Defining Design Debt and Why You Should Care 


Much like I explain to clients when we talk about website experience issues, no one gets things perfectly the first (or tenth) time. Circumstances change, customers change, technologies change, and the experience is impacted faster than we can modify it. Because of this, almost no experiences exist without technical debt or what we consider design debt.  

Like technical debt, design debt is unavoidable in the fast-paced development environments most of us work in. Design debt is something teams should be aware of when making decisions on priorities, scope, and timing, so that they don’t accumulate more debt. There are ways to identify design debt and minimize it if you have a good toolkit.  

What is Design Debt?

Design Debt is the accumulation of experience issues over time. It is the visible cost of making action the priority, not a cohesive experience. It’s the near twin of tech debt and manufactured in much the same way. It can be something as small as inconsistent button usage on website forms or as big as a clunky flow for managing uploads that wasn’t usability tested. 

What Causes Design Debt? 

Design debt is the by-product of many different things, most of which come down to the speed at which teams move and ever-shifting priorities. Many of the things that we do to lay a strong foundation for decision-making are more than just creating artifacts. They are answers to questions about what goes into this sprint versus next. Whether a proposed change aligns to the pre-defined scope. The inevitable trade-offs when deciding between competing design concepts. 

  • We create Vision maps, Roadmaps, and Experience Strategy Frameworks to provide a north star to rally around. When we forget to look back at these items when making design and development decisions, we potentially take an experience off-course. If you are determining Minimal Viable Product trade-offs, they should be grounded in the Vision.  
  • We advocate for customer research and usability testing to gather first-party feedback. Everything we do should be rooted in serving our customers; and using that as our foundation when determining feature changes and prioritization. Without understanding the customer, you may take on debt that is more impactful to them than you expect. Personas and Customer Journeys are more than just paper.  
  • Design systems provide guidance, rules, consistency, and patterns. Without this governance, decisions can be left in the hands of unfamiliar designers, developers can be held up without a style guide to reference, or a new pattern to fit a use case can be missed because of timing. 

Even with these check and balances, we will still have design debt. There are always going to be times when speed wins out over a beautifully crafted experience, or the data just isn’t there yet to build that desired level of personalization. Experiences undergo a natural decline across their lifecycles, not least of which because of changing technologies and customer needs. Teams don’t (and can’t) always think long-term because they must focus on the short-term to get to a delivery date. 

Why Should I Care About Design Debt?

Design debt is like building a house. When you first start out, you’ve seen the model home. It’s shiny, new, and has all the extras that make it fancy and top-of the line. It’s like our north star vision and pie in the sky prototypes. Even though you see this house is built, furnished, and designed to show all its best features, it’s not rooted in your house. It’s not built for you.  

You sign the contract, set the date, and the contractors start the build. Soon, there is an issue with cabinet and drawer pulls availability, and you must pick different sets. Paint colors must change. Maybe there is an issue with the spacing and you no longer get the oversized walk-in closet you had in the original plans.  

Once the house is complete, you discover your raised plant beds aren’t as high as you wanted, or the outdoor kitchen is missing its separate drinks fridge. It’s your house, and it’s pretty much what you had in the plans. But’s it’s not your dream house. You can always switch out drawer pulls later, and get new paint, hire someone to come in and add the herb garden or drinks fridge. Ultimately though, you aren’t as satisfied with what you got. The team that built the house is also frustrated because they had so many issues. Everyone’s satisfaction is down, and the likelihood that you would recommend the experience or contractor to someone else is less likely than it was at the beginning. Two years later you are even less satisfied, because you still haven’t gotten around to fixing the paint color. 

Design debt impacts our customers and our internal teams in much the same way. Small things leave dents. Big things leave holes. Satisfaction can drop. Sometimes so much so that employees leave, teams are disgruntled, and customers abandon.  

Even so, design debt isn’t always bad or catastrophic. Sometimes it shows growth and innovation and speed of delivery. It’s a natural part of development when products (or websites) grow and change. The issue is rooted in not addressing design debt or trying to mitigate it. Too much design debt can drag the experience (and growth) down, leaving customers with lackluster experiences and people asking for a redesign even though it may not be needed. So, to be most effective you need a way to track design debt, uncover old design debt, and plan to address it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. 

Check back as we continue our three-part series on Design Debt.