The Curse of the Middle Choice - Why SpiraTeam Has 4 Priorities

August 25th, 2017 by inflectra

Customers sometimes ask us why we chose four priorities, severities and importance values in SpiraTeam. Now you can of course customize the system to change the priorities and severities but this article explains why we chose four and why you might want to keep them.

If you look at the incident priority and incident severity screens in SpiraTeam, you will see that we have pre-defined four incident priorities:

  1. Critical
  2. High
  3. Medium
  4. Low

You can of course change the values, but we put quite a bit of thought into which values to have:


What Happens If You Have An Odd Number of Options?

One of the common suggestions from customers is to have either 3 (High, Medium, Low) or 5 (P1, P2, P3, P4, P5) priority values instead. However there is a huge flaw with an odd number of choices. People have a tendency to pick the middle value!! No one wants to decide so they end up picking the "safest" option, which tends to be the middle:

  1. High
  2. Medium
  3. Low

So when you do a review of requirements or incidents, when you have 100 items, you will find that > 80% end up being Medium with 10% being High and 10% being Low. The problem is then than you essentially have 80% of your items completed un-prioritized.

You might think that having 5 choices would help:

  1. P1
  2. P2
  3. P3
  4. P4
  5. P5

Sadly you would be wrong!! Too many times you will still end up with >70% of your items being categorized as P3 because it's right in the middle and therefore easy to pick without expending much mental effort...


So What Do We Recommend?

Well based on our research we recommend that you choose four priorities:

  1. Critical
  2. High
  3. Medium
  4. Low

What happens is that a small number of items are really, really important and everyone agrees, those 10% become 1 - Critical. There are another 10% that are so trivial and unimportant that they become 4 - Low. Basically they will never happen unless they can be done as part of something else more important.

However (and this is the important part), there is no easy choice for 3 - High or 2 - Medium. Everything else has to be categorized as one or the other, there is no default choice, which is the important part psychologically. So we find that 30-50% of the remaining will be 2 - High and the rest 3 - Medium. However in each case this had to be well thought out. So in fact we would argue that everything categorized as priority 1 or 2 (Critical or High) should be acted on and everything that is 3 or 4 (Medium or Low) should be considered lower priority. This is because the real choice is between the two middle values, that's where the "hard thinking and trade-offs" had to be made.


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