Moving quickly comes at a cost for product managers and product designers, and that cost is UX debt. Compounding UX debt is the source of many users’ and designers’ frustrations, lessening utilization & engagement over time.
What’s the cost of moving fast and hitting quick deadlines? UX debt. Typically, this type of debt will accumulate under any methodology and within any project where the timeframe is sped up at the cost of putting users first. Centering product designers, product managers, and teams on users can be a timely task, but also, it’s generally a necessary one. Some forms of UX debt are unavoidable, but as it goes, many teams are working at a pace accruing a mountain of UX debt that seems nearly impossible to summit. Working fast does not necessarily mean working smart.
What is UX debt?
Most product designers and product managers are familiar with the term technical debt, and this definition can be easily borrowed and affixed to user experience. UX debt is the cost of having to go back and fix problems stemming from quick iterations and hastily sped-up projects. Debts like these can accrue quickly as they go ignored until there is a significant problem that sheds light on a foundational issue – and then, the focus turns from iterating and innovating to fixing a problem that generally could have been avoided in the first place. Here are some common examples of how UX debt can accrue:
- Skipping user research
- Discounting brand guidelines & style
- Lack of alignment over a product’s vision
- Too many people getting involved in the design
- External product acquisition & mergers
- Poor communication & lackluster documentation
- Inadequate QA testing
- • Working within a legacy framework
When it comes to UX debt, product designers and product managers should do their best to avoid accruing it – coding the UI & UX right the first time will always be the most cost-saving and easiest option. The problem with foregoing proper UX & UXR best practices leads to subpar products & experiences. Further delays of fixes will accustom users to navigating poor experiences, and then when you do fix these foundation issues, users will be coerced to change their habits. Changing users’ habits can lead to an overall negative experience even if the fixes are a significant improvement.
Like all debt, UX debt compounds significantly over time. Seemingly minor issues quickly become major problems with time. It’s crucial to pay UX debt sooner than later — the future of your product relies on it.
Uncover UX debt.
UX debt commonly accrues during quick and careless launches — most often, it can be found within:
- The UI of a product: think buttons, links, and the overall style;
- Interaction design: inter-page actions & flows, animations, and scrolling;
- Content design: incongruous messaging in labels, headlines, and body text;
- Information architecture: think of how users navigate your products and where they would expect to find information;
- Accessibility: think of how this product may sound on screen readers, visual helpers, alt-text descriptors & so much more.
Paying off UX debts.
Like financial debt, the longer you let UX debt pile up, the longer it will take to pay down. This should not scare product designers and product managers away from tackling it, but they should be realistic about timelines and changing the actions, thoughts, and decisions that had led them to compile these UX debts in the first place.
1. Get started with user research.
UX debt often piles up when product designers and product managers focus on hitting a deadline or working within impractical project constraints rather than creating user-centered products and experiences.
With the advent of remote UXR, tackling UX debt is becoming much easier to get to the bottom of what is driving the most UX debt within an experience or product. Product designers and managers can get started with real user feedback. Implementing an ongoing testing schedule with real users will not only improve the overall health of an experience, but it will help teams identify, prioritize, and solve serious issues. This ongoing testing should focus on significant user flows and tasks that users frequently do.
2. Create & maintain a UX debt inventory.
Generally, UX debt accrues when teams move quickly and forego formalities like tracking, recording, and road mapping projects. The first step to creating a UX debt backlog is to get to the root source of what is causing the debt. Once this is identified, the causes should be listed and prioritized within a shared spreadsheet. These causes should be openly discussed to avoid the repeated actions and behaviors that led to the UX debt.
Product managers will be wise to identify the correct roots. This may take some time — overhauling practices, instilling new protocols, changing methodologies, and kicking off projects and sprints more thoughtfully. Further, some product managers may be interested in an audit that would expertly investigate a product’s usability, user journeys, and user experience.
3. Prioritize fixes realistically.
Product managers and product designers should meet with their wider teams to prioritize issues and discuss realistic timeframes for fixes. Firstly, teams will need to assess how different debt is impacting the user experience and engagement. Then, they will need to prioritize what should be done first. This is done by determining which fixes would be most crucial to improving usability and experience. Once the team identifies these critical fixes, the product team can start to roadmap how they will fix these.
Generally, time is a significant factor in UX debt. Every company wants to move as quickly as possible, and even when they are moving as quickly as possible, they would like to move even quicker. With that in mind, the goal of getting out of debt generally involves slowing down and working intentionally. Product managers should be realistic; UX debt takes time to pile up and will take more time to pay down. Product teams don’t need to forego iterative work and focus solely on debt, but they should implement as many UX debt tasks as possible. Some teams may add a few tasks or days dedicated to clean-up within each sprint, while others may simply run a few iterative-focused sprints and then run a sprint solely focused on cleaning up as many UX issues as possible.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting ahead of your UX debts. Product managers and product designers should feel empowered to pay down these debts and see these tasks as having a significant influence over the future of the product.