4 Ways Product Managers Can Overcome UX Debt

Renuka Savant | 9 min read

It’s likely that you’d have heard the story of the $300 million button made famous through a book called Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks. Over ten years down the line and it still remains an excellent example of how a badly-designed experience can impact a business, in this case to the tune of $300 million.

To the uninitiated, a certain website’s checkout process was being held back by the presence of just two buttons, viz., Login and Register. A few usability tests later, the company discovered that its users came to check out and pay for the stuff they’d added to their carts, but having encountered this massive speed bump (login or register) it just led to abandonment in huge numbers.

Its first-time users were not interested in registering and their existing users found the logging-in requirement too cumbersome. UX research suggested replacing the “Register” button with “Continue as Guest”. The result? The number of completed orders shot up by 45%, resulting in an extra $300 million that first year. Furthermore, 90% of the ordering users ended up creating an account as part of the checkout completion process.

So, is there a $300-million-worth mistake hiding in your product that you’ve got no clue about?

What is UX design debt?

what is ux debt

According to NN, UX debt is similar to technical debt, which refers to the additional time and effort costs that result from launching faster or easier technical solutions, instead of releasing the best approach. It implies that the cost of having to go back and fix problems after launch is always higher than launching ideal solutions in the first place (i.e., the debt is repaid with usurious interest).

What causes design debt?

Cough *agile* cough

agile ux

That was a joke, but on a far more serious note, it is the constant prioritizing of quick and easy solutions, making the most of the available options when a deadline looms and repeatedly picking shortcuts that cause surmounting UX debt. When these UX issues are left unaddressed for too long, they end up being time-consuming, performance-killing problems that cost a lot to fix.

Agile processes are especially prone to UX debt as a result of heightened pressure to regularly ship new features and functionality. That said, UX debt can accumulate in any project, regardless of the development methodology employed, and too much of it will result in a loss of trust, traffic, and revenue.

Too many UXers spoil the product

ux designers

Anyone who has used Apple Music’s confusing navigation, especially after having used Spotify can perhaps understand this scenario. Large-scale projects involving multiple UX teams are prone to UX debt as there may be conflicting inputs or a misinterpreted product vision that go into the making of the product. Poor communication or documentation may result in the creation of a product with an inconsistent user experience and varying visual treatments – definite indicators of UX debt.

Poor budget, rich market

ux calculator

Budget constraints force the design team to prioritize the aspects of design that are indispensable and ignore other factors that also play an important, if not a crucial role.

This, combined with the increased urgency to deploy the product faster than the competition creates a fertile ground for UX debt. The product team is pushed to ship faster with insufficient QA and testing and little to no focus on quality. Remember Haribo’s sugar-free gummy bears? Well, it wasn’t a software faux pas, but a product-related one nevertheless. Those innocent treats in a sugar-free form ended up causing severe intestinal distress in consumers to the extent that Haribo was forced to place warnings on the product. A little investment in research into the other effects of the sugar they used might have saved them from the massive backlash.

Identifying UX debt, earlier the better

ux debt

Strong UX means less downtime, increased productivity, and better time-to-value. This should be equally, if not more, important than a good customer experience.

– John Milburn, CEO at Clear Skye, an IGA software company

UX debt covers all ongoing problems within the user experience that may have been the consequence of a hurried, untested launch that negatively impacts users. It doesn’t matter if the UX debt has been accrued deliberately or accidentally, the first step to identifying it is to consider the lack of consistency in these areas that are susceptible to debt buildup –

Visual design –
User interface (button styles and placement, links, and visual styling)
Interaction design (animations and effects)

Messaging –
Microcopy and content

Navigation –
Information architecture
Accessibility elements (contrast, visual focus indicators, etc.)

Customer touchpoints –
Customer journey maps
Omnichannel experience

When a suboptimal design gets launched, it impacts the long-term value, because users trying out the product will find it too difficult and perhaps create a shadow system (enterprise users have nowhere else to go). Even if users become accustomed to the bad design, any corrections made later on will also be faced with resentment as they’d be forced to give up what they’re used to. Plus, constant changes for any component of the overall UX degrades the consistency and coherency of the product.

Citibank’s massive $500M blunder was a direct consequence of design debt having accumulated for long. Three employees using poorly designed software accidentally sent $900 million to one of its client’s creditors instead of $7.8 million — then when creditors refused to return most of the money, a judge ruled in favor of the creditors. Source

Clearly, it’s more expensive to fix a UX problem post-launch. Redesigning and recoding puts added pressure of reworking the already-launched features, debugging them, and then possibly retrofitting other parts of the product. Even from the development PoV, coding the UI right the first time is much easier than having to change shipped code.

4 Tips for PMs to keep their product debt-free

UX debt has a compounding effect – the longer it remains unpaid, the more it costs to pay it off. Therefore, it makes sense to consistently keep track of it and reign it in.

Maintain a UX design debt backlog

debt backlog

Keeping track of dues is a good practice in any situation, and design debt isn’t an exception. Most PMs are familiar with keeping track of technical debt, so UX debt is along the same lines.

To start off, get to the root cause of what triggered the design debt. Recording UX debt items in a spreadsheet and then adding them to the backlog is a practice that all PMs should maintain. So whether it was a hurried launch, conflicted inputs, or sloppy coding, it is important not to repeat those mistakes further on in the process. Detecting the correct trigger is not something that can be pushed under the rug. Ignoring the source of the debt will only compound it in the long run.

Getting a UX audit of the product is a great way to comb through the product and highlight areas of concern. A UX audit is an expert assessment of your product’s performance in terms of usability and user experience. It involves examining the existing user journeys to reveal actionable areas of improvement.

Prioritize the factors to be resolved

ux priorities

Different points of your UX debt will have differing levels of impact on your product’s performance. It all depends on the user goals they impact as some user journeys are more crucial than others.

Compare these 2 factors that add to the debt: device adaptability (the lack of it) versus a slow-loading checkout page. A slow-loading checkout page might be the one causing more immediate harm than the lack of device adaptability. Therefore, prioritizing UX debt resolution works in the best interests of your users as well as your business. Use the findings gained from the UX audit and place them with your product strategy to identify your most critical user journeys and prioritize your UX debt.

Allocate enough time to clear the UX debt

clear the ux debt

Clearing UX debt may feel like a mammoth task at the beginning, but there are ways you can accomplish it as you keep working on bettering your product. One way to approach is to allocate a specific number of UX debt tasks to be resolved during each sprint or every alternate sprint. The number of debt tasks can be adjusted depending on the overall workload, but ensure that 1-2 UX debt tasks are frequently taken up.

Alternatively, you can also schedule quarterly sprints exclusively dedicated to UX debt (and tech debt as well). Based on the prioritized items, the team can collectively decide the areas of focus in the cleanup sprint. If an entire sprint is out of the picture, you can circle out a dedicated day or two to take on as many UX debt tasks as possible.

To get the stakeholders on board, make sure to prepare simple visualizations based on findings from user testing sessions and offer clear explanations of what was accomplished in each sprint and its effects on product functionality. When the progress is demonstrated and conveyed in terms of user and business value generated, it ensures that the stakeholders and leadership are equally invested in addressing UX debt as well.

Schedule regular design tests and reviews

design tests and reviews

It’s natural for every team to have their unique, individual blind spots. An independent third-party design review can identify these to a design team. It is this varied perspective that drives the use of design review in the new product process. The value of periodic design reviews is tremendous, as it adds an additional assessment layer before the release. It’s also your best bet to ensure that your product’s UX debt stays minimal in the long run.

Design reviews also come with the additional benefit of bringing the designers and developers to work in close quarters which pushes them to understand the complexities of each discipline.

Regular user testing sessions will help you pinpoint new UX debt regularly. In this case, prioritization becomes critical for managing types of UX debt.

If there’s one critical mistake you can make as a PM, it would be to ignore UX debt and technical debt. Regular user testing and heuristic analysis are key to identifying existing debt and stemming the creation of new ones. Consult with UX audit specialists early in the design process to lay down a cycle of finding and fixing sub-optimal elements of the experience.

About Author:

Sr. Content Writer at Koru UX Design, Renuka loves to write, discuss, research, and read up on the latest in user experience design. When she’s not doing that, she spends her days watching crime thrillers and sports.

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