Interface "burn-in" and how to get beyond it

“Interface Burn-in” is a term I use to describe the behavior of stakeholders gravitating back to their existing design; in this article I describe this phenomenon and give some potential ways to break through.”

“We love the new interface design” … says the stakeholder… “but can you just make this blue. And add back that menu here. With the icons on them.”

“Sure , no problem…” you reply. Since they loved your new design, these are trivial changes.

Fifteen iterations later, you realize they are taking your new design back to their current design. The funny thing is that everyone loved the initial design. But over time, everyone keeps steering you back to their current design.

What is going on there? Why does this happen?

In my experience, there are two factors at work here:

Factor 1: Mental image “burn-in”

If you are old enough, you might remember monochrome monitors and how they were very susceptible to image “burn-in”. If you left the same image on the screen for a long period of time that image could become permanently “burned in”.

I think the same thing happens with interfaces and our brain. Over time, the gestalt of a design sinks into our brain and we have a hard time imagining it being any other way.

Solution: User testing

Have clients sit and watch how their users don’t share any of their preconceptions or biases; they have no “burn-in”. Testing can really be an eye opener for the client and does not have to be expensive or formal. I highly recommend using Morae software for this. You can quickly make a highlight reel so that stakeholders don’t have to sit through all the testing sessions.

Factor 2: How can the interface be anything else?

An interface’s design is usually a product of many valid decisions over time made by smart people. If you ask them the same questions now, they are going to have the same answers because they are smart and got it right the first time. Repeat this process for the hundreds of questions/considerations that influenced their interface design and you will travel down the exact same road and come up with the same design. How could you not?

Solution: Ask new questions

I believe that the key lies in the phrase “asking the same questions” above. If you are asking the same questions, you will get the same answers. You will get to the same design. You have to know what the new questions are. Then agree how much of an impact the new changes will have on the existing design.

Hopefully this advice can help you get though some roadblocks you’ve been hitting and get you back on track to making software that users don’t mind using.