How to decide which Design Debt to fix and incorporate it into the roadmap without causing friction.
If your team has already built a common understanding of the Design Debt types, its state, and its impact on the product; the next step is to set up a plan and pay off the excess Design Debt.
The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable strategy for incorporating Design-Debt-related items in teams’ roadmaps to minimize friction and ensure efficiency. The whole process can be divided into the following steps:
The first stage of the process is about auditing your product and processes to spot the Design Debt and gain an understanding of its scale and impact.
Correctly recognizing what classifies as Design Debt and what is just a poorly designed experience is key. When focusing on Design Debt, many teams tend to over-recognize it and unnecessarily associate it with too many issues.
According to its definition, Design Debt is built over time by adding multiple layers of changes. It results in introducing, often unintentional, imperfections in experiences and processes. Design Debt is a consequence of innovation, iterating, and growth.
You can think about accumulating Design Debt as adding layers on top of each other over a period of time. They are somewhat similar and, from far, seem to create an acceptable level of harmony. However, when looking carefully, the misalignment and big gaps became visible.
Work with your team to find out how your product and processes are affected by Design Debt.
You can start by using a simple spreadsheet containing the following fields for every issue: title, description, size, product area, dependencies (on other teams and features), impact, and urgency.
After analysing all the issues with your team, move away from the spreadsheet and create an official space to keep track of all the Design Debt issues.
I recommend forming a separate backlog (or a separate column within the existing Design Team backlog) for Design Debt issues in addition to gathering them to individual teams’ backlogs. The goal is to analyze Design Debt issues as a whole if needed. In addition, consider labeling them as ‘design-debt’ and with the type of Design Debt (UX, visual and operational) for clarity.
In this phase, the goal is to get to the root of the issue. Always try to think broader and deeper about the cause to avoid fixing the surface-level problem. When in doubt, you can perform usability testing and other types of research to determine the underlying causes.
When auditing Design Debt, your team will encounter all sizes of issues: from small color updates to the whole flows that need redesign. There is no absolute measure for Design Debt — neither for principal, nor interest. The best way I found for estimating Design Debt issues is t-shirt sizing — from S to XL:
The estimation should take into consideration the effort needed (both design and research) and the breadth of areas impacted by the change. The t-shirt sizing applies to estimating operational Design Debt as well. Instead of thinking about the product, consider how the process affects the team and how it engages different levels and functions in the organization.
The second stage is about determining which issues are worth addressing and incorporating them into the teams’ roadmaps.
The main goal is to identify high-impact items (quadrants I and II) — those that significantly contribute to improving key areas of the product (or key processes), unblock teams to deliver on planned features faster or prevent Design Debt from growing exponentially and blocking teams in the nearest future. Analyzing the impact of the issue is connected to both design and product strategy and should be done within the triad (PM, EM & PD).
Related read: Dani Nording proposes an alternative classification: quick win, UX optimization, and redesign.
You can use this as an alternative or complementary method. It’s an approach used usually for prioritizing product work but it can give an additional understanding of Design Debt issues. The objective is to find the most impactful project: things that customers ask about frequently, are currently dissatisfied with, and that would solve their major pain.
I recommend ‘The Lean Product Playbook’ for more information about this method of prioritizing.
The urgency defines the relationship between the Design Debt issue and the planned development. It helps understand the possible negative consequences and mitigate the risk.
An issue is the first step in the process of paying off the Design Debt. It needs to describe the problem clearly and help decision-makers incorporate it into the roadmap. I recommend using the template (feel free to copy mine) that includes the following sections:
Here’s an example UX Design Debt issue that shows how to apply the template in practice.
Selecting Design Debt issues to work on is a complex process with many factors that need to be taken into consideration. Generally, the rule of thumb is to fix the Design Debt when:
In the ideal scenario, we would see the following timelines that clearly show the time saved by fixing Design Debt in the long term:
The final decision comes down to what is more beneficial: maintaining the Debt and continuing with new development or paying off the Debt now and waiting longer for new work. It’s important not to operate in a vacuum: analysis needs to be done from the design and product standpoint as well as from the engineering perspective. Some issues are dependent on existing technical debt or are challenging to fix technically and it’s crucial to consult your engineering partners.
Fixing Design Debt always competes for resources with the ongoing product work. We tend to understand the opportunity cost only as missing out on potential benefits (like closed deals or introducing new features and making customers happy) because of choosing to fix the debt at a given time. It’s important to remember that there is an opposite side to this coin as well:
The opportunity cost is not only what we miss out on when paying off Design Debt (like undelivered or late features). It is also what we would experience as a consequence of not paying off the Debt: longer delivery, poor experiences and missed chances.
Paying off Design Debt needs to become an ongoing conversation between business, design, and engineering as much as technical debt is currently.
To keep an eye on the progress, during the quarter:
At the end of each quarter:
Celebrate wins publicly within your company in order to emphasize the impact of fixing Design Debt. It facilitates the culture change towards a more conscious approach and sets the stage for getting buy-in for future initiatives.
There are 3 categories of impact we’re usually looking to make when starting the initiative of paying off the Design Debt:
Please note that those are general areas of impact for the whole Design Debt initiative. Every smaller issue incorporated in the plans should have specific metrics that are defined and tracked separately by respective teams.