How to overcome user resistance and ensure your redesign pays off

Yeshika Senadheera


4 mins

What is cognitive resistance?

Users already have an established belief or expectation about how the product works based on their previous experiences. But when a change is involved that is new to their routine it takes extra mental effort for them to adapt to the new redesign such as relearning processes or adjusting to new layouts and functionalities. This is why some users may initially resist changes in a product they frequently use. 

Why this matters in a redesign

Research shows that cognitive resistance to change can significantly impact new product adoption (emerald).

"Illustration showing a user surrounded by speech bubbles with questions about a product redesign, highlighting concerns about changes, usage, and lack of update awareness.
Common user concerns in response to a product redesign

No matter how much time or effort you invest in redesigning your product, if users are not adapting well to the changes, it can significantly impact various aspects of your business. As Steve Jobs once famously said,

"You've got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology - not the other way around."

That's why it's importance to prioratize user experience in product development, as ultimately, it can have a huge impact on business success.

User complains

When users struggle to adapt to a new design, they may express their frustration through complaints. Users tend to add their bad experiences as a negative review and this could have a huge impact on overall brand reputation.

In 2017, Snapchat's app redesign led to big user backlash. Many found the new layout confusing and less user-friendly. This resulted in over 1.2 million people signing a petition asking Snapchat to revert to the old design. It reportedly caused a decline in Snapchat's user growth after the redesign. This TechCrunch article says 83% of App Store reviews for the update are negative with one or two stars.

If users do not like the product, redesigning it could waste many months of effort, and require additional resources for implementation to meet customer needs.

Bar chart depicting a decline in Snapchat's daily active users from Q3 2017 to Q4 2018 following a controversial redesign.
Impact of the 2017 Snapchat redesign showing a significant drop in active users over subsequent quarters.

Higher drop off rate

If the new design has a higher learning curve this means design does not align well with user expectations or cognitive capabilities. This may make the user feel too much of a hurdle to adapt to, eventually will get overwhelmed and might not see the value in continuing to use the product. This could lead to higher drop offs where users abandon the product. (The Interaction Design Foundation)

This is widely seen in ecommerce products. A complicated checkout process often leads to shopping cart abandonment. Recent studies show that about 22% of users give up on their carts if the checkout process is complex. The complexity comes from long forms and confusing navigation, according to Baymard Inc.

22% of users abandon their shopping carts due to complex checkout processes with long forms or confusing navigation.

Migrating to competitors 

When the redesigned product feels too challenging or too much to learn , the risk of users switching to a competitor increases. Specifically in saturated markets. If a competitor’s product feels much easier to use it naturally draws them in. Losing customers not only impacts your current sales but can also hurt your market position and brand reputation over time. And don’t forget: getting new customers usually costs much more than keeping existing ones. So, the marketing and acquisition costs could rise.

Here’s how you can reduce cognitive resistance when doing a redesign

If where users will struggle to adapt can be identified in the early stage of the redesign process, it allows your team to address them upfront. This approach helps prevent costly rework and iterations later on. But even if the redesign is super easy to use, some users might resist it simply because it's different from what they're used to. This resistance is known as the "status quo bias" refers to our tendency to prefer things to remain the same, even if change could be beneficial. However, there are things you can do to mitigate this challenge. Here's your action plan:

  • Start by mapping out the existing user flows to understand how users navigate and interact with your product. This will serve as your baseline for redesign and also help spot areas where users may meet cognitive frictions. It helps your product team see where users might struggle. They can then fix these areas before they become big issues.
  • To identify signs of user friction in your product track metrics like user engagement, adoption rates, and task completion. And look for indicators of user dissatisfaction or drop offs that could signal low adaptation to the changes. 
  • Make sure you are not adding unnecessary distractions to the current journey. This is where prioritising comes in handy. Prioritize features based on user needs and business goals. Remove or redesign elements that do not directly contribute to the user objectives or that clutter the interface.
  • Do incremental change to your product instead of a complete overhaul. These changes may vary in magnitude but it allows users to adapt without overwhelming. As it’s easier to process smaller sections rather than understanding a whole product at once.
  • Educate users about the changes in a clear and understandable manner. In that way users are well aware about new features or changes & know how to use them effectively. When they feel supported they are more likely to embrace the update. Use tooltips, walkthroughs, or video tutorials to demonstrate how to use these features. Also you can inform users about new features or changes through emails, notifications, or in-app messages. Make sure to highlight the benefits and provide clear calls to action to encourage revisiting the app.
Strategies to reduce user resistance

How Slack reduce cognitive resistance in redesigns

Slack's recent sidebar redesign aimed to reduce clutter and make it easy for users to focus on their conversations without unnecessary distractions. They made this new change even easier for users to learn with proper guidance. Instead of dumping users into a new layout with no heads up, they gave a friendly introduction to what's changed. 

So how does this kind of approach help with reducing cognitive friction?

It has simplified the interface for users making the user journey even more smooth. And the way they announce it is also smart in a way that’s easy to grasp, without being overwhelming with details. It encourages users to learn what's new with a call to action.

Slack's redesigned interface introducing the change in a tooltip to reduce cognitive load.

Venmo app redesign

In 2021 Venmo redesigned their app in an intuitive way. Not only they announced it in press releases they sent out emails to their existing customers to urged them to come and experience the new look. It directly addresses the user with a personal tone, acknowledging that they might need a refresher after being away for a while.

This approach by Venmo not only educates about the redesign but also excites users about coming back and using the app again.

Email from Venmo showcasing new features re-engage with users and explain updates clearly.

Bringing it all together

Redesigning an existing product might seem scary because of the risks like low adaptation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Businesses must continue to prioritize user-centric design principles. By doing so, they can overcome barriers like cognitive resistance. Companies can enhance user satisfaction. They can do this by using strategies like streamlining user flows, reducing distractions, and giving clear, brief guidance.

Yeshika Senadheera

Associate UX Lead

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