Design debt: What it is and how to overcome it

Do you feel that your design process takes too long because designers must account for a jungle of features? If you are in a place where a slight change requires a massive lift, the reason might be your volume of design debt.

Creating investment opportunities for product teams throughout design debt

Designers’ frustrations and disappointment grow with their inefficiency. Isn’t that true? The pressure to speed up the time to market has intensified how businesses deal with the risk of malfunctions, bugs, and overall defects throughout the customer experience. This trade-off of decisions across time produces technical and design debt.

Debt is a figure of speech to illustrate the effort needed to fix errors and quality deficits that were introduced during development and are affecting the business value. Therefore, design debt is intrinsically connected to the technical debt since it accounts for the accumulation of both design and development decisions that have negatively affected the product and therefore the end-user experience.

Design debt can be translated as the operationalization of violations and non-compliance of design best practices.

Imagine a management solution that over time evolved to support three more functionalities that were not initially envisioned. For a designer, supporting these new functionalities might mean remembering, specifying, and updating the design in three separate places. Now imagine discovering that along the way, the first feature has been deprecated but its functionalities are still conditioning how we have scaled the solution initially. In the realm of software development, this happens constantly. This unstructured growth can build layers of debt that over time become unable to handle any changes or additional features. If too much technical debt can slow down development, too much design debt can reduce the adoption of digital solutions and slow business growth.

Can I avoid design debt?

Don’t ignore your debt, it needs to be paid. The longer you delay, the more interest you accumulate — which can become overwhelming.

Design debt, like technical debt, is not always avoidable — especially if there is a gap between solution performance and product vision. This disconnect translates to an unstable, incoherent, and unfriendly user experience — causing less customer satisfaction and possible customer defects. For that reason, any design debt evaluation should not only measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the user interface but also users’ satisfaction with the overall experience.

How do I measure design debt?

There are several ways to measure design debt, each addressing a particular purpose. Most practices focus on the idea of operationalizing the compliance of source codes with fundamental design principles. In this scenario, design debt is seen as the total amount of user-facing inconsistency in a digital solution that impacts the integrity of the user experience.

Despite that, this approach will produce guidance for software developers and designers that only considers usability considerations through the design improvement process.

Design debt can make your product look unprofessional, dated, or too difficult to use. There are several factors that condition users’ comfort and acceptability of use. First, an experience doesn’t exist only when a user interacts with a product, there are cognitive factors that condition a user before and after their engagement with a solution.

An experience is made up of a series of personal judgments grounded in a journey whereby a person discovers, purchases (or not), experiences, and takes part in a service or solution. This journey creates in the user a feeling of how well the business is meeting their needs. So, the user does not take only the interface quality into consideration when evaluating the quality of a solution. A number of pragmatic and hedonic characteristics dictate how a user perceives the quality of an experience. For that reason, usability is attitude (hedonic) plus action (pragmatic).

New approach to measuring design debt

Looking carefully, we see that those measurement practices are tied to obtaining only a quantitative usability measurement – the number and magnitude of design best practices violations. That will restrict potential product enhancements to only functional changes that boost the users’ experience by improving the user interface. But usable applications are not enough to evaluate the quality deficit of a solution.

Recent insights from Emergn’s own experience showed that one of the most effective ways to measure design debt is to track how people use a solution (pragmatic) and how users think (hedonic) about it. To achieve that, we paired a UX Expert Review, supported by Jakob Nielsen’s 10 general principles for interaction design, with design debt calculation to serve as a diagnostic method to help designers and product managers measure both pragmatic and hedonic design investment opportunities through the prioritization of design debt efforts.

Design debt as UX metric (KPI)

Running a UX Expert Review proved to quickly find the sources of debt, and measured an issue’s severity with frequency, thus creating a roadmap to address the design debt to be managed and refactored in the same way as technical debt. We found that this method is especially efficient for organizations with low levels of UX maturity where formative data is low or non-existent.

In the assessment, we rank non-compliance with design best practices according to their severity and frequency, weigh them against the importance of that heuristic to the end-user, and then balance those findings with the effort needed to fix them.

Our Design Debt approach measures quality deficits as a quantitative UX metric to be used as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for any digital product.

By generating graphs that show which violations have a high impact on the user experience and are easy to fix, and the ones that present minimal improvement and are hard to fix, we help product teams better handle design debt.

Without properly prioritizing and communicating design flaws, it’s difficult to address the debt with the highest return on investment possible. For that reason, we support the process with a clear and actionable report that sets out all of our recommendations. By returning to the bigger picture within the report, we also supply guidance on designing for future interactions and user requirements. (Read more in this Emergn client story – “How do you make a leap in engagement when you’ve already set such a high bar?”)

The outcomes of the evaluation are:

  • Quantifiable main UX issues: A list of hurdles or potential problems your users face or will likely meet.
  • Action plan for product optimization: Highlight the issues that require the most attention and report them with actionable insights to start planning improvements right away.
  • A fresh perspective from UX and UI experts: Identify what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing, so that designers and developers can focus on making the necessary improvements.
  • A debt guide for payment by ease, cost, and urgency: A visual report that reveals how to improve the performance of your solution, how to retain users, and how to turn your visitors into lifetime users.

Creating accountability for product teams throughout design debt

To walk towards a solution, the entire team and/or organization, not just the designers, must acknowledge that design debt exists and acknowledge it will be addressed. Specifically, product owners or managers must be on board because as we analyze design debt, we also investigate the business needs, like the end of life of a feature or the possibility of introducing newer technologies. This will avoid investing resources into product components that will eventually introduce more debt.

Based on the report, product designers can investigate issues that would require further testing (e.g., usability testing with users). On the other hand, product managers can help stakeholders gain perspective and realign their priorities by sharing the report. They can also help prioritize quick wins and recommendations into the product backlog so the design debt is addressed quickly.

Based on our experience, this proposed approach leads a project team to a holistic design quality assessment in a granular and joint manner made possible by industry-standard heuristics. Recognizing and putting together a plan to pay the design debt back over time will guide organizations to address and solve issues that will make their relationship with users healthier and stronger.