Design debt - find it, manage it and pay it off

Design debt - find it, manage it and pay it off

Coined by Ward Cunningham, 'design debt' is all the good design concepts of solutions that you skipped in order to reach short-term goals. It’s all the corners you cut during or after the design stage, the moments when somebody said: “Forget it, let’s do it the simpler way, the users will make do.” In this blog post, our Lead Product Designer, Andrew, explores ways in which you can manage and pay off your design debt

Andrew Cox
Andrew Cox Lead Product Designer

I have money debts, here and there for different things, nothing massive but enough that it’s a bit of a pain and over the years I’ve had to make a financial plan and keep refining that plan to make sure I’m chipping away at it to get it as low as I can and keep it there. That being said, I’m safe in the knowledge that some level of debt is inevitable, an emergency happens where you need to fix something in the house, or you definitely need to go for a holiday in the sun and you need to borrow a little bit to cover it. 

Change all the money parts of the paragraph above to design work and you have design debt.  

What is design debt? 

I’ve been a designer across many disciplines for a decent number of years now, I love the design industry in all its forms but when it comes to software development, I’m happy to admit that design is maturing a few years behind development itself. The good news is we’re catching up, we now have more new job titles including ‘product design’ which used to be reserved for people who made stuff you could sit on or eat at. If there’s one thing, we designers are good at is taking inspiration from others and building on it for ourselves, it’s part of our charm and how we help to move businesses and the world in general forward. 

So, we see your technical debt and we raise you design debt. 

The term was coined by Ward Cunningham, who realised that cutting corners and releasing software too quickly can result in additional costs (interest) after the product is launched. Even though time, money or both are saved upfront to build the software later the debt would come back after them, as all debt does. 

Design debt is all the good design concepts of solutions that you skipped in order to reach short-term goals. It’s all the corners you cut during or after the design stage, the moments when somebody said: “Forget it, let’s do it the simpler way, the users will make do.” 

How does design debt build up? 

Design debt is pretty much inevitable, but how are we going to keep it as a holiday credit card rather than a home repossession? 

Design debt often starts as what feels like small things, trivial design problems that won't cause a huge problem later right? Wrong I’m afraid, the debt that they cause builds up and can lead to what’s been called the marginal degradation of brands. Bad Interfaces and user experiences, no matter how small, collect in the subconscious of the users which over time causes them to trust the product and the brand less. Which in a world of many alternatives means the potential of losing customers. 

So, we need to take care of those small things as much as we can to ensure they don’t grow into a bigger problem. Exploring the possibilities early in the process means we can hopefully get a good picture of what’s to come, tackle the important things quickly and plan for anything we can’t. Regular design reviews and user testing help in a big way to keep an eye on any debt that’s building up. 

What projects are at risk of getting themselves into too much debt? 

We know design debt to some degree is inevitable and that just like money debt management is the key to success. Just like a bank manager we now need to see if we can start to spot the people that are going to be high-risk lenders. 

All processes aside every project and customer is different so getting to know them, and their goals and talking about design debt up front is going to help any project be a success, but here are a few things to look out for: 

  • Starting a project based mostly on assumptions. 
  • The project scope or goals aren’t clearly defined. 
  • Short-term goals with no long-term plan. 
  • Arbitrary short deadlines are in place. 
  • There is no plan for further phases of work. 
  • No user testing is planned. 

Making debt manageable 

Let’s keep our design debt in check.  

Wherever your design debt is coming from either intentional or not it should be making its way into a prioritised list that your team can start to work through. 

Personally, I find giving each ticket a t-shirt size for the amount of effort and the amount of effect it will have on the users starts to give you a good idea of your priorities. 

Carving out the time to pay off your debt is a big one, putting aside a portion of design and development time each sprint to discover, document and fix design issues will keep improving the product.

Andrew Cox
Andrew Cox
Lead Product Designer

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