How rebranding cost Ravelry the trust of their community

How rebranding cost Ravelry the trust of their community
Photo by Tara Evans

Knitting website Ravelry lost the trust of their community after a rebranding effort caused several users adverse side effects from browsing the site. Well-known among knitters, crocheters, designers, spinners, and dyers, Ravelry is a free platform where users can organise and keep track of their projects, network with other people and sell their designs.

Ravelry’s Wikipedia page states that, as of March 2020, they had almost 9 million registered users, and approximately 1 million monthly active users.

What happened

On 16 June 2020, with no previous announcements, Ravelry rolled out a redesigned interface with new branding. As people started browsing the site, a percentage of them started to report episodes of eyestrain, migraines, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and even seizures.

Comments poured in a thread that had more than 7,000 replies. Some were enthusiastic, others critical. Besides the aforementioned physical issues, the fact that screen reader software doesn’t work properly blocked a group of people from accessing the website. The Ravelry team was slow to respond and, when they did, the community felt like the apology was inadequate.

The fallout

A few days later, they provided the ability to switch back to the old design, a decision that was greeted with gratitude but also with reports of previously non-existing bugs.

Redesigns can be controversial: the more people are used to an interface, the more difficult it is to accept changes. There is a strong subjective component at play in judging a new design, to the point that it is almost impossible to make everyone happy. With time, users get used to the new: but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Because of the nature of the community, even the ones who didn’t experience any problems felt disillusioned.

Suddenly, Ravelry wasn’t anymore the inclusive and friendly website everybody knew; it turned out to be a web company like any other.

The precedent

While researching this blog post, I found an article stating that this cannot be anything different than mass hysteria. But what happened in 2013, when Apple released iOS 7, proves that those reactions are genuine. The issue with the iPhone’s operating system was clear: the newly introduced animations and the way they were implemented made people with vestibular disorders sick. In Ravelry’s case, even those who are free from these issues are suffering from visiting the site.

The Epilepsy Foundation of America issued a warning and indicated what might be the trigger to the seizures. Follow the thread on Twitter:

The design

The new branding is colourful: there are at least three bright accent colours and two others that are more neutral. The layout elements have dark solid borders, while the background is white. People tend to spend a lot of time looking for patterns and instructions: arguably, a less contrasted interface might have worked better.

To avoid causing problems, I’ve created a separate page to show a couple of screenshots of the redesigned interface.

The icons

Finally, the newly redesigned icons have many details that get lost in the small rendering on the page: a 16px square that seems to be a code legacy. Thus, the icons are not conveying their true function, adding yet another challenge.


As stated in a blog post published three days after the release, the team at Ravelry started the redesign in January 2019. The platform is massive: 800 pages that needed updating one by one. It’s a tremendous amount of work. Based on my understanding, they waited for all pages to be ready before starting to test the new design, a choice that backfired.

Advantages of early testing

As a designer, I know how exciting it is to redesign interfaces that feel dated and how hard it is to receive negative feedback. I also know that we design for other people: we need to listen to them to create successful experiences. Involving users as soon as possible in the process is paramount; we need to gather feedback and iterate to avoid wasting time and money.

The best practice is to conduct user testing sessions, where users are given tasks to complete. One of the goals is to understand if an interface is usable. Another facet is watching reactions: a session of half an hour per person would have uncovered many of the current complaints.

In the absence of early user testing, it might have been a good idea to roll out the redesign in batches, letting people use the new pages and leave feedback.

Accessibility and usability

There is no other way to put it: accessibility and usability need to be an integral part of the design since the beginning of a project.

They are concerned with different aspects of the design, but overlap. Accessibility makes sure people with disabilities can access the web. Usability ensures that a product is effective, efficient and satisfying while it stays accessible. Tools are available to check whether a website is compliant, but again, testing with people gives better and more realistic results.

The survey

Ravelry published a 35-pages survey. While it’s clear they want to make the redesign work by fixing the problematic areas, the survey was troublesome:

  1. People needed to look at screenshots from the same pages that caused them problems.
  2. It was a lot of work. Each question required to check designs which had to be opened in a new window. It was hard to understand the differences without seeing them side by side.
  3. Checking static images will never compare to checking live pages.

Final Thoughts

Ever since the first release, Ravelry made some changes to the interface, but they need to win back the trust of their community as well. Accessibility and usability are among the core areas of user experience, as is credibility. A website is credible when it engenders trust in its users. Even more important now is for communities, online and not, to be more inclusive than ever.


Edit

The text has been corrected to delete inaccuracies about when the old design will be retired (there will be a six-month notice) and the fact that screen reader software didn’t work correctly with the old version, too.

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