Here’s Why Your Product is Deep in UX Design Debt

Renuka Savant | 8 min read

What’s the one quality that has got to be there on the job description of a product manager, but is never said out loud?

Tightrope walking skills.

Yes, for something that PMs do on a daily basis, this is one quality that has to be appreciated. On most days, they face the crushing responsibility of picking any 2 out of these 3 – 

  • Quality
  • Time
  • Cost

Is it any surprise then that design debt has this omnipresence across the software and product industry?

What is design debt, exactly?

What is design debt, exactly?

UX debt or design debt is like technical debt, mainly, 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).

Design debt refers to the broken user experience that appears over time stemming from a lack of design refactoring.

Let’s take a look at 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.

Where to spot signs of UX debt?

Where to spot signs of UX debt?

So far, we have had a look at what design debt or UX debt is and the type of companies and products that are susceptible to it. Going further, there are certain areas within the product that is prone to debt build-up listed as follows – 

  • Visual styling of the user interface (button placements/sizing, fonts, etc.)
  • Navigation patterns and content classification within the information architecture
  • Interactions (animations and effects)
  • Accessibility elements (contrast, visual focus indicators, etc.)
  • Content (microcopy, tone of messaging)

6 Reasons why your product is in UX debt

New ideas are tried out and then ignored

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. 

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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 so by removing it completely.

The focus is solely on time and money

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. 

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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.

The product is already riddled with technical debt

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.

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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. 

There is a lack of design leadership 

There is a lack of ux 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. 

An Yong-Il, the vice president of design strategy, says, “When we had our place in the organization, we started caring about the future of the company.” The designers also developed a capacity for strategic thinking and tenacity that enabled them to overcome resistance over the long term. Source

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. 

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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.

There’s a persistent mindset of growing and not scaling

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 the 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. 

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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.

There’s no ‘north star’ guiding product design

There’s no ‘north star’ guiding product ux.

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. 

According to Nike’s chief design officer, John Hoke, innovation and design go hand in hand, “Everything we’ve always done is to listen to what athletes need from us and help lift them to their highest potential,” he explains. “Nike uses design parameters and innovative thinking to progress sports forward at the most elite level. For Olympians, but also to progress sports forward for the everyday athlete.”

Nike’s “Everybody Is An Athlete” adage places regular Joes on the same level as someone like LeBron James. Their Innovation Kitchen exists to give elite-level athletes an edge during a performance — no matter how infinitesimal — as well as elevate the average person’s daily experience, regardless of their profession. Source

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.

What can be done to avoid this?

  • 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 is the primary reason that is ruining your product experience and thus, truly hurting the bottom line of your business. Sign up for our on-demand webinar, ‘UX Audit: Finding Limits & Opportunities at Current UX Maturity’, aimed at helping product owners accurately identify their organization’s position on the UX maturity framework and devise a practical roadmap to stem design debt. 

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.

Through a definitive and efficient UX 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.

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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