Low-Hanging Fruit and Penny Stocks

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Low-hanging fruit
Some days, I like to think I have a UX Flashlight. As I point its beam at a design, all the UX problems appear, bright as day, waiting to be fixed by a clever designer.

There are designs where, if I had such a magical device, it would just light up everything. The problems and fixes are obvious. It’s just too easy. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to take their money.

These designs are such UX disasters that I wonder how they got this far without their users raiding their castle with pitchforks and torches. Interestingly, once you meet the client team, it’s not hard to see how they’ve let their design get so out of whack.

They’ve been focused on making the technology just work, knocking off bugs, adding new features. These activities took their full attention. Only now, once things have settled a bit, could they begin to think about the experience of the design. And boy, does it need work.

As UX professionals, when we’re confronted by this type of design, it’s not hard to see the problems. There are tons of them, but most are simple to fix. Just change the visual priority of the interaction elements, add some better copy, and use common interaction patterns—in short, employ the professional’s bread-and-butter tools for this situation.

Bad UX is the Default Outcome

Designs that never receive any UX attention will have problems because the problems don’t go away by themselves. Creating a great experience is a deliberate act, one that takes careful thought and planning. When that thought and planning are absent, the odds of ending up with a great experience are practically nil.

Incorporating UX attention into the design process from the beginning is a nice ideal. It requires real maturity, however. Managers making their first endeavors in designing don’t have the experience to know that it’ll be needed, let alone understand the underlying practices. Add in the fartoocommon perception that anyone can design and you have a recipe for a bad user experience.

Then they patch and fix and tweak and patch, adding far more options and not realizing they are making it worse with every move. No wonder it’s easy to clean up the mess—just go in with a machete and start hacking away the slop. Voilà! Instant success.

The World Of Low Hanging Fruit

Here we are, called into yet another project, where it’s quick to find a ton of easy-to-fix issues. Which we do. Then we’re heroes. Hooray for the UX guys.

Then comes the dreaded plea: “Do it again! Do it again! You did that so quickly, so well. Do your magic again and make us even better.”

We might pull it off one or two more times. But suddenly, the magic wears off. The problems get harder to find. The challenges are tougher. The constraints are more rigid. Getting the same improvements takes much more effort and creativity.

We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit off the tree. There’s still fruit left, but it’s far out of reach. We’re going to need better tools than we have to get it. We’ll need to be far more clever, more versatile than ever before.

This is where a lot of UX professionals struggle. Once they’ve picked the low-hanging fruit—found all the easy problems to address—they need a different set of tools, new methods, new practices, and, most importantly, a different relationship with their client teams to find the more gnarly problems.

This is where a lot of UX professionals struggle. Once they’ve picked the low-hanging fruit—found all the easy problems to address—they need a different set of tools, new methods, new practices, and, most importantly, a different relationship with their client teams to find the more gnarly problems.

Problem discovery is only part of the issue, though. We also have to deal with the effort it takes to design and implement solutions. That’s where penny stocks come in.

Penny Stocks And Beyond

Penny-stock investors represent an investment subculture. They focus on stocks that are close to $1 per share or less—stocks you’d only pay pennies to buy. Penny-stock investors think differently than other types of investors.

Say you’ve bought a bunch of a stock worth 50 cents. If it goes up by another 25 cents, you’ve now seen a 50% increase in your investment. Woo hoo!

What if that stock was trading at $100 dollars? A 25-cent increase would be noise—certainly not cause for celebration. A quarter of a percent increase is nothing to write home about.

When we’re working on a UX project that hasn’t seen the talents of a solid designer, we’re dabbling in the world of penny stocks. We can attain 50% improvements with just small fluctuations in the design’s actual quality.

Dabbling in stocks that are much higher value than pennies requires more patience and a larger up-front investment. You need to sit out small fluctuations and have a long-term strategy. Large changes in valuations won’t happen quickly, not like they do on the penny-stock trading floor.
The same is true with our designs. With those quick fixes, we see huge returns. “Wow, you fixed that one button. Now orders have doubled! Thanks, Mr. Super UX Guy. Can you do it again?”

Yet once we’ve knocked all of the easy problems off the list, we’ve got only difficult stuff left. That takes patience and larger up-front investments to generate the same rate of returns.

Skills and Expectations

Now, knowing about the low-hanging-fruit and penny-stock effects, what do we do about it?
UX professionals who understand the low-hanging-fruit effect know they need to build out their toolbox of skills. A design review (or heuristic evaluation or inspection or whatever you want to call it) works just fine when the fruit is hanging low. However, we need techniques that are more rigorous when we’re grasping for the higher fruit. We need to have practiced them and know when to pull them out.

We also need to ensure we’re keeping our clients in the loop from the very beginning. The days of penny-stock improvements can set an expectation of quick and high returns that’ll become increasingly more difficult to meet. We need to, from the very start of the project, set the expectation of how it is likely to progress, being clear about what’ll be easy-and-cheap and where they’ll need to make more investment.

Sometimes, I like to think I have a UX Flashlight and sometimes I like to think I have a high-powered, broad spectrum UX Floodlight. The floodlight lets me see things I can’t see, once the flashlight power fades. It’s expensive to run and it takes a lot of work. But when I find and fix those problems, that is when I’m really earning my keep.

Top image: Colorado Luis / cc-attribution

Jared Spool

Jared spends his days researching how teams create great designs as part of the team at User Interface Engineering. You can hear his latest research on how teams create their design principles at the upcoming UIE Web App Masters Tour across the US this spring. He is also behind the recently published masterpiece, Web Anatomy, even though his co-author, Robert Hoekman, Jr., deserves all the credit for the good bits. Make sure you follow him on the Twitters—he's pretty funny.

12 comments on this article

  1. John Labriola on

    Great piece Jared. I think a lot of times designers just want to do the big stuff. But sometimes the low hanging fruit is just as good.

    I started a on project recently and the project plan called for focusing on the big stuff. But in my spare time between the big projects I am going through each screen looking for low hanging fruit. I’ll make some changes myself or put them in a queue for my development team to work on in their idle time.


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  3. Rob Jones on


    Excellent Article!

    I would say a large part of my consultancy business is picking off the “low hanging fruit”, and my clients are happy with this service. Getting *beyond* this stage is tough. Even though they have conducted no user research, most companies really believe they already understand their users and their goals very well; as a result, they can’t justify the time and expense of completely re-factoring their applications. Which is a shame, because quite often it’s these same companies that *know* they have some pretty serious usability issues.

    So I guess my point is, unless the organization as a whole is motivated to move beyond the “low hanging fruit” phase, there’s not a lot the UX folks can do by themselves. Except accept diminishing returns over time. But hey, you can always change the icons.

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