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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

How Do You Resolve Conflicting Requirements
from Different User Groups?

Activator: Jean Fox, Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Activator's Initial Questions

With multiple user groups, it can be difficult to meet everyone’s needs. It is especially challenging when these needs aren’t just different, but conflicting, such as “fast” versus “thorough.” In this session, we will discuss situations where these opposing requirements can arise and how we can better resolve them.

Thought-Starter Questions

  1. Describe situations where this can be a problem.
  2. What specific circumstances have you dealt with? How does this affect the development process in general and your work specifically?
  3. With participatory design, how do you keep harmony when the user groups work together?
  4. What factors can be obstacles to finding acceptable design solutions?
  5. What methods or resources help you find design solutions that meet all groups’ requirements?
  6. How do you resolve conflicts without disenfranchising any group of users?
  7. What lessons have you learned in resolving these conflicts?

Summary of Results

Usability specialists often face conflicting user requirements. Part of our job is to resolve these conflicts with a design that best matches the users’ needs. During this idea market session, participants discussed these conflicts, including the types of conflicts they have faced and how to resolve them.

The conflicts stem from a variety of differences, including:

  • Occupational perspectives (e.g., managers vs. employees, usability specialists vs. developers)
  • User goals (e.g. safety vs. speed)
  • Cultural norms (for an individual organization or a society)
  • Visions of how the product should look and feel

These differences often lead to different design solutions. Since the usability specialist is often involved in or leading design, it is important for us to understand and manage these issues.

There are also obstacles that can exacerbate the issues. For example, there may be inertia or momentum within the development team or within the whole organization that can favor one group or limit the opportunities for change. Similarly, there can be legacy code, systems, or cultural norms that are hard to change. Although these legacies can be good (e.g., if the environment is open and flexible), they are often rigid and unchanging, preventing mutually satisfactory solutions. Another obstacle is that one group (users, developers, domain experts, managers, etc.) may use terminology that is foreign to another. This obstacle can lead to an inability to understand or communicate with others involved in development.

Several participants mentioned conflicts that can arise between usability specialists and the rest of the team. These conflicts include issues such as (1) being invited to participate late in development, (2) having results ignored, or (3) being left out of the loop when important decisions are made. Further, management may feel that usability is unnecessary and expensive, and therefore not provide the necessary resources. Developers and domain experts may not be open to others’ design ideas.

One participant mentioned that his problem was not with conflicting requirements per se, but rather with a plethora of requirements from various user groups. With so many different requirements, his organization had trouble including all the desired features without making the product unwieldy. His challenge was in determining which user groups or features to focus on. The requirements did not conflict with each other so much as with the goal of a usable product.

Participants in this session suggested a number of ways to address these differences. I have organized the recommendations into the following categories:

  • Communication
  • Attitude
  • Usability
  • Project work
  • Management


Improving communication attacks this problem in two ways. First, by sharing needs, people can begin to understand each other. Second, by building relationships, people begin to respect each other. It may help to build relationships during “peaceful” times, so that people are better able to work together during times of conflict. Recommendations to improve communication included:

  • Establish relationships with team members, management, and members of user groups.
  • Encourage relationships among these groups as well.
  • Build trust and credibility among team members.
  • Facilitate communication.
  • Create a “dictionary” of relevant jargon so everyone understands the meaning of specific terms.
  • Include representatives from all stakeholder groups in design, so no one feels left out.
  • Provide opportunities for people to speak freely (e.g., do not have a person’s manager attend a usability test, and welcome all suggestions during team meetings).
  • Use video and other media to communicate in a variety of ways.


Several participants felt that having the right attitude helped. These recommendations included:

  • Have good positive energy.
  • Remember that design is compromise.
  • Keep at it; sometimes design requires trial and error.
  • “Success breeds success.” If you do one job well, others may be more likely to work with you again.


We can help identify resolutions to the conflict or at least better describe the conflict by using appropriate usability methods. Recommendations included:

  • Conduct “stealth” usability -- provide usability feedback without calling attention to what it really is. This can overcome initial resistance to usability.
  • Spend more time with users. Find out why users want certain requirements and whether the requirements really conflict or just seem to.
  • Conduct usability testing to determine whether the resolutions are acceptable.
  • Offer “free” services to help get usability professionals more involved in resolving these conflicts.
  • Build flexibility into the product to accommodate conflicting requirements when possible.
  • Use personas, then select a primary persona to guide decisions (if management has decided to focus on a specific target audience).
  • Find a champion in management.

Project work

The way that teams conduct their work can also improve conflict resolution. Recommendations on improving project work to reduce conflict included:

  • Set priorities (e.g., usability, time, money) which can help guide decisions.
  • Consider all constraints.
  • Demonstrate problems in proposed designs; a picture is worth a thousand words.


The amount of management support can significantly impact the usability professional’s ability to resolve conflict. Recommendations for management included:

  • Be sure teams have representatives from all appropriate groups, so the team doesn’t have to deal with non-represented groups individually.
  • Support usability efforts.
  • Empower teams to make decisions.
  • Do not constantly override teams’ decisions, as this will increase conflicts between the team and management.


In summary, participants noted several sources of conflict as well as some obstacles for overcoming the conflicts. Conflicting requirements can come from a variety of causes, including user groups with different goals and development team members who don’t communicate well. Participants recommended solutions to resolve some of these conflicts, but admitted that certain sources of conflict were still challenging to overcome.


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