Recent redesigns on Gawker Media's websites including Jezebel produced furious responses from users.

When a staff member of the popular website Digg announced its new redesign and described it as “nice”, users of the site hit back at the blog post with 2 500 comments – mostly furious.

Take this comment from spectralsounds: “Nice – if by nice you mean complete garbage. Even if they fix the bugs this is a horrible step backwards.”

It was the start of the site’s downfall.

Bugs aside, you’d think fuming about layout tweaks on a website was just something for the nerds, the design fascists among us. Can normal human beings really get so angry about cosmetic changes on websites they don’t own?

The answer, resoundingly, is yes. All over the internet, people get furious about web design. And not just when it’s bad. Often just when it changes. Even if those changes are for the better.

Witness the recent case of US web publishers Gawker Media. Gawker recently redesigned several of its websites: a change met by a storm of fury. Three weeks after the redesign, unique daily visits to the flagship Gawker blog slumped by 50 percent from 500 000 plus to about 250 000 in the month after the redesign.

The blogosphere was alight with furious comments from readers: “I never thought a web design could instill so much malice into me but the gawker redesign just makes me want to RAGE!” said Pjfry on Twitter.

About sister site Jezebel, Sarah Wurrey tweeted: “Wow, the Jezebel redesign suuuuuuucks. Hate everything about it. May need to find a new entertainment blog to follow. Yikes.”

The changes Gawker had made? Just a matter of layout, a new focus on pictures and videos at the expense of the traditional story list. Otherwise the content is exactly the same: same stories, same topics, same writers.

When Twitter launched a much-improved redesign, users filled Yahoo Questions, plaintively asking how they could go back to using the old one.

On the traditional Google home page, the total word count on the page is rigorously controlled. And that’s because legions of hard-core Google fans will e-mail in complaining if they don’t: “61 – Getting a bit heavy, aren’t we?” It’s trimmed down to 28 – most of the time.

Redesign rage happens offline too: when newspapers rearrange their sections or when the supermarket moves the fruit aisle around. But redesign rage is a lot more noticeable on the internet because you can leave comments there.

You’ll probably still go to your supermarket wherever the tomatoes have been placed, but on the web, you might just click somewhere else. For web owners who rely on views for revenue, that’s a death-knell.

Andy Budd and his company Clearleft have redesigned websites including Gumtree and he says that redesign rage is something he always warns his clients about.

He often references New Coke syndrome: where a better-tasting new Coca-Cola recipe had to be withdrawn because customers reacted so badly to the change. The moral: we don’t like new stuff. Even when it’s better.

This resistance to change goes back to our primal roots. The shock in the mind of a 1985 American cracking open a can to taste New Coke for the first time, is similar to what our Stone-Age ancestors might have felt if someone moved their favourite rock or rearranged their bearskins.

Jakob Nielson, the web design expert and lecturer on usability, describes it like this: “There is a well-documented psychology finding called the ‘mere exposure effect’, which says that humans will like something more simply from having seen it many times.

“The mere exposure effect probably evolved to help early humanoids cope with their environment: they would like members of their own tribe and dislike outsiders, and they would feel more happy being on familiar territory than on foreign grounds. And they would prefer eating foods that they had seen before. All good survival instincts, and thus traits that were passed down the generations to us.”

For web design, the implications are clear – people will prefer an old design purely because they have seen it a lot.

Budd has a different name for it, “loss aversion”, but his explanation is very similar: “People expect the pain of losing something to be greater than the value gained from its replacement,” he says. Consequently, new sites have to be significantly better than the old ones to overcome that initial subconscious recoil.

Love of the familiar can make us blind to its problems. “When we redesigned Gumtree we got a lot of comments like ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’,” Budd says, “but people often don’t realise when something is broke because they manage to work around it.”

It’s also a question of ownership: you don’t care about changes on sites you only visit once a year, but if it’s your favourite blog, you do. “Often people feel so strongly connected to a website that they think of it as theirs,” Nielson says. And this sense of loss and unfamiliarity in stuff you love can feel very unpleasant and provoke powerful reactions.

“Even if the change is really logical,” Budd says, “it’s kind of like people coming into your house and rearranging the clothes in your wardrobe. It means you can’t find everything immediately.”

Some redesigns are done so well that there isn’t a backlash. Amazon and Facebook constantly redesign so that updates seem normal.

Often, a backlash will fade and very people who protested, usually the dedicated superusers, will be first to love it again. Occasionally the backlashers have a point. Sometimes the new design is stupid.

“It’s really really common for organisations to add unnecessary features,” says Budd. “Often they add unnecessary features because it is a marketing gimmick.”

In that case, changes don’t just add nothing, they actually take away from the existing site. – The Independent