Dealing with Design Debt

Jennette Weber
Oct 3, 2019 · 4 min read
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but with product design, it’s also in the hands (and experience) of your users. Product design isn’t just about making your product look aesthetically pleasing. It’s also about helping your users solve a problem and achieve a goal using your product. However, when a product gets bigger and more complex, it’s inevitable that cobwebs start to form in the corners–dusty old modals, out-dated icons and even an aging colour palette. Aesthetics that were approved years ago, may look archaic and are signs that design debt has started to accumulate.

What is design debt?
Design debt is very similar to technical debt. It refers to the extra time that needs to be allocated to your team when going back to fix something as a result of prioritising a faster product launch over thoughtful design. Technical debt is invisible, but painful, and trickles through the organization. Every developer is affected and so is the shipping speed.

In comparison, design debt is at the expense of a different audience—your user.

The accruement of design debt can threaten a product’s brand just through poor UX. It can pop up like sinkholes that form slowly at the base and get larger over time. Or they can be baked into shiny new features as gaps in the execution because a faster shipping time was prioritised over the quality of design.

An example of design debt is the inconsistency between web pages or a disjointed interaction for the user on mobile versus desktop. Mismatched colours, typography and spacing are also signs of design debt, which contribute to a user having a chaotic experience when using your product.

What’s the cost of design debt?
In the most severe cases, design debt can turn customers away from a product. When users experience lousy UX, it makes them trust a brand less, even if the product is of top-notch quality. Users might become frustrated with their experience and give up on the product altogether. Despite the saying of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” what you’re product team is shipping isn’t just a mere product, but an experience. This experience is an interaction with another human being that becomes an incredibly nuanced conversation filled with subtle cues. So even if it’s working and not technically broken, it may need a tune-up.

A huge challenge within a product organisation is finding a way to articulate design debt as a business case to your team and stakeholders. As difficult as it can be, product designers need to fight for it as a priority and know when it needs to be placed onto a roadmap.

Below are some tips on how product teams can avoid design debt.

Step 1: Set the design vision

Know who you are and who you want to be. Design leaders should have a clear vision and key goals that the team can work toward.

  • Solidify your company brand

Your company’s brand should be aligned from the design to the marketing. Make sure you’re distinguishing yourself from others.

  • Understand your users and your product

Be very sure of what you’re selling to your users and what problem it helps them solve! If you’re positioned to be a video player, then that’s what your customers will come to you for. They’re not looking for a message board or online forum.

  • Market differentiation

In the product world, it’s important to know your competitors. Even if you’re offering a product that solves the same problem, what makes you unique will drive the vision.

Step 2: Know what measures to use to defend against design debt

Design debt accumulates when there isn’t alignment or clear goals on the design. However, it can be worked on through preventative and reactionary processes.

  • Have a style guide

One preventative measure is to have a style guide for designers. This way, there’s a standard of quality that’s being tested, measured and achieved.

Another practice to defend against design debt is to empower everyone on the product team to be a designer. What this means is for the design leader to evangelise a solid design vision. When an expectation is set, design debt then becomes everyone’s responsibility.

  • Always remember the Scout’s rule

A reactionary approach to design debt is to follow the scout’s rule: “Always leave the campground cleaner than you found it.” When applied to design, always be on the lookout for an easy win. If you spot something that can be fixed, clean it up while you’re there.

  • Evangelise the importance of design

Making design debt a priority is another reactionary approach. On your product team, get your devs and PMs involved into the mindset that taming design debt should be a priority. A good way to start making a business case for design debt is to use data to prove that the UI is clunky. If a feature was designed to solve a problem and the users can’t discover it because of the design, then it’s very obvious that something needs fixing.

Don’t be afraid to fight for cleaning up design debt to be part of your product organisation’s roadmap. It’s just as important as shipping a new feature. When confronting design debt, be honest and take a step back by experiencing your product as if you were a customer. It can be easy to become blind to fault.

Don’t be embarrassed about your design debt either. Having it doesn’t mean you can’t run your company or have a strong business. Recognise that design debt is a relationship that needs to be managed through awareness, prioritisation and execution.

Product to Product | Roadmunk

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