Did someone ever approach you with a usability problem that was categorized as “serious”, and needed to be fixed asap? Other people might chime in, and now the issue is “very serious”. But more often than not, there are no real metrics to determine the real severity of an issue. A lot of times it is based on gut feelings, and more often than not, it becomes a personal and/or political too.
It turns out, as we probably instinctively know, that one mans serious is another mans benign. According to Rolf Molich,
The CUE-2 teams reported 310 different usability problems. The most frequently reported problem was reported by seven of the nine teams. Only six problems were reported by more than half of the teams, while 232 problems (75 percent) were reported only once. Many of the problems that were classified as “serious” were only reported by a single team. Even the tasks used by most or all teams produced very different results—around 70 percent of the findings for each of these common tasks were unique.
*Emphasis is mine.
I speculate that this has something to do with group dynamics. Frequently you will see that an alpha-male (or female) will emerge in the group, and what he/she deems important is considered serious by everyone else. The group might exaggerate issues to appease the alpha, making things appear worse than they really are. The alpha might try to assert his dominance by elevating his observations too.
In real life, problems are often relayed through a long series of people; The end user tells his manager, the manager tells his manager, he then tells his integrator, who tells the distributor, who talks to the rep, who tells his manager, who then takes it up on a meeting with the CTO, who then tells the team-lead or dept. manager and then – finally – it lands with some programmer, in a completely different shape.
A List Apart has the full story