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Design Debt Happens: Here’s How You Can Learn From It

Design debt is sneaky and no amount of strategy will completely prevent it. But that’s okay, because waiting for perfection hinders progress.

Woman interacting with a comically large smartphone and reaching into the front of the smartphone: learn from design debt user experience
If the design of different product experiences isn’t thoughtful they make less sense and might not function well. [Oleg Lyfar/Getty Images]

“Design debt represents all the design-related work that’s skipped, or deferred to a future date, in order to ship faster,” said Denise Burchell, senior director of design at Salesforce.

The concept of design debt stems from tech debt. Both concepts are based on Ward Cunningham’s debt metaphor which is about being able to achieve a goal faster with borrowed money. But, until you pay back the loan, you’re accruing interest. Tech debt can show up as sloppy code or updates that cause your app to crash, especially as the result of rushing to ship a product. Over time, the results of quick fixes can accumulate in a tangled web that requires revising an existing product to make improvements, also known as refactoring. Unaddressed, this “debt” becomes difficult to pay off.

Design debt shows up as design-related inconsistencies in a product or suite of products.

Designers face similar issues. While tech debt is fairly established, design debt, also referred to as UX (user experience) debt, as a concept is still developing a common language. The metaphor still applies.

Design debt shows up as design-related inconsistencies in a product or suite of products. These inconsistencies can look like a non-intuitive UI (user interface), outdated components, mismatched button styles, or a “why would they do this?” moment with a product, service, or experience. Burchell believes, “In each case, the build team has decided that the customer experience has to be compromised for other priorities.”

At first, some inconsistencies may seem minor but if enough of them add up, the experience degrades. If you don’t repay the loan by refactoring, that’s when design debt risks accruing to unwieldy proportions.

Think holistically about UX

“Design debt is everywhere in a system and it usually starts with an uninformed decision,” said Asterisk Loftis, Salesforce UX designer at IBM. When you don’t think about the effects of your design decisions, you may end up with a page that loads painfully slowly and has a negative impact on the user’s patience and productivity.

He explains that many organizations often make the scope for design too small because they think it’s only about changing the color or making things “look pretty.” Or they’ve done market research and equate it to user research.

Market research is valuable because it helps business leaders define and reach markets. But, crucially, user research uncovers unmet needs and motivations on an individual level. These insights inform and inspire better user experiences.

It’s important to think holistically about UX from the beginning of the product development process. It’s also essential to consider the relationships that underpin the product cycle and connect stakeholders.

When I talk to designers, I tell them to think about it in terms of experience inconsistency: Are we building in an inconsistency or are we trying to build for consistency?

Jason Kobs, Digital Platform Design Lead, Accenture Federal Services

“I actually don’t like the term ‘design debt’ because it symbolizes a loss or a financial obligation,” said Jason Kobs, digital platform design lead for Accenture Federal Services. “When I talk to designers, I tell them to think about it in terms of experience inconsistency: Are we building in an inconsistency or are we trying to build for consistency?”

Kobs said it’s not always obvious what might contribute to design debt. The lens through which you assess best practices also affects the outcome. What may be the right design choices to address accessibility, for example, may require introducing a new pattern that affects the efficiency of another pattern. How do you know what the consequences might be if you make one choice over another? It’s like coming up with “best practices for a future we don’t know yet.”

Strategy design can help

Design isn’t monolithic. Burchell reminds us that design is indeed about fonts, colors, UX, design systems, data visualizations, flow, and such. “It’s also a strategic business tool that helps companies determine what to build to drive business outcomes,” she adds. “Design leads to customer satisfaction and drives revenue. If you build the right thing, people will want to buy it.”

The power and flexibility of a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, like Salesforce, comes from bringing together different pieces of technology into one platform. If the design of different product experiences isn’t thoughtful, Burchell warns, they make less sense and don’t function well.

“You start seeing duplication of efforts in different technical contexts, and the promise falls apart without some kind of experiential strategy that links it all together. You have to make sure you’re building or implementing the system in a way that meets business objectives and helps people work efficiently.”

Strategy design can help minimize or mitigate design debt. Arguably, any company that uses any number of technology solutions needs strategy design. It’s not enough to just buy the technology.

People make workarounds for technology all the time. … People’s workarounds will show you where there is a solution that doesn’t consider human beings.

Denise Burchell, Senior Director of Design, Salesforce

“There’s a human side to it,” Burchell said. “People make workarounds for technology all the time. It’s that warning note taped on a copier or a sign with simplified instructions for something convoluted. People’s workarounds will show you where there is a solution that doesn’t consider human beings.”

Design debt is sneaky and no amount of strategy will completely prevent it. But that’s okay, because waiting for perfection hinders progress. Also, there are always unforeseen circumstances that demand an urgent solution, which may in turn contribute to design debt. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable or even desirable for a little while.

Our Trailblazers have plenty of “pro tips” on ways to be mindful about design debt before building a product, during the development, and after the launch. Let’s explore a few key insights.

Build with intention

Before you start building, identify areas of risk that could cause design debt down the line. Including a pre-mortem cycle offers a framework for thinking backwards about the product you’re about to build. In this cycle, the team imagines a product has failed, or lacks user adoption, and reverse engineers what could have led to that failure.

Our team has a pre-mortem cycle designed to explore the ethical implications of the products we build. The framework helps to anticipate the intended and unintended impacts of technology and make a plan for how to mitigate those risks. We have a Build with Intention Toolkit to guide workshops for teams and to use as a reference in day-to-day work. Components in the free digital package include discussion questions, sample exercises and templates, an interactive brainstorming board, and more.

Are diverse perspectives included in the product design and development process? Is your product accessible? Have you considered the impact on users with disabilities?

Burchell frequently refers to the toolkit for questions to ask during the design process, including: “Are diverse perspectives included in the product design and development process? Is your product accessible? Have you considered the impact on users with disabilities?” Such considerations are imperative during the product design process, which helps temper design debt.

User research is essential

Human-centered design is about considering the user every step of the way. No two users are the same. Before you build a product, you need to understand who your users are, what’s important to them, and how they work.

Not thinking about the user and how they’re going to use a solution means you’re going to end up having to redo the work. That’s design debt.

Tracy Greene, Salesforce Practice Lead, GeekHive

“User experience is the first thing I think about,” volunteers Tracy Greene, Salesforce practice lead at GeekHive. “Not thinking about the user and how they’re going to use a solution means you’re going to end up having to redo the work. That’s design debt.”

Greene describes their user research as “shadow discovery.” In observing how someone does their job, Greene can learn, for example, how many clicks it takes someone to complete a frequently performed task. If it takes four clicks, then the aim is to reduce the number of clicks. Greene once had a high-stakes project with a three-week turnaround deadline. They spent two weeks gathering user data – which made Greene’s manager nervous.

“I wasn’t going to build anything before I understood every single requirement,” Greene said of that experience. “That company was so happy because (for example) every button on every page was in the same spot. Every department knew what to do on their pages.” That same company later asked Greene to redesign for several other teams.

Vanessa Grant, associate principal consultant at Simplus, now goes on “ride-alongs” with users where she spends the day watching how they work. She’d once had an opportunity to sit with a group of sales staff during training and quickly discovered how much of the experience wasn’t intuitive. “There were so many changes we made after the launch, because we learned so much just by sitting with people. And I wish we had done that from the beginning.”

Grant takes notes on the ride-alongs and then creates a backlog of priority improvements. “So much of user experience design is caring enough about the little things,” she said.

Consider the context

Earlier, Kobs described one aspect of design debt as the accumulation of experience inconsistencies. Before building a solution, he always asks whether the design is consistent or inconsistent with its environment or context.

Sometimes custom designs can lend themselves to inconsistencies because they stray from the out-of-box option.

It’s important to carefully consider if the problem is best solved by a configured or custom design. Sometimes custom designs can lend themselves to inconsistencies because they stray from the out-of-box option.

For example, one of his coworkers asked him about creating a customized application form. In response, Kobs asked them to consider all the other application forms the company uses and whether this new form would be consistent or inconsistent with existing applications.

Burchell follows the same process and asks whether there’s a compelling reason for straying from an existing configured design. “It’s not a sin to be inconsistent,” she said. “You just don’t want to do it by accident.” So in this example, if there is a good reason to create a custom application form, then that’s ok. But if the form could be created using the configured design, that might help cut down on design debt in the future.

Ultimately, stopping to ask these types of questions is a way to counteract design debt.

Listen and learn

After the product is out in the world, it’s important to get feedback on ways to improve future versions. Two ways to gather feedback are design research and gathering metrics. Design research will help you understand the why behind your users’ needs so you can refactor and improve the UX for them. Metrics will help you understand how people are using your products, and where they’re getting stuck.

Listening to users by putting metrics in place before the product goes live so you and your teams don’t miss any opportunities to gather insights.

Listening to users by putting metrics in place before the product goes live so you and your teams don’t miss any opportunities to gather insights. Grant suggests connecting with users regularly, building a dashboard to gather all your UX metrics in one place, asking questions that will lend themselves to actionable insights, and sharing insights regularly with the team.

Most importantly, learn from users by building time and resources into your product development cycle to analyze the data and turn it into user stories for future releases.

Collaborate to create flexible solutions

A product or service is never done and iteration is key when creating something in the digital space. Technology and customer needs change – and your solutions need to be able to change with them.

Kobs describes a scenario where three developers are working on different features for the same solution. They might approach the features in different ways: one could use a flow, one could make a custom component, and one could use a different tool. Multiply that over many sprints, or use cases, and you have potentially created a variety of inconsistencies for users and designers in the future.

Instead of implementing their features in a silo … developers could work together to nail down big decisions up front that help maintain a consistent and seamless user experience.

Instead of implementing their features in a silo, these developers could work together to nail down big decisions up front that help maintain a consistent and seamless user experience.

Let relationships thrive

Now that you know what design debt is, why it’s important, and how to avoid accruing it – how will you put this knowledge into practice?

  • Advocate for including design from the beginning of the product development process to ensure user research informs design decisions.
  • Practice building with intention. 
  • Work closely with a designer who is familiar with strategy. 
  • Collect actionable insights after a product launch by learning how users are experiencing your product.

Design debt happens and we can’t fix it all at once. But we can learn from it by listening to users to develop solutions and refactor in ways that address their specific needs.

Design debt happens and we can’t fix it all at once. But we can learn from it by listening to users to develop solutions and refactor in ways that address their specific needs. We want to show up in a polished way for users and show that we care about the experiences they have with us. Thoughtful design is one important way we can promote trust in our brand.

Ultimately, addressing design debt is about relationships and creating the conditions for those relationships to thrive.

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