q-Link.

Anonymous said...

Based on the majority of complaints, cognitive lock-in is a considerable driver of the frustration; however, probably the lack of official notice surprised users, too.

As far as features -- the only lacking feature on the Web-based message boards is a spell check. This is clearly from the traditional AOL user demographic, because I know that vBulletin, phpBB, myBB, Invision or any other community applications don't include spell check. This was one feature the the FDO boards had. Just like you mentioned, maintaining parity between products is vital to satisfy users.

On the other hand, new features that were introduced didn't carry over into the legacy format: Pictures, MS-Word compatibility and an improved hyperlinking feature. Because of this, many of the tenured users who didn't even try the Web format were unaware of these features. I've seen some users who have experimented in the Web format cite that it is better in a couple of ways.

Change happens, and honestly it's never a pleasant experience unless you communicate the changes, offer the same (and better) functionality and make it speedy.

I agree with your five points as they are definitely the pinnacles that any product manager should consider before making drastic changes to their community application.


Joelogon said...

Yes, I agree -- hence my point: If you're going to change, you better make damn sure something is actually better, because you're already starting out in the hole.

Anonymous said...

And, now the backdoor way is gone. I can't afford anything more than dial up right now (hey, I'm charging groceries while I await child support or my next paycheck, whichever comes first). I find the new way very cumbersome, and even while it seems a mite improved from when it was first released, it still, basically, bites. I simply don't have the patience for something that cumbersome. Many of my aol friends DID drop out when this first happened. Now that there no backdoor method, sigh, it's not the "we've paid our dues" so much, as we form bonds with these people over the years. But, now? Come summer, I may move my journal, and drop aol (or at least, drop paying and move to something non-dial up). I hope to afford that move by then. This is just less and less worth it. Thanks for commenting / explaining it!

Lippy said...

It's always the same story with AOL. It's not that change isn't improvement, it's just the whole tyrannical way AOL seems to present things. They launch things prematurely, before the glitches are even known, no less worked out, and then they just intimate that whole "like it or lump it" tenor to their PR work.

Some people never accepted the fact that AOL's revenues are advertiser-driven. The dialup service is more like a courtesy than anything, but if The Overlords just said something like, "Hey folks, we have to work a format that's compatible with advertising, or else we're screwed outta luck" the changes might not be met with so much resistance. Just tell it like it is, so to speak.

I just wonder now, how much longer the client software will survive before AOL goes completely and exclusively web-based. Hold on to your hats then, baby!

Stupidsheet Jimmy

Anonymous said...

"probably the lack of official notice surprised users, too."

We were promised advance notice by Nancie Meng a long time ago. So what did we get? 1-1/2 days notice.

Did you notice that Joe Manna and Nancie Meng have also been canned by AOL? Looks like "MESH" (formerly "CoMET")was a failure, because surely they wouldn't have canned them if it was a success?

Unfortunately, "some"one at AOL is deleting Comments written in response to Joe and Nancy's farewell posts on the socialaimblog. Wonder why that is?

Now that you're gone from AOL, care to comment on just who does this heavyhanded moderation at AOL? I suspected it was an AOL heavyweight...and I think I might know who it is...could you elaborate?

Joelogon said...

If you have a question for Nancie or Joe M., you should probably ask them directly. Though I'll warrant you have no idea how expensive moderation is, or have any idea how a business (let alone a huge corporation) works.

I never had to deal directly with moderation, and for that I am grateful, because in doing so, one has to put up with really annoying people who:

* have no sense of perspective
* feel they're never at fault
* always have to get the last word in (and will thus forever forgo ignore and block tools)
* think they and their allies are always punished, while their enemies never are

Since the boards are now going over to all member-managed, you now have a chance to see how the experience will be without all the "heavyhanded" moderation.

(And if you want to see examples of a true heavy hand in moderation, check out the SomethingAwful banhammer)

Anonymous said...

N and J were canned, so I can't ask them about moderation at AOL.

I'd never heard of "banhammering." But after reading some links, it's nothing new...what makes you think it wasn't going on sometimes at AOL?

Joelogon said...

Re: Nancie and Joe -- Yeah, they're nearly impossible to find or get in touch with right now.

Though because they're off the clock, they don't need to answer inane or annoying people if they don't want to. So you may be out of luck.

The point about the banhammer is that in many places, it's explicitly arbitrary -- note the SA episode where Lowtax clearly stated that anyone posting in a specific time window would be banned, for no reason other than whim. And he did. Which is completely different from stepping into the middle of a dogfight and trying to clean things up.

As to the oppressive, capricious, completely unfair treatment you're apparently alluding to -- I don't think there's anything else I can say about that. So I won't.

Anonymous said...

"Though because they're off the clock, they don't need to answer inane or annoying people if they don't want to. So you may be out of luck."

Although you may consider me to be "inane or annoying," the fact is that a LOT of questions were left unanswered by the mishmash"MESH".
That doesn't instill confidence in "users," particularly when the nonanswers are coming from an AOL group that trumpeted that they were there for the community and to answer questions.

Joelogon said...

So do you just not understand the part about asking them, not me, or are you simply in love with your own voice?