As as a discipline is maturing, years behind software development, we designers need to get familiar with certain terms already established among developers. backlogs, version control; quite recently DesignOps started being a thing. Now it’s high time we discuss design .

It’s a concept built upon something called technical debt, a term coined by Ward Cunningham, who realised that cutting corners with technology and releasing software too quickly can result in additional costs (interest) after the launch. He started using the debt metaphor to describe this issue to his business stakeholders. Even though the team saved some time upfront to build software without testing it properly, and later on the debt would come back after them, swinging interest like an axe. Apps would freeze, layouts would break and clients would call in fury.

“There were plenty of cases where people would rush software out the door and learn something, but never put that learning back into the program. That analogy was borrowing money, thinking that you never have to pay it back” — Ward Cunningham

Rushing with coding because of the need for ever-increasing velocity of agile teams can cause developers to skip code reviews, release unoptimised, slow apps or completely forget about accessibility. Well, the same problems are being observed in design, now that everybody’s eyes are on it.

Ward Cunningham on his debt metaphor | source:

In simple terms, design debt is all the good design concepts or 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”. I’ll give you three examples to make it more relatable:

  1. The new main navigation was not tested with users, because “there was no budget for it” during the design stage.
  2. One of the crucial web forms is not consistent with the rest, because a whole page template would need to be rewritten.
  3. The newsletter popup that’s annoying your users has not been updated in years, because the marketing team has not signed off a new design in 6 months.

These may seem like a trivial design problems, something not worthy of a whole article. However all these little big details add up and cause something Mark Boulton calls marginal degradation of brands. According to him, bad user experiences, no matter how small, aggregate in the subconscious of the users, which in turn causes them to trust the product less and regard the brand as unprofessional.

A scratch or a rusty patch here and there does not make a car stop working, but it reduces its perceived value. The same rule applies to brands or digital products. | image source: @danielcgold

In my previous job (a premium footwear brand Kurt Geiger) UX designers from various product teams (in-house) started discussing Design Debt as a hidden problem that could hurt our digital products. The brand management had a full roadmap of new features to implement, and fixing existing problems, smaller or bigger, was not on there. Small fixes are hard to spot from high above. Between bigger design projects, we got cracking on pitching the idea to the stakeholders, trying to explain that all those little changes add up and could eventually lead to reducing the appeal of the brand, let alone the conversion rates.

For instance, what we discovered while running standard usability testing was that people projected the quality of the interface of the website onto the brand or its products. Even though the products we sold were of top-notch quality, the more fussy or impatient users would never get to product pages, discouraged by sloppy navigation design and pesky marketing popups. That means we’ve already started to pay late fees on the debt we took by neglecting common issues.

People project the quality of the interface of the website onto the brand or its products.

An example of inconsistencies that facilitate design debt | source: James Ferguson

I always cared about the online experience of our users, so I decided to find a good way to manage design debt within distributed teams. While it all started when I was working at Kurt Geiger, I since then left the organisation and started talking to other UX Designers to explore the nature of design debt and ways to manage it.

Every team pays their interest on loan

The needs and the nature of work for in-house and agency-side designs teams are a bit different. The dynamics of communicating with the decision makers and the pace of work can differ, but managing or just highlighting design debt is equally important in both these environments.

In-house design teams

The benefits of being transparent about design debt in in-house teams are obvious — you shift the team’s attention from rushing with delivering new features to fixing the scratches in your current user experience. Typically, in-house design teams work in a slower pace than agency-side, so there usually is time to properly think through and prioritise the next steps for design.

In many companies, product teams are led by product managers, who need to find a balance between the business goals from the wider business and the needs for a user-friendly and relevant product. These do not always go in pair. To be honest, they usually don’t. That’s why the design team needs to be explicit about the dangers of paying too much interest in the design debt. The business is suffering, one piece at a time, and the people closest to the users will see the damage first. It’s their responsibility to flag it and act on it.

The biggest problem for in-house design teams is getting excited about new features, while neglecting the little big details discovered in daily analytics and testing.

Agency-side design teams

On the agency side, though, designers get often pressured be the clients to make many changes in not only how the product looks, but also how it works. In the end, the client is paying for the project and all the risks related to it are on their side. However, UX designers (at least the ones I know) tend to push for the best design for the users, and not for the account manager on the client’s side. It’s only fair to point out the risks of bad design to the client and prove why another “SHARE IT ON FACEBOOK” button is irrelevant for the audience.

Many challenges UX designers face nowadays can create design debt | source: UXPin State of the Enterprise UX Survey

Client pressures are not only feature requests, but also the legendary budget/time struggle. I’ve seen the problem in many agency-designed products — skipping or neglecting important elements of the interface simply because of the looming deadline. Contact pages, home pages and many more are often based on templates, not really fit for the needs of the particular audience. Sometimes the time is problematic to polish the designs, but also to test them.

I am terrified to discover that many companies, such as banks, outsource their crucial digital products to digital agencies, who deliver an MVP, but is later not involved in testing and optimising the product. It’s just left there to mature, or get outdated.

Any feature that was released and untested is a business risk, larger or smaller.

What I recommend in agency environments is to create a design debt document as you progress through the project. At the end of each sprint or a project stage you can revisit the document and decide along with the client whether you should mitigate the risks first, before moving on with the project. Remember — phrasing every design problems like a business risk is a great way to get buy-in from business-minded stakeholders.

Where does design debt come from?

Summing up, you need to watch out for the situations in which design debt typically originates, and these would be:

  • Starting a design project with assumptions, and not research
  • Lack of time or budget to work on every core feature with the same care
  • Featuritis, an overload of features implemented by different teams, without any thinking of how they work together
  • Clean-cut handovers between design and development, where designers don’t oversee the implementation
  • No user testing of the interface before implementation
  • Not observing users or the analytics of the product after it’s gone live
  • No style guide or design system in place to structure future design work
  • Using 3rd party front-end libraries without customising them

I guess this is some sort an anti-checklist you could print out, but really, many of the points above are simply good practices in design. It’s all about being conscious in your organisation and your process, as well as educate others about the dangers of marginal degradation of your brand.

Tackling design debt

Each team treats design debt differently, there is no best way to do it. Through trial and error, you may find the best ways to work along with your team on mitigating the business risk, born from design debt accrued over time.

But before you do that, spend some time reviewing some recent projects and trying to identify whether there were situations, where something should be noted down as design debt and addressed later on. Recognition is the first step to solving a problem 🤔

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