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Why they don't upgrade (and what to do about it)


Why is it that--after we bust our ass to produce a shiny new version of our product--users are so slow to upgrade? WE know it's better. WE know it'll help them kick ass in new ways. WE know that if they stick with their current version, they'll never truly become passionate...because they'll never touch that high level of expertise where things get really really interesting. But there our users sit, apparently content to hang out in the "competent" zone, happy they no longer suck, but unmotivated to push forward.

That's a problem.

And I'm not talking about the financial side. Even if we make no money off our upgrades, we still want our users learning and growing and improving and reaching for new challenges and doing more complex, cool things. (Assuming you ultimately want passionate users, which if you're reading this blog...)

So why are users dragging their feet? Why aren't they desperate to get the latest and greatest spanky new release? Conventional wisdom says it's because of the expense, or that users fear change, or that users are simply too lazy. But there's a simpler explanation:

People don't upgrade because they don't want to move back into the "Suck Zone."

They worked too damn hard to reach a level of competence and the thought of sinking back down--however briefly--into that awful state they clawed their way out of--is too unpleasant. We've trained users to fear upgrades. Raise your hand if you've ever installed an upgrade only to find yourself back in that confused I-have-no-frickin'-clue-where-they-put-that-dialog-box state? Raise your hand if you felt the upgrade just wasn't worth it, even though you knew that the way you did things in the current version was pretty much an inefficient hack. Raise your hand if you felt intimidated and maybe even a bit humiliated that after upgrading you could no longer do some of the simplest things.

It's not usually the upgrade that sucks. It's that the upgrade makes the users suck. Or at least makes them feel that it's their fault for not instantly getting it.

Bottom line: nobody likes doing things they suck at. If there's a way to avoid it, we will.

Back in the late 90's, I attended a Macromedia conference, and one of the sessions was a panel of web pioneers discussing what were then the earliest days of web development, especially the whole browser incompatability problem (that we of course thought would be LONG gone by now... lol). The panel host asked one simple question of each of the panelists, "So, which browser do you have on your machine right now?" The response was shocking. Almost every panelist--and keep in mind that these were hard-core web developers/entrepreneurs--gave the same response, "Whatever was installed on my machine at the time I got it." One of those panelists was none other than Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! We were stunned. If even Jerry Yang doesn't bother with upgrades...
(Many of us later confessed that we would have answered the same way.)

How to inspire users to upgrade

Don't give in to featuritis

Make the upgrade worth it.

More importantly...

Make sure the users KNOW it's worth it.
Provide a compelling benefit, and do your best job of painting that compelling picture for the users.

Go over the top with documentation
Geez... I hate it when I get an upgrade and it comes with a whopping 1-page ReadMe. Make sure users know you're going to hold their hand and walk them through the new things in the friendliest, most accessible, most encouraging way.

Try not to break things that were previously important to them
Yeah, another "duh" thing, but so often ignored. Users should feel like the new upgrade simply adds capability, performance, etc. without sending them back to the "suck zone." In other words, they should feel like the upgrade is an extension not a radical modification. This isn't always possible for forward progress, of course, and you don't want to be locked in to your former design mistakes, etc. but at least think about ways to help a user transition gracefully from one version to another.

Don't tell me what cool things YOU did to the new version, tell me what cool things I can do with the new version.
Never, ever forget that it's all about me. For most products, and most users, they don't give a duck about your new specs. They care about what it means to them. Connect the dots for them in the most vivid, compelling, motivating way.

The pain of an upgrade begins with download and installation
Even if the new version itself is natural and easy to get used to, if the install and set-up is a pain in the ass, they'll remember that the next time (and tell their friends not to bother unless it's REALLY REALLY worth it).

Don't make me pay for YOUR bug fixes
The more users perceive your upgrade as simply correcting things you should have had working in the first place (bugs, performance problems, etc.), the more likely they are to start taking hostages if you expect them to pay for the privilege of having what they thought they were paying for with the previous rev. It's OK to make a performance/bug-fix release, but don't charge for it unless you've done something earth-shattering to the technology which gives you a huge increase in performance (as opposed to correcting poor performance).

Seed the community early
Get beta versions to your key community of users so that they can start evangelizing why the new version is worth it. (Of course, this assumes that the new version IS worth it.)

Set the tone for future upgrades
If you lie about the upgrade--either by downplaying the learning curve or overselling the benefits, you're screwed.

Users will remember the pain of THIS upgrade when it comes time for the NEXT one.
The better the first upgrade experience is for them, the more likely they'll be to ever do it again.

Try making more frequent, smaller/incremental upgrades
While this does't work for most non-software products, continuously "refreshing" and modifying the product in tiny ways adds up to big changes down the road without those huge jump-off-the-cliff slides back to the "suck zone". The ultra-fast release cycles of many of the Web 2.0 companies is an example (and of course ANY web app has a potential advantage here since the user doesn't need to choose to upgrade).

Entice, bribe, or potentially force them to upgrade
This is extremely dangerous, but if you are absolutely certain that your upgrade will be universally loved by users--and that the upgrade will be relatively bloodless--you could potentially hold them hostage, like the way Apple did recently with the new iTunes. If you want to download the new shows at the new hi-resolution, you have no choice but to upgrade/install the new version of iTunes. Again, very few of us will ever have Apple loyalty, but there are scenarios where you might just have to say, "Sorry, but there is no way we can--in good conscience--let you continue without this upgrade." This approach will likely backfire spectacularly if the upgrade is not free.

Start the buzz early (practice T-Shirt-First Development)
By the time Apple releases a new version of Mac OSX, the Faithful are so excited that they line up by the thousands outside Apple stores at midnight, braving the cold, just to get the new OS a full 24 hours ahead of their friends. How do I know? I've done it, twice. Once when it was snowing.

New releases can be a source of great enthusiasm and energy. Exploit that.
In the right situations, upgrades are like crack. (In a good way)

Remember, reducing guilt is the killer app. Nobody wants to go back to the "suck zone", so it's your job to make sure that:

A) The new upgrade must not send them back to the Suck Zone
B) You must convince users that they won't land back in the Suck Zone

In the ideal world, the curve looks like this:


Posted by Kathy on September 22, 2006 | Permalink


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Absolutely right!

I know people who have refused to upgrade particular applications from their old DOS versions - because the pain of the first upgrade that they attempted was too great. The first version of this particular application that was written for Windows was so unstable, and so difficult to use, that they uninstalled it and went back to their old version.

Another thing to think about - Don't break the paradigm.
If your product is designed well and follows a consistent design philosophy the problem of 'I-have-no-frickin'-clue-where-they-put-that-dialog-box' shouldn't be too bad. Afterall, either the user is going to know where to expect to find the dialog box, or once they find it it will seem obvious.

But nothing is going to send your users back to the suck zone quicker (and deeper) than changing (or breaking) that design philosophy. No longer is learning how to use the new version a matter of reapplying the rules that the user already knows about the product - they really are back at square one. And what's even more frustrating is that the user knows that they can do the thing they want to do, but they now feel that they are being deliberately prevented from doing it.

Posted by: omni | Sep 22, 2006 5:47:52 PM

I recently "upgraded" from Windows to the Mac and lemme tell you, it sucked. It took me several days to unlearn most of my keyboard shortcuts and find new apps to replace my Windows-only stuff. A really useful product would be a conversion tool that tells me what to buy. "If you're a web developer, you'll need X editor HTML, Y css editor, Z photo editor etc." Another useful tool would be a script that detects common Windows keyboard shortcuts and pops up a nag screen saying "wrong platform, here's the Apple equivalent."

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Sep 22, 2006 6:42:33 PM

This is where Microsoft is at risk with Office 2007: They are so concerned about every user having a uniform experience, they are forgetting that users come in all shapes and sizes and levels of expertise. But I don't need the same experience in Excel as a middle school student gets in PowerPoint preparing an oral report (or my mom does in IE reading the online newspapers).

When I open one of the Office 2007 apps, I am instantly dropped into the suck zone. I know I will climb out eventually, but until now, Office has always followed what you call the kick-ass curve. Each version kept the consistent interface, so there was no major decline when upgrading, just a few bumps while you figured out how to use the new stuff.

Posted by: Jon Peltier | Sep 22, 2006 7:31:59 PM

So true. In my experience, customers tend to look at upgrades as (a) a long list of bugfixes (b) stuff they should have had in the first place and (c) stuff they don't necessarily want. Why ... cause that's how it comes across to them. If people, i.e. product developers did the right thing in the first place, and presented it appropriates (as so eloquently stated above), then much of the pushback would probably go away.

Posted by: Deepak | Sep 22, 2006 7:55:05 PM

Totally agree with most of your points Kathy, and having just released a new version of our Ajax Grid tool I can relate to much of this advice first hand. Some things we did right, others well...maybe we knew better:)

One thing about bug fixes though is that it's generally better to work on bug than new features. I'd rather have more stable software than another feature. I think as software developers it's easy to say "oh that works most of the time, I want to build feature X now...". I don't think you were implying to build work on features over bugs, but I just wanted to highlight the difference.

Great blog, keep up the good work!

Posted by: Andre Charland | Sep 22, 2006 10:07:36 PM

Maybe it is first time that I comment here but I read and learn from you allot.

One thing about your atom feed. Sometimes articles render OK in Thunderbird but sometimes, like thos one, I got bunch of div's and raw html.

Well, usually I remove feeds that are broken but your feed is still there because of quolity of your writing.

Posted by: Rentalio | Sep 23, 2006 1:17:38 AM

Unless you're selling to the midnight sidewalk dwellers, you have to make the upgrade a no-brainer decision. The comfort zone represents an internal value assessment; an upgrade threatens disruption and discomfort at extra expense.Therefore, in order to even replicate the user's comfort zone via an upgrade, it really does have to be a significant step improvement with no disadvantages. That's a difficult square to circle and taking on your idea of smaller more frequent upgrades, it might be better to sell a suite of staggered mini upgrades for the single purchase price. This, in theory, should allow an ongoing experience of continual user experience improvement (debugging as much as new features) without the pain of befuddlement and this will engender the loyalty and passion that will make future upgrades even more popular.

@ Derek - moving from Windows to Apple is not an upgrade. It's a new product and so the difficult transition (which I also experienced when I switched back some years ago) is inevitable - the fact that it is in hindsight such an easy transition is remarkable. Just try using a Windows machinefor the first time in six months!

Posted by: John Dodds | Sep 23, 2006 2:58:54 AM

Great article (again), Kathy.
I'm looking forward to see how Microsoft will handle the coming IE 7 release, and I think they have already been working with some of the points you are making here (for example: seeding community and forcing an upgrade).

The latter can potentially backfire, but from my perspective as a web developer, I'm actually looking forward to getting less browser versions to support, etc.

By the way, nice to meet you at RailsConf in London!

Posted by: Jesper Rønn-Jensen (justaddwater.dk) | Sep 23, 2006 6:08:01 AM

One of the great untold secrets of the software biz is that upgrades are often sold, but then never installed.

When I worked at one major computer maker, we did a quick field study to see how many users at a site had installed the new OS. It was slick, it was shiny, it had new features you really-really-really needed.

But somewhat more than 30% of the people who bought the shrink-wrapped version STILL had the shrink-wrap intact and unopened after one year.

Ouch. We sold on features, but not on ease-of-upgrade.

Posted by: Dan Russell | Sep 23, 2006 6:57:48 AM

This was exactly my experience with the new iTunes on my mac. Try this: Exit from iTunes. Install the new version. With iTunes still off, insert a CD that you want to rip. iTunes automatically starts as you would expect. Then the rip icon is NOT displayed. Hey, where is the rip icon? Check all dropdown menus. There is no option to rip a CD! Huh? YOU CAN'T RIP CDs IN THE NEW ITUNES! THIS NEW ITUNES IS CRAP!! START SCREAMING CURSE WORDS HERE!!!!

Ok, so there is a way to rip CDs in the new iTunes. They took away the big rip circle icon on the top right. There is now a small gray button on the lower right. And if you start iTunes before you insert the CD there is a dialog box that asks if you want to rip the CD (but that dialog box doesn't appear if you insert the CD before starting iTunes.)

I know it is not a big deal, the new iTunes works fine. But for those few seconds when I couldn't figure out how to do the simplest thing, I was furious.

Posted by: Fake Name | Sep 23, 2006 7:31:43 AM

Or don't do what Microsoft does, lie, tell'em it's automatic security updates, when in reality its filling up your diskdrive with thier nasty DRM that will lock down all of your photos, movies, and tunes.

Posted by: Bill Purgle | Sep 23, 2006 8:02:21 AM

This is a great article, Kathy.

Unfortunately, a lot of the problems you mention are really hard to avoid in situations where product management and other higher-ups are always demanding more features in less time. That's where a lot of bugs come in. What you end up with is a piece of software that has a good number of new features, but is also loaded with bugs.

I think developers are constantly fighting the features vs. quality vs. time battle. I'm a developer myself and I personally would prefer to produce either a quality product with few features in a short time or a quality product with many features over a longer span of time. Marketing and sales, on the other hand, wants a product with many features in a short time. There's no way you can have all three (quality, features, and short time) and so we end up abandoning quality in order to squeeze out features.

It's not pretty, but it does sell. I guess the sales people know what they're doing, even if I would prefer to produce a better quality product.

Anyway, I love your "curves" (especially the Featuritis one!). This is a great blog.

Posted by: Natasha Lloyd | Sep 23, 2006 10:27:11 AM

Great article - I love the charts! Bill is right and that is why I bought a Mac. Its soooo intuitive to use. I'll never go back to anything Microsoft again. Do they even have a usability dept there?

Posted by: Chad Lapa | Sep 23, 2006 12:10:06 PM

I'd add,

Make ease of learning as high a priority as ease of (experienced) use.

I might even replace "Go over the top with documentation" with that. I'm thinking about how computer games do this and good documentation is always trumped by a better in-game tutorial and a better, simpler, teaching, forgiving interface.

Bruce Tognazzini uses the example of Ashlar-Vellum (the interface teaches you but doesn't interfere) versus AutoCad (memorise a lot of things) to describe this. Both apps have a whole ton of features. Ashlar-Vellum makes you feel like an expert a *lot* faster.

Posted by: Jason Yip | Sep 23, 2006 7:44:16 PM

You are absolutely right on with this, Kathy. It takes so darn much time to learn new technology that sometimes it's not worth the bother to upgrade. Time is money, right? I'm forever feeling behind on technology because the upgrades come fast and furious - relentless, really. I don't want to spend my time in perpetual learner mode. I have work to do. Have you ever noticed how no one ever seems to use all of the features any particular piece of software offers? This is unfortunate, but once again, it boils down to time. BTW, Intuit forces upgrades of its Quickbooks product on users via accountants. When our accountant upgrades, we're required to upgrade. Don't know if Intuit is aware of this, but it makes me nuts.

Posted by: Mary Warner | Sep 24, 2006 10:51:18 AM

Most reasonably educated consumers are skeptical of upgrades these days. They’ve seen too many cases where the upgrade is either a pricey bug fix or something that includes features they just don’t care about. The upcoming release of Microsoft Office 2007 is a great example. I think it’s a fine looking product in beta, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s going to change the life of the typical computer user. Nevertheless, Microsoft will jam it down everyone’s throats and in a few years just about everyone will be running it. If you ask most people whether they need a new version of Office or if they’re quite content with what they’ve got, most will answer the latter. The best way to overcome this is to make the change completely transparent to the user. Web-based apps can pull this off, but good luck doing so with a tool like Office that lives on your computer.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Sep 24, 2006 4:41:33 PM

"Geez... I hate it when I get an upgrade and it comes with a whopping 1-page ReadMe."

I'd like to start by stating that I loved the article. In general. But I do take exception with the quote above.

My main problem with upgrades is that companies tend to release too much at once and I think you hit that very well. It's paralyzing to an end user. And, as a developer, it's maddening to regressions test all of the potential impacts. It's outwardly hard on the end user because it was difficult for the designers and developers.

In practice I prefer the cocktail napkin approach. Add what fits on a cocktail napkin. If it doesn't fit, don't do it. This obviously works for software, while it may not work for cameras, etc.

At that point a 1 page read me is probably overkill. If I had to distill a mantra it'd be, "Keep me doing what I wanted to do in the first place."

And I think you captured that beautifully.

Posted by: sam | Sep 25, 2006 9:58:35 AM

This is why:



Posted by: Nate Kresse | Sep 25, 2006 10:33:51 AM

Just discovered your blog and am enjoying it tremendously.

"So, which browser do you have on your machine right now?" The response was shocking. Almost every panelist--and keep in mind that these were hard-core web developers/entrepreneurs--gave the same response, "Whatever was installed on my machine at the time I got it."

That made me laugh out loud.

The sheer volume of technology products, from business tools to toys, is completely overwhelming. No busy, active person has a snowball's chance of keeping up with it all.

Your clear insight into the user's POV is a pleasure to read.

I'd like to add, from a user's POV, that guaging my experience, competence level, goals, etc. is something I rarely see done or attempted by manuals or tech support services. It seems that most companies pick an average user profile (out of ???) and talk to that composite. As a result many users, who fall to one side or another of that average profile, either feel stupid or insulted.

I often wish that any complex product or web service would consider offering 2-3 levels of instruction/assistance.


Posted by: Vera Bass | Sep 25, 2006 2:41:37 PM

It's also the user's job to make sure the developer knows something sucks. If I had a nickel for every time we didn't do something or fix something because no one had called tech support about it... well you know. It shouldn't be like that but with a finite amount of time to dedicate to development, we pick the squeakiest wheels.

Posted by: Elena Murphy | Sep 25, 2006 2:47:12 PM

"The pain of an upgrade begins with download and installation"

I think updating should be more like me hitting a big button "Do it!" - especially if it is an upgrade for free software.

No hunting down language files for the new version, no manual backup of data because data loss can occur (think about community software like blogs or forums), no plugin incompatibilities (fun in plugin-heavy software like PS or AFX). Nothing is more frustrating than updating and afterwards everything is broken - and whos is blamed? Me, because before meddled with the installation everything was running okay. *runs away screaming*

Posted by: Michael Herzog | Sep 26, 2006 12:58:37 AM

I just have to say that if you rework your blog to be even better, I'll love you forever. I got turned on to your work through Canuckflack, and I find your ability to illustrate concepts that I have thought of only verbally amazing. Looking forward to your new version.

Posted by: Bob LeDrew | Sep 27, 2006 5:25:53 AM

Have you read the book "Mastery" by George Leonard?
He has a lot of insights into how to create the "Kick-Ass Curve" in our lives. In fact the entire book is about the mind set required to create and enjoy that particular pattern in all the things we do.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Keep up the great work!

Posted by: John | Sep 27, 2006 5:32:56 PM

As usual an interesting post.

What I would mention here it is not just the product in which this theory applies. It happens when we are learing something for eg. Java...Some one who has leart core java in his begineer/intermediate zone always fears to learn some new stuff like Java Struts or EJB fearing that he will never be good at it...back in the suck zone and that sucks...It is applicable to anything that we want to learn...

How to get over that nervousness is a technique in itself.

Posted by: Balaji M | Sep 29, 2006 9:26:23 AM


Posted by: zyma | May 21, 2007 10:37:37 AM

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