Let's say you can assign priority to a list of items where the priority can be either of: 'High', 'Medium', 'Low' and no priority set

Would you consider 'low' priority higher or lower than no priority?

Edit: To give a bit more context, suppose you have a list of jobs that you have to do and by default, the jobs are created with no priority, sometimes weeks/months in advance. The priority is assigned by a person doing the scheduling closer to the job's due date such that people know which jobs are more important to complete within a given day.

Part of the reason for the question is that when talking about jobs being able to have both low and no priority, it seemed ambiguous to me which one is actually higher than the other. A colleague argued that low priority is higher because it is assigned a priority vs you could also take the view that low priority is lower than the default of no priority.

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    Why would you have “no priority “ as choice? i mean in which user case or scenario – Devin Jan 26 '18 at 0:57
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    @Devin I agree. Where did the requirement for 'no priority' come from? What exactly does it mean in the context of this project? Is choosing a priority an optional step, or can you literally select 'This item has no priority' as a choice? – JonW Jan 26 '18 at 12:36
  • @Devin objects by default in the system have no priority and we're introducing a new concept of priority which can optionally be added to the object. – Deceptikong Jan 26 '18 at 20:20

I like the way Windows does their process priority. All processes by default are Normal priority (so it's not possible to have "no" priority), and then the priorities are relative to that.

Screen capture of task manager with process priority menu

  • Agreed. If I'm going to explicitly say that something is "low priority" then I would expect to see it sorted below the other tasks I create. – maxathousand Jan 26 '18 at 20:32
  • Good point on making the hierarchy clear when assigning priority. This could be an acceptable way to present to the user what the levels are. – Deceptikong Jan 26 '18 at 20:35

If you have a system where items with "no priority" are new items that have not yet been reviewed and assigned a priority, then these should probably show at the top. If we don't know the priority, it could be a high priority. You don't want users to miss these.

An example might be new admissions in a hospital A&E who have not yet been triaged. Showing a non-triaged patient as below the lowest priority in the list could be fatal.

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    Good use case! In this case, the priority is to assign priority. Perhaps you are not 'properly in the system' until the priority has been assigned. So there are effectively layers of the sytem - one layer has no priority - another layer always has some layer of priority assigned. Not that I want to try trivialise healthcare systems to basically being onions! – Roger Attrill Jan 26 '18 at 11:29

I think this depends on how you are implementing the priority system.

Say for example, the purpose of your priority system is to allow information to be displayed or acted on in a specific order (for whatever purpose), then you could argue that things that are given priority will appear in a specific order, whereas items with no priority can be sorted and presented in any other way.

However, if the purpose of your priority system is for ranking of an entire collection of item and you want this to be displayed in a list, then you will still need to assign some value to the items with no priority so that they can be displayed along with all the item others in a comparable way.

In other words, you can either have a two level system:

  • Items with priority value
  • Items with no priority value

Or a single level system:

  • Items with higher priority value
  • Items with lower priority value

And this will affect how you need to display and design the interface to suit each of those specific purpose/use case.


tldr; Low Priority is higher than No Priority.

Imagine an entropic system where there is no defined order and no one thing has no precedence over another - this is the natural chaotic state. Humans (and I guess their computers) are somewhat inclined to try and make order out of this chaos. For about 500 years priority was a mass noun - a singular word implying that within a chaotic (indeterminate and unordered) system, then one thing (or one set of things) might be marked as having priority. That still leaves everything else indeterminate. These days we tend to make lists - generally ordered lists - even within the set of priorities (now plural). If something is more important (whatever important means in context) than another then it gets moved up the list.

If we start to use bucketed prioritization (discrete levels) instead of a list, we wonder about the determinate nature of items within the same bucket. Do they still have an order in the bucket? Are they done in parallel? Do all things in a higher priority bucket get done before those in a lower priority bucket? Will dependencies still work?

And... where do things go that I still don't care about being prioritized? This latter group is the remainder of all items after things have been prioritized. Following this thinking, it seems that any kind of prioritization must (by definition) be that which prioritizes a thing above the remainder. Therefore whether a thing has a high, medium or low priority means it still has 'a priority' over the things which have no assigned priority.

Thus Low Priority is higher than No Priority.


  1. I think there can be ambiguity over whether the use of the word 'normal' for a thing means that it has not been prioritized, or whether the level of prioritization is normal - i.e. not high priority, not low priority, etc. So the word normal should be avoided. Normal is a system-level term and not one that is standardized in the user's mental model.

  2. In some systems, everything has to be given some initial level of priority. In effect, this means that everything is still in some level of chaotic indeterminacy with no prioritization making any item distinct over another. In these systems, there is no concept of 'No priority'. By highlighting everything at the same level, you effectively highlight nothing. In this scenario, depending on the initial starting priority, it might be possible to lower the priority of an item. It might not be possible to assign 'no priority' (unassign priority), but if it were, then that would shunt it below anything which had any level of priority.

  • If something has not been marked with a priority level, how can you be so sure it is less important than one that has beed marked as low priority? It could need a high priority rating but it just wasn't reviewed yet. If it needs reviewed and could be high priority then pushing it to the bottom could have unplesant consequences. – Franchesca Jan 26 '18 at 11:31
  • @Franchesca I agree - you can't be sure. In some systems there is a progression through the system (i.e. the system is in flux), and the non assignment of any priority is a transient state before the assignment of some level of priority. A continuous triage process feeds the desired state of the system which is to have no items with 'no priority'. We shouldn't get hung up on labels - but perhaps, in such a case, the more appropriate term is 'not yet prioritized' rather than 'no priority'. – Roger Attrill Jan 26 '18 at 12:06

Priority means that an element has more or less importance or precedence than another. If an element has low priority, it means that it has no precedence towards anything. So I think low priority and no prioritiy are equivalent.

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    Thanks for your thoughts, this is also one interpretation that was coming up in a few feedback sessions – Deceptikong Jan 26 '18 at 20:40

If a job doesn’t have a priority, then it’s an unknown, and therefore should be avoided in any good UX pattern. Because of its unknown state, it could be higher than low priority, lower than low priority or even higher than high priority. You don’t know, a user don’t know, nobody knows. A bit on Franchesca’s answer, depending on the case it could be fatal, or cause issues that could (and should) be avoided easily.

Think about this: your users DO KNOW the priority, so allowing “no priority “ as a choice would mean a step back in knowledge they already have. Specially when you mention a job could be created weeks or even months before. It’s very easy to see that you can apply an algorithm like


where DD is Due Date, ETC is Estimated Time of Completion and PR is an inverted Priority Range (the higher the PR, the lowest the priority). And this would be an automated task with no user intervention.

Of course the algorithm above is an extreme simplification, but the important thing is: priorities based on dates are dynamic by definition, what now is low priority tomorrow could be high priority. But the priority is always there, no matter if low or high, it does exist. Thus, “no priority” makes no sense and it could be higher, lower or in another dimension

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