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How To Tackle The Ultimate UX Challenge: Legacy Systems

Change is never easy. Here, 4 tips for modernizing old software systems from Adobe's senior director of experience design.

Photo: Flickr user Arkadiusz Sikorski. Pattern: zubarevid via Shutterstock

Designers love a blank canvas. The reason is obvious: They enjoy coming up with an original idea and seeing it through to completion. However, the shiny new object isn’t the biggest UX challenge. For designers who love to geek out on solving sticky problems, redesigning an existing system is the ultimate puzzle.

Problems with legacy systems—those that have been around for a long time, perhaps before user interface design was even a consideration—go way beyond the user experience. Redesigning a legacy app is like an archeological dig, forcing a designer to push the limits of creativity within very specific boundaries—respecting what exists while imagining what can be.

Designers who are successful at this are willing to get elbow-deep in the culture of an opinionated engineering team that has a deep history with the product and its business goals. Users of legacy systems have a culture too, complete with strong attachments to specific functions and design elements. They may not view an effort to simplify the system as a good thing, so each change has to be weighed against the users’ willingness to let a function or element go.

To some designers, such a situation might sound like a few months of insomnia waiting to happen. But to designers who like to work with people more than theories, and with real problems more than diary studies, these constraints create a perfect set of exciting problems to solve.

Redesigning legacy systems without making enemies in engineering and creating chaos among customers isn’t easy. Change never is. To get good results, a designer needs a set of skills that are both wide and deep, and no designer who is new to modernizing systems will come to the table fully prepared.

Flickr user Seika

Think deeply and go slow

Start by thinking about how the software has been used before. A deep understanding of the existing user experience is necessary to make good decisions about which aspects of modern software design should be incorporated. The marriage of the old and new will create the foundation for a grand vision.

But don’t overwhelm users with that big plan. They’re already invested in the existing design, accustomed to clicking here and scrolling there, and they will not be pleased if they have to learn drastic new ways to do their work. That’s understandable. So while you have to be committed to your vision, you shouldn’t display it all at once. Ease changes into the system and see what happens.

When we recently set out to modernize our own Acrobat software, we had to rethink more than just the interface; we wanted to create a connected ecosystem of products and services that spanned desktop and devices. That was ambitious, so we chose three areas on which to focus first: 1.) a visual refresh that 2.) felt natural and easy to use on a touchscreen, and 3.) fully leveraged cloud services. None of those three efforts was trivial or easy, but we had the human and technical resources to handle them all at once. A design team with fewer resources might take a more phased approach, such as working first on the redesign and touchscreen efforts while saving more challenging technical elements for a second phase. There is no single correct approach, of course; choices will be made based on corporate strategy, customer needs, and design and engineering capabilities.

Listen carefully and remain calm

The people who use your legacy system every day will have valuable insights. If you can include them in the process by capturing their feedback, you’ll get more than their ideas—you’ll get their buy-in.

People don’t like change, so sometimes a designer will need thick skin to be able to listen and then separate the tone from the content. A comment like "that font is ugly" may sound useless, but understanding that the user means "that font is hard to read" makes it useful. When a complaint about a feature is valid and it can be changed easily, change it right away. You'll kill two birds with one stone: knock something of the "to-do" list and demonstrate to users that the modernization project is meant to serve their needs. The give and take is part of the process.

At the same time, the engineering team needs to be on board throughout the process. They’re the ones who are going to transform the vision into reality, so their concerns have to be addressed at every stage. If you hear the word "no," and maybe even the phrase "can’t be done," ask why and work through it. You have to trust the engineers, and they have to trust you.

When I was looking for examples of how other design teams have built trust, I came across this article about a Citrix initiative. When Citrix decided to use sleek, user-friendly interfaces to differentiate itself from competitors, the company created the role of VP of Product Design and started working on internal projects. Instead of taking a strategic approach that would force design overhauls on departments that might not understand the value of a better user experience, Citrix worked with any department that was willing. Its pilot project was for the customer education department, and the results were so successful that other departments raised their hands. Trust was established through example, and now Citrix’s design team works with cross-functional groups to meet critical business objectives.

Flickr user Karl Baron

Lead gently and stay positive

Modernization projects involve many groups of people. To keep them pointing in the same direction, a designer needs to embrace the role of leader. That takes more than patience and a willingness to learn; it takes a positive energy.

Put that energy into every aspect of the work: your commitment to your vision, your relationships with users and engineers, and your willingness to bring people along slowly. This is what it takes to gain people’s trust. And once you have that trust, you can keep it by breaking your vision into small pieces that people can appreciate. Bringing people along slowly is a strategic approach that needs to be built in from the start and consistently followed until the end.

Keep moving forward and enjoy your success

Like any project, modernizing an existing system is going to hit some potholes. Don’t let the challenges discourage you; change is possible. You just have to be willing to continually push for the best user experience. Trust your vision, and you're sure to succeed.

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