Have you ever borrowed something from a friend and written them an "I.O.U."? I have. But have you ever written one to the people that use your website, your application, or your online services? No? I didn't think so*.
Most digital products — like websites, apps, and online services — are designed and built with the best intentions. But something happens between identifying a need and delivering a solution. That "something" is an accumulation of User Experience debt, or "UX debt", and it is something of an I.O.U. to your users.
A Brief History of the Term
The term "UX Debt" stems from another financial analogy called Technical Debt coined by Ward Cunningham to describe the hidden, future costs of cleaning up sloppy code and repairing unstable components of software because corners were cut during development. Ward Cunningham also described repaying this debt in terms of refactoring code to align with increased understanding of how the software 'should' function. We're going to apply a User Experience perspective to this concept.
What is UX debt?
UX debt is the quality gap between the experience your digital product delivers now and the improved experience it could offer given the necessary time and resources. Put another way, UX debt measures the number and magnitude of potential product enhancements that would improve the user experience.
In his book Designing for Emotion, Aarron Walter remapped Maslow's Hierarchy of needs to the needs of our users. To paraphrase Mr. Walter: for a user's needs to be met at the most basic level, an interface must be functional. If you can't complete your task, you won't stick around long. Each level of the "functional, reliable, usable, pleasurable" pyramid satisfies different user needs and increases a user's satisfaction with a digital product. UX debt is measured as the distance between the current quality of experience and the target quality.
In talking about UX debt, it's important to acknowledge that it only exists if you believe digital products should be more than just functional; more than just reliable; and maybe even more than usable. While the target quality can vary based on the perspectives of the users, the business, and the project team, I believe it should skew towards user expectations and their desired quality of experience. For now, we'll assume that all perspectives agree on a target quality of "usable".
Classifying UX Debt
UX debt can be classified into two categories: intentional and unintentional. Intentional UX debt is the result of project constraints and deliberate corner-cutting. Unintentional UX debt, on the other hand, is less obvious than intentional UX debt and results from misconceptions about users' needs or users' comfort with technology.
Intentional UX Debt
Intentional UX debt is a result of decisions made based on project constraints. It is common that budget, time, or resource constraints determine which features are included in a digital product.
Sometimes, interaction along critical task-flows goes unimproved because "it works" and there are other, less-critical features to squeeze in before the deadline (that's an I.O.U.). Sometimes, design ideas that simplify user interactions are sacrificed because they are viewed as too complex to implement in the time-frame (that's an I.O.U.). Or, an organizational mantra, like "no customization" or "keep it vanilla," prevents the team from even considering those improvements in the first place (a wicked I.O.U.).
These are realities of the software world. It sucks, but it happens. Priorities are measured and choices are made. When those choices compromise the user experience, the result is UX debt.
There's another form of intentional UX debt that can be harder to spot. It comes from cutting corners and taking the easy way out of design problems. Whether it's an individual or a team, sometimes people look for the fastest solution to an otherwise interesting design problem. They know there are better solutions that will meet the needs of the users more closely, but they would have to work harder for them (that's an I.O.U.). UX debt is created when we take the easy path to avoid the effort required of a better solution.
In both situations — for whatever reason — there is intent to omit a higher quality experience.
Pro-tip: When you hear "we can train them on it," you're incurring UX debt.
Unintentional UX debt
Acquiring unintentional UX debt is easiest when you assume you know your users and can design a product or service without confirming your assumptions about them. For example, when someone says "Why don't we just design it for Joe Public / the average user / my mom and that'll be fine, right?" I cringe, bite my lip, breathe three times, and proceed to politely discuss alternatives to their suggestion. Without understanding the people a digital product or service is being designed for, you may be designing yourself straight into the depths of UX debt (and that's a BIG I.O.U.).
The forgivable way to incur unintentional UX debt is when your understanding of the needs, abilities, or characteristics of a product's users change. For example, let's say your app is designed and built based on what your team knows today. This app delivers a high quality experience that aligns with users' needs and wants. But, over time, users are exposed to more complex interaction patterns in other digital products and their comfort level with technology increases. As this happens, people begin to perceive your app as less usable than, say, a competitor's product which has already adapted to this shift (and that's an I.O.U.). Your users have raised the bar, thereby increasing your UX debt.
Accruing some unintentional UX debt is unavoidable and, perhaps, inevitable as we learn more about how people use our digital products. But there is a risk that these mounting I.O.U.'s will lead to project failure or user rebellion if they go unchecked. The risk increases as more time and resources are invested without some kind of user validation. Fortunately, the threat of UX debt can be reduced with the appropriate research into understanding the people that will be, and are currently, using our digital products.
UX debt is real and every digital product has some to repay. Some of this debt is incurred intentionally because tough decisions have to be made. Some of this debt is incurred unintentionally because assumptions about end-users go unchecked or there are unpredictable changes in the ecosystem.
The important difference between websites, apps, and online services we perceive as usable and those which are not, is that usable digital products have less UX debt than the products surrounding them. They've put in the effort to repay their UX debt and can happily tear up settled I.O.U.'s.
In a future post, I'll discuss some ideas around tracking UX debt and how to transform it into opportunity.
- On UXDebt: Nature & Nuance in Product Design by Will Evans
- Technical Debt (a thorough classification) by Steve McConnell
- UX Design Debt by Ben Melbourne
- The UX of Technical Debt by Glen Lipka