Why Design Debt Is a Liability Your Product Cannot Afford to Have

UX problems compound over time and become costly to fix if ignored for too long.

Written by Bansi Mehta
Published on Oct. 28, 2020
Why Design Debt Is a Liability Your Product Cannot Afford to Have
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There are risks that come with repeatedly taking shortcuts or doing something ad hoc when building a product. Over time, this may lead to a stockpile of user experience lags — also known as UX debt or design debt. These lags, when left unrepaired, manifest as expensive problems that take ages to fix, causing a negative impact on business.


What Exactly Is UX/Design Debt?

UX debt is similar to technical debt — a concept devised by Ward Cunningham in 1992. Technical debt is the additional time and effort costs that arise from launching faster, instead of releasing the best approach. It implies that the cost of going back and fixing problems post-launch is always higher compared to launching ideal solutions in the first place.

In simple terms, UX debt is the result of all the good design concepts or solutions being overlooked to achieve short-term goals. Bad user experiences, however minuscule, tend to stay in the subconscious of users, which in turn causes them to lose faith in the utility of the product. It can also result in the brand losing its credibility.

Such design debts compound over time and can get out of control quickly if businesses don’t take timely corrective actions.


Image of different buttons

Identifying UX/Design Debt

Single buttons styled differently in the same application are a clear indication of UX debt.

Design debt usually takes the form of piled up usability issues that no one took the time to address. These may look like inconsistent UI components, or varying navigation structures and terminology, like primary buttons styled differently on different screens, or varied spacing between UI elements. It is apparent that these features are added to a product with no consideration for the user experience as a whole.

This debt is also apparent when you have to train people to use the product — it lacks functional intuitiveness and the usability is not self-evident.

UX debt invariably arises when the product team decides to shortchange the design process. Be it half-hearted research, hurried ideation, or insufficient usability testing — when the team skimps on vital steps of the design process, the resultant product incurs debt over time.

Left as it is, design debt can infest a product and destroy the user experience. Here’s why your product can’t afford to have it: Design debt greatly reduces the adoption of new features and slows growth among users. Older users tend to see the product as difficult and time-consuming to use, whereas newer users become frustrated by its inconsistencies and complexity. Users tend to seek alternatives, and those with even a slightly better and more consistent UX seem more compelling.


Overcoming UX/Design Debt

Just as with technical debt where developers refactor the existing code to make it more efficient, design debt can be fixed by tweaking existing elements to make the product more uniform and usable. The first step to take would be to commission or perform a UX audit, which can help identify the areas where the debt exists. Once the inconsistencies have been identified, you can go about resolving them. Here are five tips to help you get started.


Let User Journeys Lead the Way

The importance of different user journeys varies — some tend to be more important than the other. For example, you have an insurance portal used by customers to choose plans and make their premium payments. This app might have an issue with device adaptability, which may distort some components slightly when users download payment invoices. But let’s say this distortion exists on the payment page, which can cause considerable chaos for the customers as well as the business. The first issue surely needs fixing, but the second one has to be prioritized as it disrupts a key action that’s more important to the user and the business.

Some user journeys are clearly more important than others, and it makes sense to prioritize these journeys and go about fixing UX issues in that order. The product strategy and research data can help identify the most critical user journeys and prioritize the resolution of the UX debt.


Have a Design Library and System in Place

A design pattern library is a collection of UI components to be used by a brand. A design system is a guide on why and how to use them, making the UI components easier to use and clearer to discern.

A design system is not only like a north star for front-end development, but it is the best way to maintain UI consistency and thereby restrict design debt from accruing. It ensures that the same design patterns and UI components are used across the product and that everything remains uniform. What it also does is ease out any future upgrades — when you have a system in place, minor upgrades can be added easily without generating more debt.

Clearing up UX debts without a design system in place can prove detrimental in the long run, as you would invariably be creating the same mistake: not setting a standard system right at the beginning.


Take It Up in Small Batches

Cleaning up individual elements is easier than tackling entire screens in one go. When you focus on single elements rather than entire pages, it provides a sense of direction to proceed forward as well.

For example, begin by redoing the header and footer, the main call-to-actions (CTAs), and so on. Taking up an entire page head-on can possibly spread out into a wildfire that could be hard to contain. Correcting smaller elements and testing them can uplift the product in an incremental manner. It will also be better received by users, all in the while providing you with the user inputs to go forward.

Once the minor elements are corrected, you can move on to fixing the overall user experience, such as optimizing user journeys from start to end, improving workflows, updating the information architecture, and so on.


Keep a Record of UX/Design Debt

To ensure that you are resolving debt items according to priority, maintain an ongoing summary of the actions taken. It is advisable to keep a separate log of the design debt, because those items may lose priority if they’re a part of your ongoing product log. Keeping the design debt separate helps you plan for it; perhaps consider a dedicated sprint to resolve at least the most damaging items.

You can create a log on Trello or Jira, or even have a spreadsheet dedicated to it. Remember to add crucial screenshots and arrange them in order of priority along with a high-level estimate of the action required to resolve it.


Feedback Matters for Resolving Debts

While being in the thick of fixing design debt it is important to pause and seek feedback, just as you would while working on a fresh design sprint. Feedback provides that much-needed perspective which validates the work you’re doing.

Remember how the design debt accrued in the first place? It was the result of hasty, unvalidated, and directionless actions. By pausing for feedback, you are ensuring that these mistakes don’t occur in the near future at least. When you identify the root cause of the debt, you’re in a better position to resolve the processes and the systems that led to it in the first place.

As a designer, you must come to terms with the fact that design debt will accumulate over time. It may happen as the product expands and evolves to move away from its original design intent to make way for newer capabilities and technologies. It can also be the result of agile processes where the paucity of time leads to developers skipping code reviews and pushing out unoptimized versions. Periodic UX audits will ensure that you keep pursuing the debts without letting them get to the point of no return.

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