Let’s be real: if you’ve worked on a product development team you know what tech debt is. You also understand how important it is to track, manage, and resolve it.
And yet, why is there no emphasis on tracking when features we design get deprioritized, descoped, or cut altogether? We get used to hearing “we will come back and fix it later,” and then later never comes. In two weeks, it will be on to the next problem and the next feature.
I think we should change that. UX debt should be just as important as tech debt, so it’s my goal to help you better understand what UX debt is and how you can start tracking, managing, and resolving it within your team.
What is UX debt?
UX Debt is the accumulation of decisions made during design and development that negatively impact the users of a product or service.
That means when decisions are made during the product development process that goes against what’s best for the user to save time or money, or because of technical limitation it becomes a debt that needs to be paid back. Debt can also accrue naturally over time as a project matures.
Types of UX debt
The first type of UX debt is intentional debt. There are times when a project isn’t done correctly the first time due to a lack of time and resources. Sometimes sacrifices will have to be made, and there’s a good chance your users will notice. Whenever a decision is made to willingly cut corners that will impact the user experience, we knowingly put ourselves in debt to our users. Intentional UX debt is often accumulated by companies and organizations that have a culture of lean UX and MVPs.
There are other times when debt happens unintentionally, as your product ages. It’s essential to remember that we are not our users. Our users are constantly changing and evolving and we need to understand how they are changing to create the best user experience possible. What works for them today may not work in a few months or a year. We must adapt and evolve with our users or they will leave for a product or service that does. We can also unintentionally get ourselves in debt to our users if we’re not diligent about understanding them before we build our products.
Remember the user experience of a product is designed to create a cohesive experience around a specific set of features. When you begin to add new features and enhancements it will break the cohesiveness of your product over time, reducing consistency, and creating a user experience that feels increasingly disjointed. This is when refactoring comes into play.
Where does UX debt come from?
Let’s look at some of the common situations in which UX debt typically originates. Bringing awareness to the causes of debt can help you and your team recognize and avoid the pitfalls that create debt in the first place.
A few of the common origins of intentional debt are:
- Starting a design project with assumptions, and not research.
- Starting to design without fully understanding the product requirements.
- Lack of time or budget to work on all core features with the same care.
- Featuritis, an overload of implementing features, without looking at how they work together to make a cohesive product.
- Bad dev handoff, where designers don’t oversee the implementation of their work. (Design QA)
- No user testing before implementation.
- Not observing users or the analytics of the product after it’s in production.
- No style guide or design system in place to structure future design work.
Unintentional debt is usually unavoidable, but it can be caught and fixed just like anything else. Here are a few of the most common causes of this type of debt.
- As a website or app grows and becomes more complex, it may start to reflect different design thinking and an evolved design language.
- The original design may be stretched beyond its original intentions, resulting in elements that feel out of place or taken past its intended capabilities. A good example is a menu that was designed for 5 items now has to accommodate 10, causing the menu to feel cluttered.
- Changes to the design team and leaders. When leadership changes, there is often a push for a different set of design standards, rendering some or all of the old-style obsolete.
How to Manage UX debt
So, now that you know what UX debt is we can talk about how to manage it. Managing debt is a multistep process. The first step is identifying your debt. Then tracking and prioritizing your debt. Lastly, we will go over steps we can take to resolve your debt.
Step 1: Identifying UX debt
The first step in this management process is to identify your debt. Identifying debt should be a regular part of your team's design process. The best way you can catch and identify debt is by performing routine testing and analysis. Here are some of the most common ways you can identify debt within your product.
- Performing regular user testing
- Documenting intentional design cuts as they happen
- Performing routine heuristic analysis
- Tracking analytics
Another big way you can identify debt is by creating an open line of communication between the product team and your users. This can be done by allowing users to submit feedback on what they like and/or dislike about your product or service.
This can also be an avenue to gain useful insight into what is most important to your users and can help you plan future features. Now let’s move on to the next step.
Step 2: Tracking and prioritizing debt
For teams like mine with complex backlogs, it works best for us to track and prioritize issues in a spreadsheet or table (reference table below) before adding them to the backlog. This method will help to protect you from getting overwhelmed.
It will also help your product owner or business analyst prioritize issues accordingly. This way they only move debt items to the backlog that make the most sense for the product vision, users, and team workload.
The following factors will reveal the biggest pain points in the users’ experience and should be included in the spreadsheet or table:
- Description of the issue from the users’ standpoint (what is affecting them?)
- Where in the experience it occurs (header, form, footer)
- Frequency of occurrence (how often does it happen?)
- Who reported the issue? (user, team, business)
- How did you find the issue? (user testing, analytics, intentional cut)
- Level of UX and development effort needed to fix the issue (low, medium, or high)
These are only two options that you can use to help prioritize your debt, but they aren’t the only options. You have to do what works best for your team.
Step 3: Resolving debt
Resolving your UX debt will probably be the toughest part of the process. It will usually need to be a multistep process, but this can vary depending on how your team works. Paying down your debt isn’t easy, but there are a few different ways you can approach resolving it.
The first approach is to dedicate a certain amount of your working capacity every month, or sprint if you're agile, to UX debt. This way you make sure that you still have time to work on new features while also correcting the mistakes and short cuts you made previously. This is what I see a lot of development teams do to tackle their tech debt.
The second approach is to plan a quarterly design sprint dedicated exclusively to cleaning up UX debt. The team should collectively decide what areas to focus on in the cleanup sprint and, in the end, show what was accomplished to business leaders and stakeholders.
Approaching your debt in either of these ways can get stakeholders and leadership on board with addressing debt items frequently, especially when progress can be demonstrated and communicated in terms of value generated for the user and business.
To ensure that you are resolving your debt, you need to have clearly defined success metrics. Then you need to use easy-to-understand visualizations, evidence from user testing, and clear explanations of what was accomplished in each debt ticket to help leaders and executives understand the progress made and the importance of continuing to repay your debt.
That was a lot!
Whew! You made it! I know that was a lot. Managing your debt can be a difficult undertaking, but if you’re up for the challenge it can yield enormous benefits for you and your team.
Debt is a concept that every person understands, so by leveraging this terminology we can create an environment where design can thrive. It will help emphasize research, user testing, keeping communication open between both users and business stakeholders. Most importantly, it will promote a company culture where you take the time to get it right the first time.
Let’s be proactive UXers instead of reactive. Let’s take back control of our work and our processes. Don’t be afraid to talk about UX debt so you can make a plan to manage it. I challenge you to take a look at your team and see where your debt is coming from and make your plan.
Jarvis Moore is a UX Designer and a UX Mentor at DesignLab. He specializes in web and design strategy and tries to share what he's learned on his unconventional journey in design.