Subtle and reversible change

Amazon is implementing a new design for its site.  At least I think they are – there is no announcement, no razzmatazz.  But there is a new design which at first sight is a more radical change than they have done for a long time – the navigation tabs across the top have been replaced by cascading menus down the side.

Old Amazon design New Amazon design

For a public strategist, the interest is less in the redesign as such though, much more in the manner of its appearance.  The second has not yet replaced the first, but it is replacing it.  Amazon is presumably managing this gradually, serving the new pages to a proportion of users which they can gradually turn up as their confidence in the new site grows – or if there are problems, they could revert altogether to the old one without most of their users ever knowing that there was even a potential problem.

There is, in any case, no such thing as the Amazon home page.  Not only are there the personalised versions which logged in users see, there is a set of pages aimed at people Amazon does not know, presumably served randomly.  A couple of days ago, there were at least five (a simple refresh pulls up a different one each time).

amazon homepage 1 amazon homepage 2 amazon homepage 3 amazon homepage 4 amazon homepage 5

Having multiple home pages allows, of course, a constant exploration of their customers’ views in a way which would not otherwise be possible – which products, displayed in which ways, are most likely to entice the potential new customer on to eventual purchase?

Both these features show a way of thinking about managing change which is still troubling for many in the public sector.  How can more than one version be current at the same time?  How can we show something different to one user from what we show another – and how can that not constitute some obscure form of unequal treatment?

In quite a subtle way (or at least more subtle than most of the ways this becomes apparent), this is yet another symptom of a supplier-based view.  The single version of the truth is only a good thing if the unitary nature of the service is more important than the heterogeneity of service users.  If the single version of the home page meets your needs better than mine, the supply-side mentality sees us as being treated equally; but from a customer perspective, you have something which suits you and I do not – which doesn’t feel very equal at all.

As customer service becomes more customised in other contexts, this is going to be an increasing challenge for public services.  Directgov has implicitly recognised this by the existence of its separate kids’ site – but even that serves as much to highlight the problem as to address it:  it says it is aimed at 5 to 11 year olds (though I can’t see many at the upper end of that range having much truck with it) – but where does that leave 13 year olds, or 83 year olds for that matter, who join the rest of us in being expected to use the main Directgov site?  That’s not a dig at Directgov, who are doing a lot of good work with and about their users – this is a challenge for every service and every means of delivery about how we really put the social into media.