What is design debt?

Lindsey Christensen

Do you face pressure to launch new features at the expense of validating the actual need or context for those features? Of course you do! Product folks - why do we find ourselves in this scenario so often?

When time and talent feels constrained (and it always does), teams default to shipping features because new features equal new areas of value for users (and in turn, your business). But over time these new features pile up onto the old ones, and then the old ones don’t make sense anymore; but you keep building new things anyway while accumulating a ton of design debt in the process. Taking care of your design debt enables you to hit the product metrics you are working towards like acquisition and retention.

What does this look like in the real world? Imagine our team is working on a personal training app that lets users get on-demand virtual training from available trainers. We’ve decided to launch a new feature that also prompts the user to order fitness products. We assume this will be a bonus revenue stream. It makes sense, right? Shouldn’t more opportunities to make money = more money? If our team had done some user interviews and user testing, what we would have actually learned is that this disruption in accessing the trainers is so frustrating that our users are not only not buying the fitness products, they are leaving our app in droves. We lost customers and we lost the time we spent building this feature.

A design debt definition

We often talk about technical debt. It’s the known bugs that haven’t been prioritized, tooling and frameworks that haven’t been updated, lack of testing, intimidating dependencies no one wants to tamper with, and more.

Design debt is the lesser-known cousin of tech debt. Design debt represents the full spectrum of design work that has been banished to the dusty backlog. It includes everything from lack of design thinking processes to specific UI bugs that need fixing. It’s what happens when the gap between your first feature and your 50th is so wide, that you’ve given up on creating new things in the context of what’s already happening in your product.

A non-exhaustive list of design debt examples include:

Design system is out of date. When the design system isn’t regularly updated to meet the needs of the latest version of the product, user experience is inconsistent at best and completely broken at worst. It’s difficult or impossible for designers and developers to use the design system to build the product, and the product and company brand also suffers as a result.

Product accessibility has been neglected. A typical fear for an inaccessible product is that it doesn’t comply with regulations and you’re at risk of legal action and fines. While this is true, inaccessibility also means your product is usable (or enjoyable) by far fewer users. Accessibility is much more than code!

Lack of user testing. Is it possible those newly-shipped features haven’t been tested with users? This is another common design concession that can lead to a bad user experience. This then leads to lower adoption and engagement, with higher bounce rate and customer churn.

Haven’t conducted user research recently. Those new features you’re rushing to ship? Did you validate your target audience really wants them? Do you know how they think and talk about the pains and value related to the feature? Do you know what is a must-have versus what is a nice-to-have? By not answering these questions, you increase the risk of product failure.

Taking a micro view of workflows. Focusing on one individual feature at a time can result in similar setbacks mentioned above regarding design systems. By not taking a step back to look at the entire product workflow, you’ll find yourself with an inconsistent experience that isn’t optimized for conversion and engagement. The result is people are unsatisfied and leave.

Small design debt steps lead to big product performance strides

My goal in listing out design areas that need your love and attention is not to add any anxiety to your life. Let’s make your life easier! We can improve your product and help you hit your product targets faster by taking some realistic, actionable steps.

Here are some simple ways you can pay down your design debt today!

  • Use thoughtbot’s accessibility and inclusive design checklist to audit your product process.
  • Make a plan to interview 5 users and come out with a refined jobs-to-be-done statement.
  • Map the critical path and user journey. This is a great exercise to do with your team, but also stakeholders from other teams.
  • Audit your design system. You can plan to refresh it later, but make a commitment to documenting an audit now. Take all the button and icon and form screenshots you can.
  • Make a plan to test 5 product assumptions with 5 users.

Not sure where to start? Another easy step in the right direction is to have a quick 30 minute chat with a design consultant. Run through your biggest concerns and ask where to focus. It may turn out that working with a consultancy like thoughtbot is your best course of action, or you may just get some great tips for your own team. Let us know your questions about tackling design debt!