Design for User Tasks using an Urgent/Important Matrix [transcript]

We’ve collected all sorts of preliminary information about our users that we’re using for a new product design. We may be faced with so much data we’re not sure where to turn first, or what design feature is a priority. THere’s a simple, 2-way matrix we can use to help us sort it all out: an urgent/important matrix. We may have used it to prioritize tasksfor ourselves or as a management strategy for our team. But, we can also use it to evaluate the tasks our users take when using our product. There’s more after this brief introduction. 

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An urgent/important matrix is a simple, 2-way matrix, with 4 window panes or buckets. It’s not solely a quality tool, but it can be tool to prioritize quality-type decisions. It’s deceptively simple, so much so that we might dismiss it. But, the real work of it is actually trying to fill one out.  

Have you ever tried to fill out an urgent important matrix? It forces us to stop, think, and evaluate tasks from different angles. If we’re designing, faced with input that needs our attention, we can use an urgent/important matrix to help us prioritize, highlight, and even strike some tasks off our list. I’ll include a graphic of an urgent/important matrix on the podcast blog. 

To use this matrix, here’s how we think of urgent and important:  

  • Urgent tasks demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. These tend to be reactive, with a narrow focus – but, don’t need to be. 
  • Important tasks contribute to long-term missions and goals. These can be proactive. 

Our outputs to using this matrix is that tasks are going to be labeled in one of four ways: they need to be done, they should be omitted or deleted, they can be delegated to someone or something else, or there’s a decision needed about when to get them done before they become emergencies. 

There are four panes, or buckets, that make up this matrix: 

The urgent & important pane is what we want to do right away. These can be looked at as crises, complaints, or breakdowns. We don’t want a long list, here.  

The not urgent and not important pane is what we want to delete. They’re distractions, so let’s get rid of them. The types of activities that can cause us to procrastinate are the types of things that we’ll list, here. 

Now, if it’s urgent and not important: these are things that need to get done and keep us busy, but they’re not contributing to our long-term goals.  For these, can we delegate them to someone else to do? Ideally, we’d want to delegate to someone who considers this task to be urgent AND important to them. 

Finally, if it’s not urgent but important: these are tasks that will get us to our long-term goals, but they’re not yet urgent. We’re going to decide how to get these done so they don’t shift into the urgent section of our matrix. This is the pane of the matrix that we want to plan around, to ensure that it gets done. 

How can we use this tool for design? Say we’re developing a new product. We’ve done some initial usability engineering studies, so we’ve talked with potential users and have feedback. Let’s put ourselves in our customer’s shoes. Their tasks are those that take time for them to complete. Out of all of the potential ways our customers could use our product, which tasks are considered urgent, or the tasks that they need to immediately address and that our product will solve? What tasks are considered important, that help them reach their long-term goals? Are there tasks they’re performing that are unnecessary, that our design may be able to eliminate? Are there any tasks that they do now that doesn’t help with their long-term wants?  

Let’s step through an example. We’re developing a bicycle stand. Our target users are individual adults that need a bicycle storage solution inside their apartment or home. From surveys and focus groups, our users say they want a stand to free-up floor space in their living area, to secure the bike from falling and getting damaged, to have easy access to the bike so they can grab it and go places, and to display their prized bicycle in a nice way. We’ve determined that our users will place this stand inside their living areas (like a living room, foyer, or bedroom) and that some of them live with small children and pets. They need to assemble and secure the stand to a wall, adjust the stand to fit their bike, store and display their bike on it, remove the bike for riding, recycle packaging materials, and finally disassemble the stand for moving or disposal. 

What is urgent and important to our users?  Remember:

Urgent tasks demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. Important tasks contribute to long-term missions and goals.

An urgent and important task is assembling and securing the stand. If our users do this step incorrectly, the bicycle make tip and fall and it could make the stand not sturdy, which could harm anything or anyone else in the living area (like children, pets, or roommates) and cause damage to the bike. Not being able to assemble the stand is going to frustrate our users, and we’ll get complaints about it. The consequences of the user task “assembling and securing the stand” are immediate and important to long-term goals. We would want to ensure that we created a design with assembly and securement in mind, and that we made it easy for our users to complete this step.  Being able to store and display the bike right away, and then remove it for riding, could also be urgent and important tasks to our users. That’s why they bought our stand. We wouldn’t want a design that made them glue or clamp the stand pieces together, making them wait to use the bike stand for another week while it cured. They’d want to use it right away. This is another feature of our design that we could focus on: immediate use after assembly. 

The not urgent and not important tasks could be recycling the packaging materials. This task doesn’t need to get done right away, and is not important to be able to use the stand. We’d generally want to delete these sorts of tasks. We could design packaging to minimize the number of different materials to recycle, perhaps focusing all on cardboard packaging isntead of a mix of cardboard, plastic, and foam. 

For the things that are urgent and not important: remember that these are tasks that need to get done and keep us busy, but they’re not contributing to our long-term goals. Completing and submitting warranty information may need to be done within 30 days of purchase, but it’s not important to the user to be able to use the stand for their bicycle. It’s urgent, but it’s not important to the user. For this kind of thing, we’d want to make this step as easy as possible for the user to complete. We can ‘delegate’ much of the warranty information as we can by partnering with retailers for receipts and allowing users to scan those codes to auto-populate warranty information. 

If it’s not urgent but important: these are tasks that will get us to our long-term goals, but they’re not yet urgent. Maybe we’ll make our bike stand design universal for all bikes, but with some adjustments to be made if the user wanted to position clips to protect their bike finish. If so, then the user task “adjust the stand to fit their bike” may be considered important to our users, but not urgent for them to be able to use the stand right away. Disassembling the stand for moving or disposal could also be a task that is considered not urgent but important.  These are thing we’ll want to plan for our users to be able to do in the future. Perhaps the instructions we package will include the necessary steps for our urgent and important tasks (like assembling the bike stand). But, then for adjustments by bicycle brand or disassembly instructions, they visit our website.  

There, now we have an urgent/important matrix for our design idea, based on the tasks our users take to use our product. We can prioritize our design options and decisions around the tasks that are urgent and important to our users, and try to eliminate those that are not. 

If we’re using this matrix for a design activity, here’s some steps we can take with our team:  

  1. Get team agreement on the scope and timeframe of the matrix. The timeframe of the matrix can be day, week, month or a year or more. 
  1. List all of the tasks associated with the scope that take up time. We can do this together as a team, or do it individually and pool together the tasks for team review. 
  1. Group the tasks and assign them to a matrix pane, or bucket. Get rid of duplicates and ensure each task is within scope. Our team can individually prioritize activities and then come together as a group, or we can do it together as a team. 
  1. Then, we can take action on the tasks. We can design tasks that are urgent and important. We can make a plan for how to help users complete tasks that are important but not urgent. We continue to work out decisions about the tasks that are urgent but not important, including helping our users delegate to us, distributors, or other people. And, we come up with the right procedure to get rid of those tasks that are not urgent or important. 

What is today’s insight to action? Try using the urgent/important matrix as another tool. You can use it to think more about your user’s tasks. It can help prioritize design decisions, including user interfaces, labeling, and customer support. And, this can be a first-step input into other usability engineering techniques.  

Please visit this podcast blog and others at Subscribe to the weekly newsletter to keep in touch. If you like this podcast or have a suggestion for an upcoming episode, let me know. You can find me at, on LinkedIn, or you could leave me a voicemail at 484-341-0238. This has been a production of Denney Enterprises. Thanks for listening!