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How to Manage your UX Debt and Not Die Trying

Software developers and managers have been obsessing with tech debt for eons – and for a reason. All the rework and changes that they dismiss with an “I’ll take care of that later” start to pile up. And if they don’t tackle it in time, the pile will eventually come crashing down, wreaking havoc with [...]

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Software developers and managers have been obsessing with tech debt for eons – and for a reason. All the rework and changes that they dismiss with an “I’ll take care of that later” start to pile up. And if they don’t tackle it in time, the pile will eventually come crashing down, wreaking havoc with everything in its path: security updates, patches, new features, and so on. 

Of course, users would flee from any app that doesn’t work as intended or that keeps crashing all the time. Hence the importance of taking care of tech debt. However, that isn’t the only reason why they would turn away from some particular software. In the age of User Experience (UX), people want more than just a working application – they want a satisfying experience while using it.

That’s why the concept of UX debt is becoming increasingly important in today’s development teams. Let’s see why.


What is UX debt?

Basically, UX debt uses the same principle of tech debt to apply it to the design of the product. It’s important to note that “design” doesn’t just refer to the aesthetics of the application itself – it goes beyond that. Design, in this context, is the overall experience that comes from a combination of factors, including the clarity of communication, the usefulness of everything that appears on the interface, the performance, the ease of use, and the accessibility, among others. 

As it happens with tech debt, UX debt is mostly always there. Acknowledging its existence is saying that you’re aware that the UX isn’t the best you can provide to users. However, properly tracking your UX debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it implies that you know you aren’t giving your best but that you intend to tackle the issue later on.

Provided that you take the time to do so later on, that is. Because you can log all the UX debt you find but if you don’t sit down to see how to deal with it later, then all will be for nothing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s review a potential step-by-step process that can lead you to better UX for your products.    


Managing UX Effectively

Adding UX debt management to your development team can (and most definitely will) cause friction. There will surely be tension between product designers and managers. The former might want to pursue the most elegant version possible, while the latter will probably be more focused on making everything work. If you follow designers too much, you might end up with a beautiful piece of nothing. If you go too technical, you’ll end up with the ugliest and most efficient tool around. 

So, it is paramount to take tension into account before going on with the process. Acknowledging that will let you balance between the aesthetics, the features, the performance, and the coding needs. Doing that, of course, will generate UX debt, simply because you’ll have to make sacrifices in that department. What should you do with that? Try following the 4 steps below.


1. Keep a UX debt backlog

Recording the pending UX issues is the right way to track your debt and it’s the foundational stone on which you’ll base your strategy towards a better product. A backlog will work wonders here, as it does with tech debt.

To create it, you have to start identifying the UX debt you incurred when developing the product. There are two possibilities here. You might have made a conscious decision to leave out a certain UX feature because it would have taken a long time to make it work – the famous “we’ll do that later.” But you could also find that some things in your product’s UX are wrong based on post-launch feedback. This means that the team overlooked the problem. 

The two causes require a different approach. Though you’ll have to get to both of those debts no matter what, it’s one thing to make a conscious sacrifice and another one if the team makes a glaring mistake. Creating the UX debt backlog will let you pinpoint weaknesses in your process and refine problems you might not be aware of having. 


2. Prioritize the debt

Depending on how development went down, you might find that you have a small or a huge UX debt backlog. Where to begin? If things are simple, you can tackle them in order of appearance and that’s it. But that’s hardly the reality. Truth be told, UX debt often is a huge pile of things that you need to sort out before getting down to work.

How to sort them out, then? The best possible way is to address the ones that impact your users the most, especially in critical parts of their UX. Say, you might live a little longer with a useful option hidden in a menu tree but you can’t definitely let a confusing form in the payment gateway of a store. While the first may be seen as an annoyance, the second will drive customers away.

As you keep patching things up and releasing new versions, you’ll surely find more items to add to your UX debt. The process of managing that backlog will have you reprioritize the list time and time again, so you’d better be organized and thorough when you do it. Otherwise, some critical issues might fall accidentally to the bottom of the list, where no one will look at them.


3. Take the time to clear up the debt

If you’ve worked in a development team before, you knew this one was coming. Creating an organized backlog and prioritizing it is the right way to go but you won’t go anywhere until you actually sit down to solve the issues your team has found. That’s as true for UX debt as it ever was with tech debt.

The problem is that current development teams often blur the lines between the front end and back end development. This means that seasoned developers with solid knowledge of back development end up working in the front end as well. When it comes time to circle back to pay the UX debt, they might not be the best choice to refine the product. 

The best way to tackle the debt is to do it periodically and with your best front end developers since they’ll be able to grasp the importance of a good front end. If you don’t have one on your staff, it’s always a good idea to augment your team with one during these moments. Revisiting your UX debt with those external pros will let you go over it more quickly while you can also learn some things from them. 


4. Don’t forget about reviews

Another step that might seem unnecessary to some but that will surely pay off is the one where you do design reviews. Sitting down the whole team in the same room to review the whole product will let everyone understand the different aspects that make up the final product. In fact, these reviews can be great for the team to bond over.

Of course, these reviews have two things to consider. First, you might want to use them as formal sendoffs, an official way of saying that the product is ready for launch. Second, it’s highly likely that uniting the whole team to discuss if everything is fine can create certain friction here and there. Don’t dismiss concerns and let everyone voice their opinions. Reviews like these can create great opportunities to foster the company’s culture but also to find hidden improvements.


There’s No Such Thing As No UX Debt

The 4 steps above should keep your head above water and live with a manageable UX debt. Notice that we said “manageable” and not “non-existent” as there’s no possible way you’ll achieve the perfect user experience for any application. There are a couple of reasons for that. 

For one, you’ll never be able to match all your UX desires with the tech feasibility. In one point or another, you’ll have to sacrifice one, creating debt in their respective backlogs. And then there are the shifting UX trends that will force you to adjust as you go, creating more UX debt in the process. 

Since you won’t be able to live without UX debt, you’ll have to develop a skill that doesn’t have a formula – you’ll have to learn how to balance the views of designers, engineers, and users to make everyone happy. That will depend on your particular product, your industry, your target audience, and your own team. It won’t be easy to do, mind you, but being pragmatic and organized will take you a long way. 

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