Can familiarity trump usability?

Grocery shopping at a new store is a drag, no matter how thoughtful the supermarket layout or how clear the signage or how wide the aisles. I have a mental model of my local supermarket that makes my trip efficient and helps me avoid that frustrating "double back" to search for the peanut butter.

supermarket layout

This thought made me wonder about the importance of familiarity in dashboards. We spend a lot of time at Juice designing intuitive, simple-to-use dashboards. We want to create a logic and cohesiveness that ensures the right things are placed in the right proximity and order; sales leads should connect to prospects in the same way as the peanut butter and jelly is shelved near the bread.

If you are starting from scratch, this internal logic and consistency is paramount. But how about a dashboard that is already familiar to the target audience? Does it makes sense to redesign a dashboard for usability if it is already heavily used and understood?

For many dashboards, the purpose is simply to convey a few key nuggets of information. Without a series of interactions or tasks, the user’s only need is to locate and absorb data. In these cases, the measure of success is whether the user can find what they are looking for quickly.

I can appreciate the value of familiarity over usability. When the new Microsoft Office "menu ribbon" was introduced, it was described as a convenience to new users because it displays the most relevant features for any given context. For power-users it broke the experience; all the effort I’d put into memorizing static menus was lost.

Excel Ribbon

For all our concerns about poorly-designed dashboards, it may be familiarity that explains why it can makes sense to keep the status quo.