UX Oxford – Why do serious usability problems often go unfixed?

Luke Canvin

This week I attended a UX Oxford talk from Caroline Jarrett and Steve Krug entitled "...but the lightbulb has to want to change: Why do the most serious usability problems we uncover often go unfixed?" This is a fantastic subject and it was really great to hear from two such leaders in the User Experience field discussing their thoughts, research and findings.

Caroline and Steve had found time and time again that when they found usability issues and presented them to the stakeholders/clients, even when the feedback was received enthusiastically and everyone is keen to get the issues fixed, months or years later those same problems would still be there, unchanged.

Together they conducted a survey of UX professionals to see if they could get to the bottom of why this might be happening and what could be done about it. Caroline and Steve will be presenting the results of their survey at the UPA conference in Las Vegas next month, but gave us a sneak preview.

The three most common reasons for not fixing serious usability issues were:

  1. The suggestion conflicted with a key decision maker's opinion or belief.
  2. There was not enough time/money/resource available to fix the problem.
  3. The fixes were postponed until the next major redesign.

I'm sure these reasons ring true to all of us, but what can be done about it? Some suggestions were defeatist ("accept it", "give in", "choose better clients", "find a new job"); some moved for improving the UX process ("do testing earlier", "make stakeholders watch the user testing"); and some suggested looking at the issues from the developer's point of view to try and reduce the occurrences of issues in the first place.

Steve and Caroline had their own recommendations based on their experience and the results of their investigation:

  • Focus ruthlessly on a small number of the most important problems. Choose the 3 problems you want the stakeholders/client to address first and don't tell them about the rest until those are fixed. Don't distract them with trivial low-hanging fruit, or overwhelm them with dozens/hundreds of issues; give them focus.
  • Get better at politics. Fight hard for more power to push your suggestions through. Find the right decision-maker and understand what motivates them, then pitch your case in a way that will appeal.

There was some good discussion with the audience around whether it was better to link usability issues to a loss/gain in revenue, or to push for more people to watch the usability testing - which of these would have more impact on stakeholder's motivation to fix the issues found is uncertain. I expect it will depend on the people and company in question.

Thank you so much to Caroline, Steve and the UX Oxford team (Cathy Carr, Mariana Mota & Al Power) for a great talk. See you at the next one!