Google’s approach to product transitions: a bold, new way!

Transitioning users from existing products to the new release has always been challenging. Introducing users to new features and UI without causing frustration and attrition is not easy, yet is a necessary part of product development. There are various approaches to making transitions pain-free and easier to adopt.

The new Bay Bridge under construction, photographed from the old. The transition between the old and new took place over Labor Day weekend, 2013.

The new Bay Bridge under construction, photographed from the old. The transition between the old and new took place over Labor Day weekend, 2013.

One approach is to upgrade frequently but with small steps. This works quite well with web products where upgrades can be made very frequently but not as easy with mobile apps. With evolutionary upgrades like these users can usually access all previously existing features and maybe one or two new ones, and the UI changes are minimal. The advantage of this approach is that because it is gradual, there is no need to offer the ability to use an older release, it’s that painless.

Another approach is a big change at once, a revolution in UI and a bunch of new features, maybe even the disabling of older ones. This is a better approach to mobile apps but there is a larger chance users will be angered or intimidated by the changes.

Another decision is how to introduce the new version to users. Up until two days ago I thought that there were two options: allowing or not allowing users to revert to the earlier version after an upgrade. Access to the earlier version can be limited in time but I’ve seen cases where that time limit is very long and indefinite. Proponents of the “user’s choice” transition say it is kinder to users and eventually they’ll switch to the new version. Proponents of the “just get it over with” transition are willing to incur users’ anger in return for supporting one version.

The launch of Google Inbox two days introduced a new (to me) way to transition between releases: let users use both old and new at the same time. Users don’t have to choose between Gmail and Inbox to access their mail, they can use both whenever the mood suits them. When they can’t find a new feature on Inbox that they need, they can just access Gmail (swipe to delete is one that comes to mind.) That kind of generosity signals two things: first, Google employs a lot of talent. Second, on a more serious note, Google is so sure that users will love Inbox that they’re willing to let users make the transition on their own and let the best product win.

Like I said, it’s a bold move and I have a feeling it will succeed as early reviews of Inbox are positive. In any case, it’s an option to consider before a big release.



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