• Larissa Lowthorp

Larissa Lowthorp Interview With The Wall Street Journal

I recently had the opportunity to chat with The Wall Street Journal reporter Sue Shellenbarger. We spoke in depth about psychological challenges faced by reluctant users when adopting new software systems.

For this initiative, the user experience team was brought for a legacy software migration to a cloud-based service platform - however, UX engagement was largely an afterthought. The company's failure to put user needs front and center from the get-go ultimately contributed to rejection of the system. User rejection of an interface can have wide-reaching consequences which impacts their entire organization - thus a robust system for successful implementation is crucial.


​Ms. Shellenbarger and I spoke at length about implications to users, and the need to fully understand and empathize with the very real hurdles faced when introducing new digital ecosystems into the workplace for her article, Do You Resist New Tech at the Office? Continue reading for detailed excerpts from our conversation.

The project Ms. Shellenbarger describes had an advantage that few rollouts do - full support of a training program by the This initiative was a post-merger legacy software migration to a cloud-based enterprise PaaS platform for use by internal customer support agents.

The proprietary software that support agents used was not included in the acquisition, and the new company had 12 months to continue using the old system without having to pay hefty licensing fees to the former owners. In an attempt to meet this deadline and save money on development, leadership of the new company made the decision to go with a cloud-based platform rather than internally developing the replacement system.

Within a year of rollout, failure to address and overcome adoption barriers by our users, caused the entire program to be decommissioned. This very likely could have been avoided if user research was implemented from the beginning of the process, and a tool better suited to their needs were identified as the best solution.

Engage the User Experience team as early as possible for success

Employee resistance to new technology is a very real challenge in today's workplace. As global workforces migrate toward organizational structures spread across the globe, collaboration and connectivity tools, version controls, and other systems need to keep pace with a digital team ecosystem.

Resistance to technology is very real, but there are ways to overcome it. This is an emotional issue, people are not generally trying to be difficult or make things harder for the team.

On this initiative, UX research was conducted mid-process. It did not support the use of this software for our customer service agents, but the decision had already been made.

Leadership had a pervasive point of view that people just needed to be trained and familiar themselves with the new system. The work culture was such that most employees had a long tenure, and some had been using the software (built in the early 1990s) since its inception. Over time, each user I spoke with had developed a very set of specific hacks and workarounds to maximize their job performance and efficiency.

Users were not interviewed or researched prior to the decision as to which platform to implement, and I firmly believe that if my user experience team had been engaged from an early point, we could have helped provide research backing an upgrade that would have been accepted by users. It is entirely possible that this particular software was simply not the right fit for our users - but this flag was not raised until the project was midway, over budget, and it had been suggested to engage user experience in hopes of a mid-flight course correction.

Factors influencing user resistance

These users were already feeling off-balance due to management shakeups and changing HR policies post-merger. There had been a large exodus of employees at the time the merger was first announced. The last thing users wanted was another forced change - and very little was provided to employees by way of explanation, support for questions and concerns, or benefits of the new system. These are things I worked hard to provide once my engagement with the project began.

I took the time to sit down with users and understand their needs and mindset, and why they were reluctant to adopt a new system. I was quite excited for the opportunity to share user-centric reasons as to why so-called Luddites drag their feet when it comes to adoption and acceptance of new technology, however, the article took a different spin. Keep reading to learn what I shared with Ms. Shellenbarger about a 2015 legacy software migration for a major company.

Users expressed anxiety and concern that adoption of the new software would negatively impact their call handle times, on which their commission was partially based. The emotional hurdlers users face when asked to adopt new software are key to rollout of a successful upgrade or software migration. Users don’t tend to avoid adoption for the sake of being troublesome - this can cause real stress and anxiety for them. Our users were customer support agents who were helping inbound callers. The callers were traveling, and needed rapid assistance on the road.

Agents feared that the new interface was too complex and convoluted, and that it would impede their ability to help their callers. Each agent I spoke with truly cared for their customers and expressed a commitment to aid them whenever possible, even if it meant operating outside of corporate policy to do so. My recommendations for optimizing the UX was to bake this attitude into the UI and empower agents, whenever possible, to have swift access to the tools and resources they needed. The new platform was unable to fully support this.

Failure as a learning mechanism for higher adoption rates

Factors influencing user resistance are not limited to one type of user, or one age group. Even younger users who are adept with technology and leverage it heavily in other facets of their life, or even other functions of their job, may still experience the stress and anxiety that comes with integrating a new system into a workflow they're already familiar with. Younger users, especially, tend to hesitate on adoption if they do not believe the new software is personally relevant or beneficial to them. Thus, the benefits of the new system must be communicated in such a way that users develop a personal relationship with it, and feel safe to experiment, explore, fail, and learn without repercussion.

In-Flight Research Insights and Training Initiatives

As user research and user experience wasn't engaged until fairly late in the game, our ability to influence decisions around the tool being used was limited. We attempted to provide insights and guidance mid-flight to achieve success.

We established a Center of Excellence,a prolific awareness campaign and training program. The importance of providing a familiar path is paramount to easing user transition between software systems. If users are unable to draw parallels between UIs, they will become frustrated and are more likely to abandon the new system in favor of what is comfortable and proven to work. In addition to our on-the-ground orientation and user support during rollout, we implemented a system of “train-the-trainers” to evangelize and help colleagues familiarize themselves with the new system.

We implemented a robust awareness and training program, from posters, to a dedicated support line, to ground-zero tech services in the months leading up to, and the weeks immediately following rollout. While users were initially resistant to the change by the time the migration happened, due to the efforts of myself and my team, they were ready and expressed a willingness to try it out.

Build Confidence and Increase Adoption by Establishing Trust

In my experience, change-resistant users tend to fall into one of two categories: either don’t trust themselves to be able to navigate and use the system well enough, and fall back to the familiar, or they don’t trust that the system will be able to work as well as their current operating procedures. It can be very scary. By migrating to the new software, users felt that their paycheck, at least in the short run, would be impacted. Leadership did not implement contingencies to compensate for that potential loss or adjust call handle time expectations to account for the learning curve.

When companies are able to commit to a user-centered research and discovery phase, we can then understand which mindset users fall into and work to develop an approach that mitigates resistance and clears the way for a smooth transition.

This alone would have influenced the end outcome of the project, and I strongly feel that had leadership placed users front and center from the beginning, front-loaded research, the entire project would have had a different outcome and the migration would have resulted in a more successful outcome than having waited to engage user experience research. A lack of understanding as to who their users were, and what their specific needs, mindset, and behavioral patterns indicated, contributed to the failure of this upgrade.

There will always be a couple of holdouts who will resist changing their methods until the last possible moment, but when an entire team of users expresses concern and reluctance over a proposed system, it's crucial to explore that and listen to what they have to say. I have found that frequently, decisions impacting end users made at the executive level, look good on paper and match policies, but don't always align with the way things actually work or how employees perform their day-to-day routines. Leadership becomes empowered to make their upgrades more meaningful and achieve an improved long-term ROI when they're able to tap directly into the user experience and obtain real-world insights as to how things actually work.

Obtain User Insights Prior to Investing a Dime into Development

In the end, users rejected this software. About a year after rollout, it was decommissioned in favor of another solution. I hope they applied the learning and research from the first go-round with a more successful outcome.

My golden rule of UX design is to architect a system that, whenever possible, prevents errors before they occur, and I recommend that the organizations with whom I work strategically follow when considering implementation of a system upgrade. Unfortunately, for this effort, a short-sighted approach to UX by key decision-makers caused the program to far exceed its $60million budget, which was more than doubled by the time of rollout. It became a situation where money was flowing into the program to try and "patch" issues rather than addressing the root of the issue.

By the time launch happened, my user experience team had worked with the end users to establish a baseline level of willingness to try the new system and I worked closely with the team's managers to help ease the transition, help users become comfortable, and provide several quick and simple paths to a robust support network, including establishment of a Center of Excellence.

However, the migration did not fare well over the longer term. In the end, users rejected this software. About a year after rollout, it was decommissioned in favor of another solution. I hope they applied the learning and research from the first go-round with a more successful outcome.

When possible, integrate familiar paths and labels into the new system

The legacy system was developed in the early 1990s, before the use of computer mice became standard. before Hotkeys were used to navigate the system. The majority of users worked from muscle memory to operate the interface and didn’t even need to look at their keyboard. Now, moving to the new platform, users were in the position of having to retrain their brains to a certain extent and adjust their mental paradigm of how the software can help lead customer service calls and vice versa.

Progressively integrating series of smaller requests, and coaching users on the path to succeed at non-critical activities boosts user confidence and their willingness to rely on the system for more weighty tasks.

Progressive deprecation of legacy features

In my conversation with Ms. Shellenbarger, I stressed the importance of building in familiar paths, scenarios and language to help orient the user within the new system and ease their new task flow. When possible, it can be helpful to initiate a soft-launch, where users can access the old system for a period, and slowly increase their exposure to the new system by progressive deprecation of legacy features.

This was especially true for the aforementioned initiative. The system was largely analog and much of it was still being processed on paper - not electronically. There was a spiderweb of implications not only for integrating the could-based platform, but for altering other methodology elsewhere in the company to accommodate the transition.

Going from "I won't" to "I did it"

By front-loading user research, and investing the time to understand the needs, goals, fears, and motivations of your core users, you can achieve a smooth and successful technology transition with higher rates of employee acceptance. With clear expectation setting, and a roadmap demonstrating how users can both conduct their current workday tasks in the system, and use it to increase efficiency, mindsets are gently shifted from "I won't" to "I'll try" to "I will" and eventually "I did!" Everything is new and unknown at some point - building familiarity and establishing trust is key.


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MTM Agency, Minneapolis
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