…but the lightbulb has to want to change: why do the most serious usability problems we uncover often go unfixed?

19th July 2012
Posted by in Events
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Event: UX Oxford Speaker Series 7
Speakers: Independent usability consultants Caroline Jarrett, and Steve Krug (remote)

Once a month the best and brightest user experience professionals are invited to share tips of the trade at UX Oxford. Recent speakers at this Bunnyfoot and White October sponsored event included UX consultants Caroline Jarrett and Steve Krug.

Caroline and Steve discussed a common experience: when serious usability issues are uncovered and raised with the client but often go unfixed. Their talk offered some insightful reasons why this happens, and suggested what we can do to improve our track record.

We all work hard to uncover serious usability issues…

Caroline and Steve explained that they work hard conducting fieldwork, expert evaluations and usability studies to determine problems in whatever is being tested. They would uncover issues and present the findings and recommendations back to the client and stakeholders to try and convince them that work needs to be done.

The feedback and recommendations are often welcomed and highly valued, with everyone involved in the project agreeing on what needs to be done.

However for one reason or another months or years later the same serious usability issues still persist. These are often the most serious issues that have a significant impact on the users’ experience, and on the effectiveness and profitability of the site.

The top three reasons why serious usability issues often go unfixed

Caroline and Steve conducted a ‘send and hope’ survey to UX professionals to see if any conclusions could be made as to why these serious issues continue to go unchanged and to uncover what we can do to stop it from happening in the future.
The top three most common reasons as to why serious usability issues go unchanged were:

  1. The findings conflicted with the decision maker’s belief or opinion.
  2. There was not enough time/money/resource available to fix the problem.
  3. The fixes were deferred until the next major update/redesign.

However after further investigation Caroline and Steve noticed that almost all of the excuses boiled down to two main issues within the company: ‘Planning’(or the lack thereof) and ‘Politics’ (within the company/between stakeholders). Issues that will be familiar to anyone working as a UX consultant .

Now we have an idea behind the reasons why this is happening, the underlying question still stands:

What can we do about it and how can we stop this happening in the future?

The results from the survey varied from those that were willing to lie down and accept the depressing truth and give in, to some that suggested we should rethink our clients or get a better job.

Some suggested we should improve our UX approach by doing testing earlier, make the stakeholders watch the sessions or present the results better. Others suggested that we should stop trying to beat the developers and join them instead so that we can stop issues being developed in the first place.

Caroline and Steve shared their own suggestions based on their experiences and findings from the survey;

To solve the ‘planning’ issue we should focus ruthlessly on three of the most important problems first and get clients to make a commitment that these problems will be tackled first. Then and only then should we concern them with the lesser usability issues (also known as the low hanging fruit).

However, you could also argue that by giving developers lots of the ‘low hanging fruit’ they can make changes easily and quickly. This gets the developers involved and engaged in the site or product before they have to tackle the larger, often more difficult usability issues.

To solve the ‘politics’ issue we should;

  • Fight harder, get more power and work up the organisation.
  • Find the ultimate decision maker, learn to talk their talk and find ways to motivate them – as Steve put it; “users in pain is not everybody’s drive”
  • Understand the priorities – what are they willing and able to change at this stage? Sometimes it is not the right time to highlight a specific usability issue, sometimes you may be better of highlighting this issue at a different time.

Gathering statistics or ROI feedback might help in getting clients and stakeholders more committed to making usability changes. However, Steve argued that gathering statistics and measuring ROI is hard to do – there needs to be a lot of planning and forethought about the numbers that you are going to use.

I leave this question to you; will lifting UX to a board level solve this issue of politics, or do we all need to put our boxing gloves on?

See you at the next UX Oxford event

Keep an eye on the UX Oxford website or follow them on Twitter @UXOxford to find out when the next talk is happening.

Alternatively if you would like to speak at UX Oxford or know anyone who might be interested please contact cathy@bunnyfoot.com. In the meantime, find out more about the issues raised by Caroline and Steve:


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We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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