Why Don’t Usability Problems Get Fixed?

By Jim Ross

Published: February 7, 2011

“If we point out obvious usability problems and provide reasonable solutions for them, why doesn’t someone fix them?”

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve finished presenting the results of your usability testing, heuristic evaluation, or other user research activity, feeling great about the positive impact your recommendations will have on a product’s user experience. The audience smiled and nodded along during your presentation. Most of them agree with your findings and seem genuinely impressed by the work you’ve done. But, later on, you face the reality that few of your recommendations have gotten implemented fully—and many, not at all.

Why don’t usability problems get fixed? If we point out obvious usability problems and provide reasonable solutions for them, why doesn’t someone fix them? In this column, I’ll explore these questions and provide some tips to help ensure your recommendations get implemented.

Reasons Why Usability Problems Don’t Get Fixed

“Identifying problems and recommending solutions is not always enough. Unfortunately, the same factors that cause problems in the first place also hinder their getting fixed.”

There are various reasons why usability problems exist in the first place—some simple and some complex. Identifying problems and recommending solutions is not always enough. Unfortunately, the same factors that cause problems in the first place also hinder their getting fixed. The following are some of the most common reasons why usability problems don’t get fixed.

Lack of Resources

Organizations that lacked the skills, time, money, or other resources to design and build a usable system from the outset, often have difficulty fixing usability problems once you’ve identified them.

No One Has the Skills to Fix Them

Good design and implementation are difficult. Often, the people responsible for fixing usability problems are those who caused them in the first place. Even with the best intentions, designers may not have enough knowledge of users or the ability to design a better solution. And even if they do, developers may not have the skills to implement their designs. The worst-case scenario: some project teams don’t even include designers. Instead, developers build user interfaces based on requirements business analysts have gathered.

There Is a Lack of Time, Money, or Resources

Often, there are more usability problems than a team can fix with the available time, money, and resources. It’s much easier to address the simple fixes, the so-called quick wins rather than tackle the difficult issues that require a major redesign. Although fixing these small problems may give the team a sense of accomplishment, sadly, the more serious problems may never get addressed.

Technical Limitations

Technology limitations can both cause usability problems and limit solutions.

“Technology limitations can both cause usability problems and limit solutions.”

Technical Limitations Make Changes Difficult

It is important for usability professionals and designers to understand the limitations and possibilities various technologies present. Understanding constraints is key to coming up with a usable and implementable solution. Plus, with sufficient technical knowledge, UX professionals are less likely to get fooled by a developer who claims a design solution isn’t technically possible, but is really making excuses to avoid implementing it.�

Vendor Software Is Difficult to Change

One of the most frustrating situations you might encounter is trying to improve the usability of an enterprise application your company has bought from a vendor. Such applications are often poorly designed, with a one-size-fits-all mentality. They are often built using proprietary code, so are difficult to change, making usability improvements difficult, if not impossible. It’s no wonder companies would rather rely on training and extensive workarounds than address the problems.

Organizational Culture

“Usability problems persist in organizations that place a low value on user experience. Other priorities often take precedence over fixing usability problems.”

Usability problems persist in organizations that place a low value on user experience. Other priorities often take precedence over fixing usability problems.

Poor Usability Is Accepted As the Norm

Some application domains are so notoriously difficult that people have accepted poor usability as the norm. This is particularly true with enterprise applications. Employees have little choice other than to learn to deal with poorly designed applications. With the difficulty and cost involved in improving or replacing these systems, it can seem easier to simply accept poor usability as an inevitable consequence of technology.

Political Issues Interfere with Improvements

Company politics can both cause and perpetuate usability problems. Even simple changes can require the consent of multiple groups, each with different agendas and priorities. In some cases, a high-level executive’s personal preferences might dictate design decisions. Attempting to navigate such political issues can seem like a daunting task.

Usability Problems Get Dismissed As Training Issues

“Believing that problems are training issues supposes that the problems aren’t in the software, they’re in the users.”

A convenient way for an organization to avoid fixing usability problems is to dismiss them as training issues. Believing that problems are training issues supposes that the problems aren’t in the software, they’re in the users. Users just need to learn how to use the software, and that would take care of all the problems. An even lazier and less expensive solution is declaring something a communication issue. People just need to be told the right way to do something.

Regulations and Security Issues Conflict with Usability

Sometimes legal considerations, regulations, company rules, and security issues conflict with usability considerations. There are usually ways to work around such conflicts, but many companies have a conservative mindset and would rather err on the side of caution than change the status quo.

Communication Issues

“To solve usability problems, a project team needs to understand the problems and the recommended solutions. Unfortunately, communication problems can prevent teams from comprehending solutions.”

To solve usability problems, a project team needs to understand the problems and the recommended solutions. Unfortunately, communication problems can prevent teams from comprehending solutions.

Usability Recommendations Aren’t Always Well Explained

Usability professionals usually present their recommendations as text—in the form of a report or presentation. While text is effective for describing general recommendations or simple changes, it is difficult to describe complex design changes with text alone and leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation.

Misunderstandings Occur During Design and Development

Usually, different people do user research, design, and development at different points during a project. It’s not unusual for people in each of these roles to drop off a project once they’ve completed their part. This leaves user research open to designers’ interpretation and design open to developers’ interpretation. No wonder we sometimes scratch our heads when we see the final product, wondering Where did that come from?

There Is No Plan to Implement the Recommendations

Your clients may agree with your recommendations, but if there isn’t a plan to immediately address them and people who are responsible for implementing the changes, your recommendations can get shelved and, eventually, they may be forgotten in the busy pace of day-to-day work.

No Easy Solution

“Sometimes usability problems are complex, and you need to do more research, as well as design explorations to better understand the problems and find solutions.”

Sometimes usability problems are complex, and you need to do more research, as well as design explorations to better understand the problems and find solutions. Unfortunately, your team and leaders may expect specific findings and recommendations rather than a recommendation for further study or to go back to the drawing board. It can be difficult to admit that you don’t have all the answers.

How to Get Your Recommendations Implemented

Don’t despair! Despite this depressing list of reasons usability problems don’t get fixed, the situation isn’t hopeless. There are ways to help ensure your recommendations get implemented.

Involve the Right People

“Get the decision makers and implementers involved in your user research. A sense of involvement gives them a greater understanding of the issues and a bigger incentive to fix the problems.”

It’s important to get the decision makers and implementers involved in your user research. A sense of involvement gives them a greater understanding of the issues and a bigger incentive to fix the problems.

Get the Project Team Involved Early On

Don’t wait until your final report or presentation to reveal your findings to a project team. Get them involved in planning and participating in the research process. Ask stakeholders, designers, and developers what questions they would like your research to answer. Invite them to observe user research sessions. First-hand observation of the sessions can give them a better understanding of the problems and more empathy for users. Afterward, invite them to discuss the issues they’ve observed. Involving them throughout the process gives them a greater understanding of your findings and a stronger sense of responsibility to solve the problems.

Consult Your Own Technical Resources

To ensure you correctly understand problems and your recommendations are technically feasible, run them by your own technical people before presenting them to your clients. This is especially important when you’re working with unfamiliar technology. Getting your recommendations validated by your own technical people first can head off objections from a project team and gives your recommendations more credibility.

Present Your Recommendations to the Right People

The people who are to implement your recommendations need to see your presentation of your findings, but they aren’t always the people who authorize what gets fixed. Ensure that you present your findings to the people who have the power to decide what gets implemented.�

Before Selecting Enterprise Software, Evaluate Its Usability

“Make usability an important criterion in selecting enterprise software.”

Make usability an important criterion in selecting enterprise software. If possible, evaluate demo versions of the software or systems in use at other companies. Talk with people from other companies who have implemented the same application. In particular, talk with people in design, usability, training, and support, as well as the employees who use the software. Find out how easy or difficult it is to make changes to the software’s user interface and whether changes would cause problems when upgrading. If there are no acceptable vendor applications, consider building your own.

Provide Visual Examples

“No matter how well you describe a problem, seeing examples of people experiencing a problem is far more powerful.”

Visual examples can make your research results much more interesting, and they are a much better way of communicating both usability problems and your recommendations.

Show Your Findings Visually

In addition to describing your findings as specifically as possible in text, illustrate the problems with visual examples. Use screenshots, eyetracking visualizations, and video clips to make problems perfectly clear. Video clips from usability testing or field studies are particularly compelling. No matter how well you describe a problem, seeing examples of people experiencing a problem is far more powerful.

Provide Visual Recommendations

In addition to providing visual user research findings, demonstrate your recommendations visually to prevent possible misinterpretations. For simple recommendations, you can use a graphics application to make changes to a screenshot of the existing user interface. For more complex recommendations, you may need to work with a designer to depict the recommended redesign.

When There Isn’t an Easy Solution, Admit It

“When there isn’t an obvious solution, describe the problems in detail, as well as the pros and cons of any possible solutions”

When there isn’t an obvious solution, describe the problems in detail, as well as the pros and cons of any possible solutions you’re aware of. Instead of recommending a concrete solution, it’s perfectly acceptable to recommend further research and analysis to clarify issues and potential solutions. Explain the nature and benefits of using an iterative design process to find usability problems and test possible solutions.

Assist with the Next Steps

Instead of just presenting your recommendations and walking away, give your client a sense of which issues to focus on first and a plan to implement the recommended changes.

Prioritize Your Findings and Recommendations

“Prioritize problems by severity, so a project team can determine which issues to solve first. In determining severity, consider the population affected, a problem’s frequency of occurrence, and its impact on a product’s user experience.”

Prioritize problems by severity, so a project team can determine which issues to solve first. In determining severity, consider the population affected, a problem’s frequency of occurrence, and its impact on a product’s user experience.

Describe the benefits of fixing the problems and the consequences of inaction. This can help teams who have a limited amount of time, money, and resources to prioritize their work. If necessary, they can plan to implement your recommendations in phases. Instead of giving your clients’ an exhaustive list of problems that makes them think Where do we start first? ensure they receive your findings and recommendations in a form that makes solving problems seem more manageable.

Recommend an Implementation Plan

For inexperienced project teams, provide a plan for implementing your usability recommendations. A plan can help ensure your recommendations don’t get shelved and forgotten. For example, an implementation plan might involve:

  • reviewing your findings
  • prioritizing your findings
  • determining which issues to fix in what phases
  • assigning specific people to fix specific problems
  • creating a follow-up plan to ensure your recommendations get fixed

Stay Involved Throughout the Development Process

“Stay involved in the project to ensure usability issues get addressed properly.”

Instead of moving on to other projects once you’ve completed a project’s research and design phases, stay involved in the project to ensure usability issues get addressed properly. When user researchers and designers are people in separate roles, they should work together to translate user research findings into design.

Conduct a Usability Review Once Development Is Complete

A great way for user researchers and designers to stay involved in the latter part of a product development process is by their participating in quality assurance (QA) testing. While QA analysts inspect software for functional defects, usability professionals and designers can review user interfaces to find usability and design problems. Reporting user interface problems in your team’s QA bug-tracking tool means they’re officially defects. If fixing a problem is within a project’s scope, a developer gets assigned to correct it, and UX professionals can track usability and design issues to verify their resolution. This is a great way of officially ensuring that any remaining problems get taken seriously and actually get fixed.

Teach Your Clients to Fish

You can help your clients solve their immediate usability problems, but that won’t prevent them from creating more problems in the future. Focus on the big picture and show your clients what’s wrong with their current process. Educate them on the importance of user-centered design and help them create a user-centered design process and hire the right types of people.

Conclusion

“Ensure that your team follows your recommendations and fixes the problems you’ve identified.”

In this column, I’ve discussed why usability problems often don’t get fixed and how to ensure that your team follows your recommendations and fixes the problems you’ve identified. In summary, do the following to ensure your recommendations get implemented:

  • Involve your project team in planning, observing, and discussing user research.
  • Before selecting enterprise software, evaluate its usability.
  • Consult your own technical resources to ensure your recommendations are feasible.
  • Present your recommendations to those who have the power to authorize their implementation.
  • Present your findings visually—through screenshots, images, and video clips.
  • Illustrate your recommendations using visuals.
  • When there isn’t an easy solution and further research may be necessary, admit it.
  • Prioritize your findings and recommendations by severity, so the project team can decide what to focus on first.
  • Recommend a plan for implementing your recommendations.
  • Stay involved throughout the design and development process to verify that your recommendations get implemented correctly.
“It’s better to prevent problems from occurring in the first place than to expend resources fixing usability problems a team has already created….”

Introducing user research, design, and usability testing prior to product development just makes practical, economic sense. It’s better to prevent problems from occurring in the first place than to expend resources fixing usability problems a team has already created—especially in light of the myriad reasons usability problems often don’t get fixed and the complications that can arise when a product team attempts to implement your recommendations. Therefore, when working with your clients, go beyond merely solving their immediate problems and educate your project teams on the importance of a sound user-centered design process.

6 Comments

Another reason for not fixing usability defects is a bit technical: a rating system for defects that results in most of the usability defects being rated as “medium” or “low,” while fixing stops after “high.”

Hi Jim,

Nice article! This is a perennial issue for most UX professionals. It seems as though the management and developers often want the UX solution to be “fire and forget,” where we are asked to just sling our recommendations over the wall and leave the rest of the team alone. I think one of the best solutions for this is your suggestion to stay involved later on in the process.

However, I think you missed one of the biggest reasons for non-implementation: the ego/opinions of the other team members. Call it what you will, sometimes you just cannot convince people that the research coupled with your training makes you qualified to decide on implementing your solution rather than theirs, regardless of the usability results. I also think that the other reasons you pointed out can be symptomatic of this rather than the cause at times. At that point, it becomes a credibility struggle. You have to either rely on your research results or let the project fail, then say “I told you so,” saving up your credibility points for the redesign.

One glaring omission is a lack of proving a business value for fixing usability issues and prioritizing those issues based on which ones will best meet the business objectives. I compete with a very long wish-list of business needs that include site enhancements, fixes, new functionality, data updates, product enhancements, and the list goes on. My usability issues are recognized as very important, but get added to that long laundry / wish list. For years I’ve fought to bring attention to one particular area of focus. I’ve got plenty of data to support that it’s a problem area. However, I reinvented my career to be a UX Analyst and turned to Tealeaf and Omniture to determine points of abandonment, and their impact on revenue and conversion. Partnering with my manager (Web Analytics Director), I was able to include revenue projections in my report. Instantly my focus area moved to the top of the list and is considered the #1 Priority for 2011.

Kristi Olson

Many times, the software development process itself is a problem.

“Almost all experiences have shown that traditional waterfall development methods result in a poor user experience… Documents further down the waterfall also cause problems. The only thing worse than having developers deviate from the design specs is having developers implement the design specs to the letter. Many issues arise during an interaction design’s detailed implementation; developers can’t resolve these issues in ways that enhance usability when the design work was completed long ago and the user experience professionals have long since left the building.”—from Agile Development Projects and Usability, by Jakob Nielsen

Good points, everyone. Thanks for your contributions.

Nice read! Thank you for this contribution to the field. I am a product developer, and we face similar issues. Developing usable products is wanted, but turns out to be a tough job. I recognize that many of the reasons pointed out here are also reasons within my field of work.

Related to this is a PhD research project on electronic product development by Jasper van Kuijk. As a result, he developed 25 recommendations for industry to develop usable products—also available in a card set. They are available through his blog.

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