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Pay down your design debt to acquire, retain, and engage users

Design debt represents the full spectrum of product design work that your team knows should be done, but has been deprioritized. It includes everything from lack of design thinking processes to specific UI bugs that need fixing. Learn how making incremental progress on your design debt can drive the product outcomes you want.

Collage of three photos: the first is of three thoughtbot team members in front of sketches pinned up on a whiteboard; the second shows two laptops with post-it notes spread around the table; the third is of a designer focused on sketching on a piece of paper

Quote about design debt

Running a well-oiled-product-machine means that it needs to work under the hood as well as outside of it. Tackling design debt expands your product's longevity by putting internal processes in place to respond to your customer's ever-evolving needs without sacrificing the quality of your product.

Jaclyn Perrone
Design Director, thoughtbot

Defining the problem

What is design debt?

We often talk about technical debt - the known bugs that haven’t been squashed, tooling and frameworks that haven’t been updated, lack of testing, intimidating dependencies no one wants to tamper with. Design debt is the lesser-known cousin of tech debt and it’s just as important for meeting your product and business objectives. 

A few examples of design debt include:

  • Design system is out of date and doesn't support future work
  • Product accessibility has been neglected
  • Building new features based on hunches rather than data
  • Lack of user testing or observing analytics
  • Taking a micro view of workflows
Check out more examples of design debt

Design to the rescue

Use design to boost your product adoption and growth 

When time and talent feels constrained, teams sometimes default to shipping features without applying design thinking. But paying down design debt is an incredibly powerful source of user value. Taking care of your design debt enables you to hit your product metrics. 

  • Design System consistency strengthens your UX and brand leading to user delight and retention
  • Accessibility improvements expand your audience reach and usability increasing user acquisition
  • User research derisks new feature investments which improves adoption
  • User testing fuels all things Product Led Growth - the key to iterating to viral growth
  • User workflow optimization increases conversion and user engagement

Images from a design sprint

Design resources from thoughtbot

Get started tackling design debt

Design thinking exercises

A running list of exercises that are great for understanding, ideation, and collaboratively converging on solutions.

Read more

Best practices for designing apps people actually use

5 straightforward steps for a human-centered design process that embraces uncertainty and iteration.

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Tips for conducting user research

Some guidelines to help you conduct an effective and enjoyable interview (for you and the interviewee!).

Read the blog post

Intro to product accessibility

An overview of the goals, benefits, allowances, and tools to get you started in digital accessibility.

Watch the talk

Applying Jobs-to-be-Done theory

Jobs-to-be-Done is a mental model that can be used to orient product development around solving meaningful problems. 

Read the playbook

When a design audit is right for your team

Design audits help get your team on the same page and identify design inconsistencies that have surfaced over time.

Read the blog post

Quote from Alex about design audits

Ultimately, confused users do not convert or form long-lasting relationships with brands. Design audits help get your team on the same page by ironing out any inconsistencies that crept up over time, whether due to rotating team members or lack of documentation.

Alex Chen
Designer, thoughtbot

thoughtbot Design Services

Learn more about a few of our team's specialty areas

Product Design

From strategy to implementation, we collaborate with you to design experiences that build successful products and businesses.

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Design Research

Gain insights, build up team knowledge, and set the stage for innovative solutions.

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Usability Audit

A strategic approach to diagnosing usability issues and optimizing user experience journeys to ensure your users are satisfied.

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Design Accessibility

Whether you want to start with a solid foundation, or update an existing product, having an accessible experience is fundamental.

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Interface Design Audit

Good interface design builds user trust in your product and helps your team stay consistent and quick in implementation.

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Let's talk

Let us know if you want a complimentary design consultation.