What is Design Debt?

ksd. blog | Design Debt

As you know, I like to work in a lean and agile fashion. Something I learned to do five years ago. And since then, I have never looked back.

That being said, lean and agile are not without their challenges. All the experiments, tests, and iterations (repeat, ALL the iterations) can produce some interesting side effects — like design debt.

Design debt is akin to technical debt

If you’re not familiar, design debt is akin to technical debt — the result of repeated efforts to quickly validate and improve over time. Engineers will often sacrifice quality for speed. A fair decision in most cases. But as you can guess, this produces some mangy, and sometimes buggy, code.

Design debt occurs in much the same way, except your visuals bear the brunt. A few buttons may end up with rounded corners while the rest remain square. Alert messages for one user flow will appear dark red, while in another they’re bright. Or you originally designed your nav bar to accommodate five menu items, but now you need nine.

The inconsistencies go on… and like technical debt, if left unattended, your UX will suffer.

Debt can also occur when you neglect a product (say, website) for an extended period of time. Though that’s another kind of debt altogether, which I’ll tackle another day.

Allow design debt, then pay it down

Now, some experts believe that you can prevent design debt. But I gotta level with you, in all my years of designing digital experiences, I have yet to see a product that’s debt free. A better way to look at it is to allow design debt, then work in ways to pay it down.

Especially if you’re experiment driven. Especially if you’re lean. Especially if you’re looking to grow.

And in my next post, I’ll explain how you can do just that.

Until next time,

photo: Nathan Dumlao