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All You Need To Know About Design Debt

April 22, 2019 |
Design Debt

It’s a bit unusual to connect an economic term ‘debt’ with the world of design and development. But, debt is an important term and concept here. Cutting corners with technology and releasing software too quickly can result in additional costs after the launch. We choose to quickly develop the code when a better path is available but would take longer. Technical debt is helpful for software development, where it’s about borrowing time. Technical debt supports fast iterations and experiments before the borrowed cash runs out. Design debt is a similar concept.

What is Design Debt?

In simple terms, design debt is all the good design concepts or solutions that you skipped in order to reach short-term goals. Cutting corners during or after the design stage is termed as design debt.

Debt can also increase naturally over time as the original design can’t handle additional features. The original UX was designed to create a cohesive experience around a specific set of features. The addition of new features over time breaks that cohesion, reducing consistency and creating a UX that feels increasingly disjointed. In some cases, design debt is consciously maintained within an existing product because there’s a fear that changing the status quo will upset users.

Identifying Design Debt

Design debt is somewhat necessary and is present most of the times while designing a software product. If you have zero design debt, you may be not learning or hesitant of adapting to changing needs. The design teams are the experts and can advise on when design debt needs to be actively managed down, but others on the team can also contribute to identifying this debt. A lot of times the sales teams will find that competitors are beating them in an overall sense of professional user experience and they can flag it up.

Impact of Design Debt

Too much technical debt can slow down the development process and likewise, too much design debt can reduce the selection of new features and slow growth. Existing users find it more difficult and time-consuming to use the product, while new users are frustrated by the learning curve.

As design debt builds, designers will be tempted to exceed timelines and insist on many more revisions to the work than anyone else wants. Designer’s woes grow with their inefficiency. They should focus on bigger impact stuff, but instead, they try to track down and update every small feature.

Even in the case of an established product whose users complain about any change, it will become increasingly difficult to fit-in new features without changing the design.

Common Causes

It is important to regularly refactor the design. Numerous disjointed and unrelated elements in a single field of view, all of which are competing for the user’s attention. Projects that are especially at risk for this commonly include a few of the following characteristics:

Fire drills:

When teams are dealing with aggressive goals and tight deadlines, they’re likely to cut together elements and test them in a quest to quick, short-term wins. This comes at the expense of long-term viability and it incurs substantial design debt. Making sure that you set reasonable deadlines and expectations can be really helpful in this situation.

Competing teams:

Particularly as organizations scale, they may have multiple teams working on different areas of a single product. When these teams suffer from competing goals, conflicting opinions, or poor communication, they’re very prone to build designs that are inconsistent and lack cohesion. Having a clear alignment on design goals, strong leadership, and healthy communication can help solve this.

Feature testing:

When a product doesn’t have a clear direction, teams are more prone to test abundances of features. This is to see what works and what doesn’t work. This is great for closing in on product-market fit, but as more features are tested, more debt is incurred. For early products, this can be avoided and the best remedy is regular refactoring. For older products, there is still room for this

Technical Debt:

Saving on the codebase can also have effects on the integrity of the design. This is especially the case when organizations try to solve infrastructure problems through design. Whenever a design change is recommended, it should first be determined whether or not the problem at hand is best served by a design solution.

Adopting an iterative and experiment-driven process is undoubtedly one of the best ways to learn about an audience and develop a design that truly works. By all measures, designers should be doing more of it. But it’s important to always consider the debt that can be taken on by a design over time, and plan for refactoring as necessary. Talk to our design experts to learn more about design debts.

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