Design Debt - Where It Comes From and How to Manage It
What is design debt and how does it impact your product and teams? Learn why design debt is technical debt and what you can do to manage it.
June 9, 2022
Head of Design
The technical debt that creeps slowly into your product is a little like a water leak along the foundation of your home. Left unaddressed for too long, a leak erodes the structural integrity of your house, leaving rot and damage in its wake.
Some things seem easy to ignore—until they aren’t.
Working in product and tech you already know this is true of technical debt… It’s also critically true of design debt.
Smart product leaders know they must recognize and understand design debt to manage it properly.
What is design debt?
Design debt is the lesser-known cousin of technical debt. While technical debt impacts the integrity of your product’s codebase, design debt impacts the integrity of your user experience.
Design debt refers to all the imperfections in your product UX and design processes that accumulate over time as a result of development, innovation, and the lack of design refactoring.
Ward Cunningham, a pioneer in agile methodology, coined the term by defining it this way:
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.”
Cunningham’s definition is a little flippant, and implies that design debt is a result of only shortcutting. However, design debt comes from other places as well.
How design debt can hurt your product, users, and teams
UX design debt alienates your users
The more your design debt adds up, the more disjointed your product becomes, and the more frustrated your users will eventually feel. Bad user experiences, no matter how small, aggregate.
Your customers will project the quality of your UX interface onto your brand, even if they only do so subconsciously. When they perceive your UX interface as inconsistent or clunky, their trust in both your product and your brand erodes. This is true even if the design debt in your product doesn’t hinder its functionality. Just like a dent on a car might not impact its performance, it does impact the vehicle's perceived value.
Lower trust or value perception among users results in lower engagement. Lower engagement results in users who leave and never return, and perhaps even leads to those users telling others not to try your solution.
Design debt can drain your teams
Design debt piling up also becomes a major frustration for your developers and designers. It is demoralizing to work on products that have high design debt.
Why? Because simple things like changing the copy across multiple pages to be consistent can take up a whole day! It never feels great to work on a project that takes so much time for such a small task. Nor does it feel good for developers and designers to try to explain to management and product teams why it takes so long to redress issues that could have been avoided.
Creating a mentality in your organization that prioritizes planning in order to avoid as much design debt as possible goes a long way toward protecting your team’s morale and lessening employee turnover.
Where does design debt come from?
Design debt is natural and happens to every product. It’s a side effect of growth. However, left unchecked it can quickly balloon into an unwieldy, costly drain on your time, resources, and customer experience.
How it starts
Think of it this way: When a new design is born, it is debt-free. A brand new design is cohesive. Each element in the design is aware of every other element. The header is aware of the CTA, the CTA is aware of the navigation, the navigation is aware of the embedded video, the video is aware of the form and the social feed, and so forth. The elements are all connected, which creates a sense of consistency across the entire design experience.
New designs don’t remain stagnant. While they may excel initially in cohesiveness, they also have room for intended optimization. As data is collected on the new design’s performance, new areas are identified for experimentation.
New elements of a design are tested against the original. As experimental variations win, those new elements are integrated into the design. This is good because you are ultimately improving the design, but it is not cost-free. This is where design debt begins to occur.
How it grows
The reality is that no matter how hard developers try, new elements introduced to an existing design don’t share the same awareness of the original elements. The more a design evolves, the more disjointed it can become. Design debt accrues interest that compounds over time.
Eventually you have to pay down the debt by refactoring the design.
Designs that are not regularly refactored end up looking like a digital version of an airport food court. There are voluminous and disordered elements all in a single field of view competing for your user’s attention, offering different values, and trying to solve different goals.
While some design debt is inevitable, there are certain scenarios that almost always unnecessarily inflate your design deficit. Scenarios you want to avoid.
7 common causes of design debt
1. Feature testing with no direction
If your product roadmap isn’t clear, you are more likely to test many features to see what sticks with your users. While this might seem like a good way to close in on your product-market fit, it can create a lot of design debt along the way.
2. Lack of budget and time
When receiving a new feature request from your product team, your design team may jump right into building because timeline and resource restrictions do not allow for a slower planning process. As a result, that new feature might establish new design patterns or new elements that are not necessary.
3. Disjointed teams and unclear handoffs
If you have multiple teams working on different areas of your product or are outsourcing any design initiatives to an agency, you increase the risk of design debt. Without clear handoff and communication processes in place, disparate teams can suffer from conflicting opinions, competing goals, and inconsistent leadership.
4. Fire drills
If your teams are rushed with aggressive goals and tight deadlines, they are more likely to hack together quick fixes. Setting reasonable expectations and deadlines helps avoid incurring extra design debt from pressured sprint cycles.
5. No style guide or design system in place to guide your work
For example, I recently audited a UX design built by two different designers. In different user flows one designer had used the language “Complete,” while the other had used “Finished” on the confirmation screens. Using a design system and/or style guide will eliminate these types of occurrences, saving you design debt and time.
6. Your style guide or design system isn’t regularly updated
Design systems and style guides are critical tools. They can proactively protect you from unnecessary design debt but only when there’s a robust governance strategy in place to keep them up to date.
7. Accessibility isn’t being checked and maintained
If your team doesn’t set definitions for accessibility early on in the design process, you will accrue design debt in this area. To adjust an entire design later for accessibility requires substantial changes, especially if you're not leveraging a design system or Figma UI kits.
How to tackle design debt and plan ahead
You cannot avoid design debt entirely. There will always be instances where borrowing against the integrity of a design makes sense.
The key is to maintain healthy levels of design debt and proactively plan to pay down debt as it incurs. Planning makes all the difference.
Take time to understand each new feature with pattern audits
Unpacking how a new feature impacts the entire product before you build it avoids wasted time and effort later. Running quick pattern audits in the existing product will show if new features establish new patterns that aren’t necessary or break working patterns.
You might even find existing functionality that already delivers value close to a new feature request. In that instance, with slight adjustment you can likely make that existing feature meet the business goal rather than introducing something totally new.
Plan refactoring and redesign into your pipeline
It is in the best interest of your product and your team to establish regular refactoring and redesign as part of your work philosophy. Build time into your sprint cycles to continually audit and polish your product. Teams who work with this mentality continually manage their design debt a little at a time and don’t risk burnout from massive overhauls.
Perform regular design and design system audits
Auditing is a critical part of governance across every discipline in a B2B SaaS company. When it comes to product design there are two types of audits you should regularly schedule and conduct:
Design audits (or UX Audits) analyze the visual elements and information architecture of your product. A design audit reveals inconsistencies and pain points that might hinder users. At the end of each audit you will have a list of items to clean up.
Your design audit should always include the following:
Design system audits analyze your UI component library, storefront, and operations documentation to ensure they are consistent. A design system audit should also consider adoption rate across your development and design teams.
Design debt can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be
Whether you are just beginning to create a new design or already have significant design debt, your team doesn’t have to face this problem on its own. In the same way you might need a restoration expert to help resolve water leaks before they open into sinkholes, there are services that can identify and resolve your design debt before it swallows you whole.
At Headway, we often perform comprehensive design and design system audits for clients. After helping teams scope the deficit they are facing, we prioritize the issues to resolve moving forward and create a scalable governance plan to avoid debt piling up so much in the future.
You can learn more about our philosophy on product strategy, development, and design by exploring the results we’ve helped clients attain or by booking a free consultation with our team.
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