The Complete Guide out of UX Design Debt - Where It Comes From and How to avoid it?

The Complete Guide out of UX Design Debt - Where It Comes From and How to avoid it?

Brand-new Technical debt creeping slowly into your product is a little like a water leak along the foundation of your home. Left unaddressed for too long, a leak erodes the structural integrity of your house, leaving rot and damage in its wake.

Some things seem easy to ignore—until they aren’t.

If you’re in Product & Tech, chances are that you’re quite familiar with the term ‘tech debt’. Now there’s one that is just like a cousin to tech debt, it’s called ‘design debt’.

Smart product managers and designers know they must recognize and understand design debt to manage it properly. In this blog we’ll be exploring comprehensively.

1. What design debt is exactly?

2. Where design debt comes from?

3. How design debt can hurt your product, users, and teams?

4. 6 Reasons why your product is in UX debt and How to avoid them?

  • New ideas are tried out and then ignored
  • The focus is solely on time and money
  • The product is already riddled with technical debt
  • There is a lack of design leadership
  • There’s a persistent mindset of growing and not scaling
  • There’s no ‘north star’ guiding product design

Ready?, Let’s get right into it.

  1. What is design debt, exactly?

Ward Cunningham, a pioneer in agile methodology, coined the term by defining it this way:

Design debt is all the good design concepts of solutions that you skipped in order to reach short-term goals. It’s all the corners you cut during or after the design stage, the moments when somebody said: “Forget it, let’s do it the simpler way, the users will make do.”

UX or design debt simply means you’re fully aware that your user experience isn’t optimized to its full potential, but in the interests of time and given the resources you have available, you make a decision to limit the scope of your solution so that it still solves a user need in the knowledge that your first version isn’t as beautifully elegant as you might like it to be.

Here are a few examples of the types of businesses and systems most prone to UX debt –

  • Multi-functional enterprises products
  • Apps designed for wide-ranging, non-homogeneous tasks
  • Legacy systems (especially those under high organizational complexity)
  • Apps that are taken over or change hands frequently 
  • Apps with multiple domain-specific uses
  • Applications with multi-phase workflows

There’s probably no product that can escape design debt from accumulating over time. However, there are ways to ensure it is minimal by recognizing and managing it well in time.

  1. Where design debt comes from

Design debt is natural and happens to every product. It’s a side effect of growth. However, left unchecked it can turn into an unwieldy, costly drain on your time, resources, and customer experience.

When a new design is born, it is debt-free. A brand new design is cohesive. Each element in the design (The header, the footer, the navigation, the social feed, etc)  is aware of every other element. The elements are all connected, which creates a sense of consistency across the entire design experience.

New designs don’t remain stagnant. While they may excel initially in cohesiveness, they also have room for intended optimization. As data is collected on the new design’s performance, new areas are identified for experimentation.

New elements of a design are tested against the original. As experimental variations win, those new elements are integrated into the design. This is good because you are ultimately improving the design, but it is not cost-free. This is where design debt begins to occur.

The reality is that no matter how hard designers or developers try, new elements introduced to an existing design don’t share the same awareness of the original elements. The more a design evolves, the more disjointed it can become. 

  1. How design debt can hurt your product, users, and teams?

The more your design debt adds up, the more disjointed your product becomes, and the more frustrated your users will eventually feel. Bad user experiences, no matter how small, aggregate.

Your customers will project the quality of your UX interface onto your brand, even if they only do so subconsciously. When they perceive your UX interface as inconsistent or clunky, their trust in both your product and your brand erodes. This is true even if the design debt in your product doesn’t hinder its functionality. Just like a dent on a car might not impact its performance, it does impact the vehicle's perceived value.

Lower trust or value perception among users results in lower engagement. Lower engagement results in users who leave and never return, and perhaps even leads to those users telling others not to try your solution.

Design debt can drain your teams

Design debt piling up also becomes a major frustration for your developers and designers. It is demoralizing to work on products that have high design debt.

Why? Because simple things like changing the copy across multiple pages to be consistent can take up a whole day! It never feels great to work on a project that takes so much time for such a small task. Nor does it feel good for developers and designers to try to explain to management and product teams why it takes so long to redress issues that could have been avoided.

Creating a mentality in your organization that prioritizes planning in order to avoid as much design debt as possible goes a long way toward protecting your team’s morale and lessening employee turnover.

  1. Reasons why your product is in UX debt and How to avoid them

  • New ideas are tried out and then ignored
  • The focus is solely on time and money
  • The product is already riddled with technical debt
  • There is a lack of design leadership
  • There’s a persistent mindset of growing and not scaling
  • There’s no guidance on product design

  1. New ideas are tried out and then ignored

Rapid prototyping and testing or MVP processes are great for innovation. They let you validate new ideas quickly and get you on the right path without investing too much time or resources. 

However, if the initial feature implementations are not revised properly and adapted to the rest of the product, it causes disparities in the consistency of the user experience. 

How this can be avoided?

Ensure that there is proper implementation of any successfully-tested feature across the product. (E.g., if a new ‘Back’ button is introduced, ensure it replaces all the previous ones or is placed consistently across the application.)

In case the experiment failed, ensure a thorough clean-up by removing it completely.

  1. The focus is solely on time and money

Cutting corners constantly often results in compromised quality of work. In organizations that may skip usability testing in favor of an early release, design debt comes as a natural consequence. 

The constant fire drills with aggressive deadlines can ensure that the work gets done on time, but it comes with a hefty side dish of consequences in the long run. 

Tall goals and tight deadlines based on unplanned design objectives are a recipe for disaster. Quick, short-term wins come at the expense of long-term viability and incur massive design debt. 

How can this be avoided?

  • Ensure that the deadlines are reasonable at all times.
  • Ensure that the design goals and expectations for each sprint are based on a verified, long-term UX strategy.

  1. The product is already riddled with technical debt

Design debt and technical debt go hand in hand. When you have a product that is under considerable technical debt, the development team often rejects the new design implementations as too complex to incorporate into the existing code. This is what gives rise to the downward spiral of halfway measures and mediocrity, incurring increasing design debt over time.

How can this be avoided?

Deal with technical debt on its own merit. Problems related to the code infrastructure cannot be resolved by running design changes. 

Evaluate any usability challenge based on its origin – whether it is rooted in code or design – and then propose a solution. 

  1. There is a lack of design leadership 

Design leaders hold the responsibility of monitoring design debt and ensuring that it remains minimal. They are also tasked with educating and empowering their team in achieving these goals. 

The timely decision that fueled Samsung’s unparalleled success was to create an in-house innovation and design team. This decision proved to be a vital factor in the company’s growth. With its Galaxy Flip and Fold series, Samsung introduced a new category of smartphones in what was a pretty dormant space in terms of innovation. What changed was that they had their employees take up more responsibility and ownership of the design and innovation process. 

Poor design leadership or its complete absence can cause the product team to suffer from competing goals, conflicting design directions, and poor communication. The result is evident in their design output which is inconsistent and lacks cohesion. These situations become apparent as the business scales, with multiple teams working on different areas of the same product. 

How can this be avoided?

A strong and efficient design leadership leads the way in crucial transition moments such as redesigning, rebranding or acquiring new products.

Ensure clear alignment on design goals, unified leadership, and healthy communication.

  1. There’s a persistent mindset of growing and not scaling

While Instagram Design team members have the rare opportunity to create and refine a platform that over a billion people use, working at this kind of scale also presents unique challenges. One of the biggest is understanding the potential impact on society in the future. Ian Spalter, then head of Instagram Design and now head of Instagram Japan says, 

“I’ve really benefited from working in space and seeing these technologies evolve,” he reflects. “It’s given me a tremendous perspective. At its core, Instagram is about visual communication. It’s really important for us to have a clear point of view about where we want these tools to take us.” Source

Aiming for increased revenue is a top priority for businesses, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, focusing entirely on growth and ignoring scalability can prove disastrous from a product perspective. 

When a product has features piled on top of others to accommodate the growing needs of the business, it can result in an unstructured behemoth that guarantees both design and technical debt. It drains more revenue in the form of higher maintenance by simply growing and not scaling. 

How can this be avoided?

Ensure scalable design considerations. Pick frameworks, UI structures, content, and components that enable your product to accommodate new features as seamlessly as possible and adapt to new markets.

  1. There’s no guidance on product design

When a product doesn’t have a clear direction or “north star”, (in other words, a design system), there is an increased probability to test various features to “see what works”. While this might work in the short term to discover features that can be fit to release, with more features being tested, more debt is incurred. 

Alternatively, there is also the scenario where the style guide or design system gathers dust and isn’t regularly updated – which is as good as being non-existent.

Design systems and style guides are critical tools that shield the product from unnecessary design debt. However, this is true only of cases where there is an active governance strategy to keep them up to date.

How can this be avoided?

Ensure that you have a ‘north star’ guiding your product design – be it a style guide, a component library, or even a full-throttle design system. 

Keeping it updated and ensuring periodic maintenance is key to providing a consistent and scalable user experience. 

Design debt can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

Whether you are just beginning to create a new design or already have significant design debt, your team doesn’t have to face this problem on its own. In the same way you might need an expert team to help resolve water leaks before they open into sinkholes, there are services that can identify and resolve your design debt before it swallows you whole.

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