Many UXers face the challenge of addressing multiple usability issues across different areas of a business. 

With so many variables in play—the needs of your users, the needs of the business, and the scope of the project—this can become a fine balancing act. So how do you prioritise which projects to tackle first, and get the whole team on board?

As part of our series of Q&As with Jakob Nielsen, I posed the following question…

Lee: When there are multiple interconnecting usability issues across multiple areas of the business, how do you, or, rather, how should one prioritise the work, and then how do you get the team on board with that prioritisation?

Jakob: I think it’s like the little picture with the “1, 2, 3”—there would be, I would say, about 3 things that one would really want to consider, and the first would be the impact on the users, so how important is this change to your customers? The second would be the importance to the business, and the third would be how easy or difficult is it to do.

You have to think of all those three things in combination, but if something is very difficult to do (maybe thinking back to the previous question), if it’s a legacy system and certain things are almost impossible to do without years of programming, but even if it had a higher defect maybe you kind of save them for later, if something is easier to do you would give it higher priority to just get that done, but that said the two most important criteria would be: what is the impact on our users, and what is the impact on our business?

Those two things will tend to be estimated (though you can make more accurate estimates if you do more research), but basically for the users you would look at how many users are impacted by this problem: is it just a handful, or is just everybody? Well that of course sets us apart right there. But also, how big is the impact of people who do encounter it? Is it something that delays them, is it an annoyance that delays them by a few seconds, or is it something that could prevent them from using our product, prevents them from buying or, let’s say, (almost even worse than preventing from buying) makes them buy the wrong product that they then have to return, which is extremely expensive to process, right?

Lee: Sure.

Jakob: And one more criteria as well for the user impact would be: is this a one-time problem and once users have overcome the problem then they are fine? Or is this something that they will encounter repeatedly again and again and again, so all those things will add up to how bad in this problem for the users?

Then the second issue is: how bad is it for the business, which would be more monetary—you would try to estimate how much money they are losing because of this problem, because it may be fewer conversions or because of people not plugging in on our new campaign or our new product that we would like people to be aware of.

There are a variety of business situations that you would want to get through as well, and then of course sometimes you will find that these criteria are not in full alignment. If they are in alignment it would be an easy choice, but if they are not in alignment then you would have a more difficult choice, and that is why the management “get paid the big bucks” as the saying goes.

I would also say it’s a matter of how long- or short-term your thinking is, because when I say how big in the impact on the user that is really also an impact on the business, just more of a long-term impact because the more people like using a product or like using your website, the more loyal customers they will be and thus, brand building in the interactive world is really a matter of user experience so people feel that they are being treated well: it’s easy, it’s pleasant, it’s enjoyable to do business with you or to use your website or to use your product. That’s the type of thing that over time builds their loyalty and builds the status of your brand in their mind, and so in that sense it becomes a long-term business impact. It doesn’t necessarily become a short-term impact, but if you want to think about things over a many-year period, then impact on users is really also impact on the business, and that’s why I think sometimes companies make short-term decisions when they say, “wow I want to promote this product today and get sales this week, but at the cost sometimes of creating the user experience overall and most likely losing loyal customers over a decade.”

Lee: I suppose it’s similar to having just a pure conversion focus for your website, it is possible that you could introduce sub-optimal user experience but may in the short-term increase sales or opt-ins (or whatever you metric is), but potentially lose people in the longer term.

Jakob: Oh exactly, and email marketing is a great example of that, because every time you send another email you are going to get some more orders, so if you thought purely on that basis you would spam people with another email every hour. But what would happen is that everybody would unsubscribe, and they were report you for spamming even if it was [inaudible 25.29.2]. People would be so annoyed by getting all those emails that they would for sure unsubscribe and so after a month of this you would discover you have no people left on your mailing list, and so you wouldn’t get any sales from then on and so you could in the very short-term thinking you could drive up your sales by sending out emails but we have studied a lot of email usability actually and one of the main reasons people give for not wanting to get a company’s email is just too email. So you have to really be very conservative in sending out email and respect this is what’s called permission marketing, respect the people giving you permission to communicate with them and only do so to the extent that they customers are [inaudible 26.16.2] recipients of the email find it valuable and interesting.

So that’s just the straight off long-term and short-term, too many people do that short-term thinking because they don’t consider the overall user experience, not just the user experience of open that one email and some people will click the button and convert but that’s not the only question, longer term, bigger term user experiences is at least as important as I would say or often more important.

Check out the rest of our series of Q&As with Jakob Nielsen