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Why Addressing Design Debt May Be Your Biggest Payoff

Why Addressing Design Debt May Be Your Biggest Payoff

In today's business world, there is inherent pressure to launch faster, engage quicker, and measure sooner for impactful results. The need for speed is characterized by the realistic pressure on businesses to engage customers and users quickly and keep them engaged, because where there is low engagement, there is high churn. There are several innovative methods and tactics in practice in the effort to meet this reality.

The result is swift product development/launch more often. This speed leads to necessary concessions to get to that Day 1. Because, ultimately, it is best to have an imperfect product with demand than a perfect product with minimal demand.

These concessions could affect functionality or, most notably, cause negative user experience (UX). What that leaves us with is design debt.

Design debt is a combination of minimal viable design launches and natural decay. Design debt is all the good and unifying design concepts within the products that were skipped in order to launch faster. It is the win of short-term goals over "sensible" long-term goals. The more design debt that adds up, the more disjointed the final product will be. The consequences of long-lasting design debt are users frustrated by non-uniformity of the latest product and engagement lost.

The way around design debt is to accept it as a consequence of shipping more often. There is no shame in having design debt. The way to deal with design debt is acknowledging it and having a method of dealing with it before it becomes debilitating.

The following tips are recommended for handling design debt.

[Related: What You Need Now: Making the Digital Leap in Response to COVID-19 and Beyond]

1) Build a basic governance framework for reviewing design debt and moving fixes into future sprints.

This governance framework does not need to be complex. In fact, it is preferable that it is not. The key is to have a process for the maintenance of a design log, the review of items for implementation, the acknowledgement of the consequences of design debt, and the ability to see the bigger picture in the aim for user experience excellence.

2) Consolidate design patterns.

What are the core design standards for the product regarding font, font size, colors, and button placement? This is essentially gathering a comprehensive library for design and visual branding. The aim is to be able to quickly solve design issues with known design components.

3) Consider numerating the cost of design debt.

Often referred to as the "cost of delay," this means calculating the cost of postponing fixes. The cost can include projected loss in sales and likely customer churn.

[Related: Why CEOs Need to Prioritize their Employer Brand]

4) Review the log of known and suspected design debt items.

The log may contain elements such as description of defect, frequency, impact, priority, source, and experience level or conditions necessary for fixing.

5) Identify and tackle fixes in small pieces, focusing on individual elements.

Realistically assess what can be done holistically to address items in upcoming sprints and which items can be saved for future sprints. The goal is to address design debt incrementally and gradually without items taking significant effort and time away from priority sprint items.

6) Implement learnings.

Assess and add any learnings to the design library, governance, or sprint allocation tactics. This results in continuous improvement.

In summary, design debt has the power over time to significantly degrade your user experience. The goal is to face design debt realistically, while still maintaining high productivity of code deployment.

Design debt is best framed as an opportunity, a chance to save effort and time and increase customer engagement. As with any new process, revisit the process and make continuous improvements, validating your time and effort in a cohesive product and engaged customers.

[Related: How to Maintain Top-Notch Customer Service While Your Company Rapidly Grows]


Michelle M. Campbell is a global program and project manager experienced in managing strategic programs/projects aimed at revenue growth, cost reduction, client satisfaction, governance, and transformation at business and enterprise levels. You can find her management musings at

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