Understanding the Value of Workarounds

Written by: Michael A. Morgan

As I stare down the tiny leaf-shaped fruit well of my yogurt container, I stop to think, why can’t I ever get ALL of the fruit from this little reservoir?

There is always some fruit left over. My spoon is too wide to reach the corners. After trying other options in the silverware drawer, a closer look at the back of my spoon reveals the solution; the small and narrow curve of the spoon handle turns out to be a perfect fit to fulfill my fruity yogurt need! Using the handle of the spoon to dig out the fruit bits from my yogurt container is a great example of a workaround—an unintended solution to a problem.

That’s what this article is about: Workarounds as not just solutions but also as opportunities to innovate on an existing solution. How can we identify workarounds and assess their value in order to come up with an even better solution?

Why workarounds exist

Workarounds exist because users identify a shortcoming in the existing solution and are looking for a better way to get something done.

As a user experience researcher, when I observe a study participant using a product in an unusual way, there’s a good chance that it is a workaround and possibly—though not all of the time—a better way to get the job done.

Donald Norman once said workarounds are “the soul of innovation…where the answers lie.”[1] Users who create workarounds are articulating an unmet need in the existing solution. Their goals are blocked.

These odd moments when users tinker with a product so it works for them rather than against them are moments of truth for a product team. They give the team insight into product limitations and the opportunity to innovate.

Relative advantage as measures for the value of a workaround

If we think of workarounds as innovations—opportunities to improve upon an existing product—then understanding what would motivate someone to adopt the workaround could help us quantify the attributes that make the workaround effective; these attributes can help product teams define a better, more integrated, and seamless solution for their products.

According to Everett Rogers, an early pioneer in innovation research and author of the classic book Diffusion of Innovations, five key attributes or adoption characteristics of innovations that determine their rate of adoption are relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability.[2]

Rogers indicates that relative advantage and compatibility are especially important in determining an innovation’s rate of adoption. Relative advantage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than existing solutions: What is that specific thing about a product that makes it seem better than the others?

Potential ways of measuring relative advantage might be convenience, cost, and discoverability. Relative advantage attributes can be used to help discern what makes a workaround more or less effective for your end users and ultimately inform the design of something better.

Steps for identifying and analyzing workarounds

I suggest that the most effective way to identify workarounds is to observe users performing actual tasks in their work environment using a product or feature.

Photograph of an open laptop with a sticky note covering the webcam.
Figure 1: Webcam blocker. Handmade and ready to protect from snoopers!

Here are some basic steps for identifying and analyzing a workaround to ultimately build something better. The steps are contextualized in an example of a common workaround I have observed from personal and professional experience—something we will call the webcam blocker.

Figure 2: Journey map for understanding workarounds from the UX researcher perspective.

Observe: Look for unusual ways the product is being used.

Identify goals: What are they trying to achieve? What are they trying to avoid?

Understand: What is the designer’s intent?

Identify: What are the challenges inherent in the designer’s intent?

Idealize: Without any constraints, how would you want to do this?

Identify and measure: What are the relative advantage attributes? What are the over- and under-served outcomes for each solution?

Improve: How can the existing product be improved based on these outcomes?

Below are the steps for identifying and analyzing workarounds.

Although the journey map in Figure 2 suggests that these steps are linear, some of them may be done in parallel. For example, by observing the user’s behavior (step 1) we may also uncover the user’s goals (step 2) and thus may not need to ask about their goals.

  1. Observe the user’s behavior. Observe the interaction between the user and the technology. Look for unusual behavior that doesn’t conform to the way the product should be used in the designer’s conceptual model.
    People cover laptop webcams with Post-it® notes and Scotch™ tape. They periodically need to replace their less sticky Post-it® notes with newer ones because they are not designed to stick very long.
  1. Identify their goals. What is the user trying to achieve? What are they trying to avoid?
    People are trying to maintain their privacy. They are afraid that they are always being watched by others because of the omnipresent webcam on their laptop. They want to control when they are seen by others.
  1. Understand the designer’s intent for accomplishing the goal. What is the designer’s intent for completing the task? Understanding this may reveal its limitations and the reason users create a workaround in the first place.

    The designer’s intent: To maintain privacy, users can disable the camera using the software. They need to either locate the computer’s Device Manager or System Preferences and then determine which sub-menu contains the place for turning off the camera. For example, on a Mac, it is under the Parental Controls menu.
  1. Identify the challenges with the designer’s intended method. What are some of the obstacles to accomplishing the goal using this method?

    Users need to dig around the system to find the switch that turns off the webcam. Since this is an infrequent task, even when they do figure it out, they won’t be able to recall how to reverse the action in the future.
  1. Identify the ideal scenario. If there were no constraints in the system, how would users accomplish their goal? This question enables users to articulate the attributes they find most valuable in the form of a solution. These attributes may represent relative advantages that would drive adoption of a potential solution.

    Users say they want to be able to click a button right on their desktop to switch the camera on and off.
    Note that wanting a button on their desktop does not necessarily mean that is how it should be designed. It is up to the researcher to uncover the attributes based on the user’s solution.

  1. Identify and measure the needs that are most important to the user. What are the attributes for the designer’s intended method and workaround (in this case, the webcam blocker solution)? Which are most important to the end user? Asking users what is most important to them can help us ensure that any proposed innovation supports those desired advantages.

    The designer’s intent: The user’s ideal scenario for clicking a button from the desktop to turn off the webcam hints at the need to have the switch be more easily discoverable, since they indicated that they want it on their desktop and not buried within an application menu. In this case, discoverability would be a attribute identified as potentially important to the user.They also want to be able to easily toggle between turning it on and off, especially when they need to quickly jump onto a video conference without having to submit a ticket to their IT department to help figure out how to turn it back on. This insight suggests that reversability is also an important attribute.

    The workaround: The workaround using readily visible Post-it® notes suggests that discoverability is potentially important to the user. The need to put them on and then take them off becomes cumbersome since they lose their stickiness. Reversability is also important in the workaround scenario.

    By asking users to quantify (through self-reporting) the importance of each of these attributes and how satisfied they are with each of the attributes for the respective solutions, we can gain insight into which ones are relatively more or less important and are most or least satisfying users’ needs.

    Anthony Ulwick, innovation guru and author of What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services, describes these attributes as under- and over-served outcomes.[3]

    Over-served outcomes are those that are most important to users and most satisfying users’ needs. Under-served outcomes are those that are most important to users and are least satisfying users’ needs.Under-served outcomes allow product teams to focus their energies and limited resources on what is most important to customers that is currently not being satisfied by the incumbent product or solution.

    Teams will forego working on product aspects that are already satisfying customers or are less important. Thus, energies and resources are spent working on the outcomes that matter most to building a better product or solution.

  1. Improve upon the innovation by analyzing the over- and under-served outcomes for the designer’s intended solution and workaround.

    The designer’s intent: The designer’s software solution may reveal a high importance and low satisfaction score for discoverability. Reversability might receive a high importance and high satisfaction score. The under-served outcome is discoverability. The over-served outcome is reversability.

    The workaround: The webcam blocker workaround may reveal a high importance and high satisfaction discoverability score. For reversability, it may receive a high importance and low satisfaction score. The over-served outcome is discoverability. The under-served outcome is reversability.

    What can we learn from the webcam blockers’ over-served outcome of discoverability? What is it doing so well that can be applied to the software solution? By making the digital button, or other, resulting solution more discoverable from the desktop, users will be able to find it more easily. Perhaps adding a shortcut to the webcam menu from the desktop could improve the prescribed method? This may raise the satisfaction score for its discoverability while maintaining its score for reversability.

    What can we learn from the under-served outcome of reversability in the workaround? What is it doing poorly that needs to be avoided in an improved version? Is the software solution any better? In this case, reversability is not an issue with the existing software solution. Any future improvements need to ensure that this attribute is still meeting users’ needs. Knowing what relative advantage attributes to maintain become equally important to improving upon other ones, especially as improvements are made to the product.


Workarounds exist all around us. They are highly contextual. They are accidental windows into how users see, think, feel, and perform their everyday tasks. Information and objects in our immediate environment may help bridge the gaps between our current challenges and ultimate goals for getting things done.

I use the spoon handle already in my hand to dig out the fruity bits of remaining yogurt because it is immediately available to me. Had the box of straws been a few inches closer I may have reached for those instead!

By observing how users work in real environments, we can gain better insight into their goals for and challenges with technology. Identifying and analyzing incumbent solutions and workarounds through the lens of key innovation adoption characteristics such as relative advantage not only allows us as UX practitioners to identify improvements to existing solutions, but also provides a more objective framework for influencing product teams.

[1] Norman, D. A. (2008). THE WAY I SEE IT Workarounds and hacks. Interactions, 15(4), 47. doi:10.1145/1374489.1374500

[2] Rogers, E. (2005). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.

[3] Ulwick, Anthony. 2005. What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services. McGraw-Hill : New York.

Michael A. Morgan

Michael A. Morgan

Michael has worked in IT within the financial and business-service industries for almost 20 years. A generalist, Michael worked as a software engineer, product manager, and business analyst prior to beginning his career as a user researcher nine years ago. He conducts research during all phases of the product-development lifecycle and is currently supporting Scrum teams that are building security-management software for ADP’s HR enterprise software products. His true passion is understanding and telling the story of the user to influence product roadmaps. Michael has written articles on user research for UX Matters, UX Planet as well as LinkedIn. When he is not working, he enjoys running, music, and reading all things UX. Follow Mike: @mmorganUX. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-morgan-mba-ms-cua-945945/
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