Slippery slope

Avoid overt anger with a slippery slope. Start small, and avoid a backlash by making several small sequential changes rather than one large one. If individual changes are sufficiently inoffensive then users won’t become irate enough to revolt.

Examples

  • Facebook made major changes to its interface in 2010, and got major backlash from users (although it was ultimately ineffective). Google make frequent low-key changes to its gmail service and people mostly fail to notice. 
  • Netflix tried to push people to streaming video by starting a new service called Qwikster. This was a change from their previous “slippery slope” tactics and it backfired on them. They “qwickly” reverted to their previous plans.

Principles

People hate change. They love consistency. The posh name for this is status quo bias: the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same, and to perceive any change from the current situation as a loss. Loss aversion leads people to over-estimate the potential losses from a change and under-estimate the potential gains. They also tend to over-value their current situation (the endowment effect). The combinatory outcome of these behaviors is to stick with their current option. People will also stick with their current option if they feel that they have less information about their potential choices. Making people more knowledgeable about or even just giving them increased exposure to their other choices can reduce status quo bias.

How to use the slippery slope

  • Measure the impact of the change before you make it. Offer a preview of the change and then an option to revert. Measuring the number of reversions lets you know how likely the change is to be accepted by your general user base.
  • Reassure customers that the thing you want them to do is much like what they’re already doing, and that it won’t require much of a change to their existing routines, habits or workflows. This can help bypass status quo bias in getting people to agree with the new plan.
  • Familiarize customers with the change over a period of time so that when it happens it isn’t actually “new” any more.
  • Message to customers that change is unfortunately necessary, but give them an option to “stick with what they have now” with only the changes that are necessary for technical reasons. If the changes are subtle enough, the messaging tactic will overcome status quo bias.
  • Make changes in small increments. You may even need to create interim states to move customers from where they are today to where you want them to be.
  • If you must make a big change, get customer feedback beforehand to ensure that you don’t break too many of your customers’ assumptions. Even if your new site is more efficient or feature-rich, you need to ensure that users can still perform their existing tasks.
  • Claim that changes were made in response to customer requests. Even consider having a publicly accessible list of feature requests that you can link to as evidence.
  • Pay more attention to the tone of subsequent complaints than to the volume. There may be some truth in the issues that customers describe.
  • As an alternative to the slippery slope, if you hold a virtual monopoly, you can try just implementing the change anyway. Your mileage may vary. Facebook has confirmed its unassailable position in this way a couple times already. Netflix tried and found that its position was not so unassailable as it had imagined.

Blog posts about this pattern