Uncovering Design Debt


Part 2 of our series on Design Debt. Read part 1 here.

I recently read something that really resonated with me – if you don’t have any design debt, you haven’t been listening or growing. I love that. Design debt isn’t great, but not having it may be worse.

So how do you identify the design debt you have? How do you track it and measure it? I guarantee if you asked your design team, you could get an answer of the top three things they wish they could fix – whether it’s list cleanup and standardization to a task flow that doesn’t feel right. As CX designers and strategists, those things stay in our minds, those paths we took based on compromise or the areas that didn’t get enough attention the first (or third) time around. You just need to take the time and gather the tools to take a good look.

How to Identify Design Debt

Outside of that mental list your design team has, the best thing to do is pick a point in time and build out a list of design areas you want to track and prioritize. Most tools used to uncover design debt center around the types of design debt you may have – Visual (visual design), UX (interaction design), and Operational (how you work). Some cover more than one area. You probably won’t find everything with one method or one pass, so running multiple iterations is beneficial.

Heuristic Evaluation

A heuristic evaluation is an expert review of a site or product, using best practices as a guide. Typically, these cover all areas of a site, but you can target the evaluation to specific areas if needed. We utilize several types of heuristic evaluations, from an end-to-end review to options focused on checkout or site search. At the end of the evaluation, you have a list of experience issues of all sizes, impacts, and priorities that you can later catalog into a working backlog or project roadmap. These issues can fall into the visual and interaction design list. In my opinion, it’s one of the best ways to get your design debt list started.

Usability Testing

Usability testing, while focused on a particular task or area, often uncovers new issues. Running some quick usability tests is a great way to keep track of potential design debt that can manifest for visual, interaction issues, or feedback on feature bloat or missing features.

Customer and Team Feedback

Gathering feedback usually gives you an excess of new entries for your design debt list. Customers will usually let you know how they feel, and keeping track of their responses is a great way identify new items to address. Team members can be asked to give feedback on their recent work and projects that can be evaluated for process issues. You can gather this feedback many ways, from interviews to surveys to focus groups. Even if what you gather is not something to put on the list, it will provide direction.

Visual Evaluation

Designers can run an evaluation of the site much like a heuristic evaluation. They can determine inconsistencies, outliers, and areas that need finesse by walking through the site and observing the visual elements used. These usually sit firmly in the visual category, but it’s not uncommon for these evaluations to uncover areas that might need another look from an experience perspective. We like to do these evaluations when setting up design systems, but they are handy for reviews during projects as well.

Satisfaction Surveys

Much like gathering feedback, these surveys, which can often consist of just a few questions, are focused on customer and team satisfaction. You can use the results of these surveys to find direction, especially when mining for process issues.

Key UX Metrics

There are several key metrics that you can track to measure application or website performance. Fluctuations in this data can indicate areas where issues reside. We use certain metrics in our evaluations to identify critical areas to investigate. Metrics to watch may change based on the age of your application, the level of complexity, customer segments, and more. Some metrics to watch are satisfaction scores, engagement metrics like Page Views, Time on Page, and Conversion Rate, and usability metrics like Task Success and Time on Task. Using the history of the application to help decipher what the data means is key.

Using one or more of these methods (plus that helpful list your design team is sure to give you), should provide a list of areas that need to be addressed to reduce design debt. Don’t forget, your application /site is ever evolving and so are your customers. Meet as a team regularly to talk about design debt and how to address it.

But first, before you design, what do you do next? How do you decide what to tackle first? Just because you have a list doesn’t mean you miraculously have time to address the problems…so you prioritize.

More about this in part 3 of our series.