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Customer Experience and Design

User Experience Debt: Why, What and How? (Part 1)

shutterstock_289434728_350As a user experience designer, I used to think that the worst designed websites were the best candidates for improvement. Symptoms of user experience debt may sound familiar to you – confusing navigation, excess clicks, accessibility violations, and painful load times. I applied to jobs thinking the larger the UX debt, the greater the opportunity. Perversely, however, the opposite is true.
Why? Because a good site already has the resources – money, labor, and knowledge capital – to improve. A bad site doesn’t.
We may be seduced to believe otherwise when so many elements of web design are free. Responsive frameworks like Bootstrap? Free. jQuery libraries? Free. Stock photography? Free. So it should cost little to transform a bad website into a fully responsive, whizzy experience.
Unfortunately UX debt can’t always be paid with free templates, or extra people or refactored code. This is because UX debt represents more than a lack of resources. It represents the existence of exacerbating conditions. Some examples:
Lack of executive support. Rightly or wrongly, organization leaders may prioritize other activities (e.g., developing new functions) over user experience. You can’t improve UX simply by hiring more designers. The decision-makers in your organization are still there!
Hero mentality. Some designers want recognition as creative geniuses, and tackle every project with visual brainstorming. However, standard UX processes today – including research, usability testing, analytics and multivariate testing – are all about user data and iteration. Brainstorming is an activity, not a strategy. Your designers may be actively generating UX debt by focusing on artistry instead of usability.
Overdesign. Often a design doesn’t lack resources. On the contrary, it may suffer from excess people and ideas. A common scenario is a new feature that could potentially work like X or Y. Stakeholders disagree, then compromise by making X and Y a user setting. The final settings menu has 67 items that’s impossible to navigate. Bigger is not always better. Good design has boundaries. You can actually incur UX debt through addition, not subtraction.
What is the commonality in these examples? I would argue that it’s philosophy, not quantity. Settling UX debt requires a change in philosophy, not just a bigger budget.
The Four Stages of Competence
In psychology, there is a four-step model for learning that can apply to user experience design. These steps include:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – you’re not good at an activity and aren’t aware of it.
  2. Conscious incompetence – you’re not good at an activity but are aware of your limitations.
  3. Conscious competence – you’re good at an activity but need to concentrate and make a conscious effort.
  4. Unconscious competence – you’re so good at an activity that it’s become second nature. You can do it automatically and naturally.

UX debt is incurred in stages 1 and 2. When it comes to unconscious incompetence, some design teams don’t realize what they’re doing wrong. As an example, a well-known company conducted user research for a prototype of a new product. Participants were invited on campus to evaluate the prototype for $50. One question was: “How likely are you to use this product?”
The participants, afraid of insulting their host benefactors, all answered politely and positively. The prototype was thereby declared a success. This research team never recognized the awkward social dilemma that participants faced. (The company is now out of business.)
With regard to conscious incompetence, a design team might acknowledge their UX debt but struggle with planning. For instance, a company runs an outdated website that lacks tablet and mobile support. Should it be adaptive or responsive? And if it’s responsive, should it use Framework A or Framework B?
Organizations should diagnose their UX competence before attempting to pay down UX debt. Self-diagnosis has to come before design diagnosis. Otherwise, resources will be spent on activities like $50 biased interviews that can actually hurt UX endeavors.
The term “debt” itself misleading. It implies that the underlying problem is calculable and transactional. It isn’t, not always. You have a student loan with a specific interest rate that can be paid, given enough money. You can lower your credit card debt by transferring the balance. But even then, people often get out of financial debt through a change in spending habits, not by finding a bag of cash in the street.
Reducing UX debt is the same way. It’s a strategic problem rather than a transactional one. You can’t throw Flat UI or Parallax scrolling at problems requiring changes to organizational culture.
In Part 2 of a future post, I will describe ways to tackle UX debt by using a strategic framework.

Thoughts on “User Experience Debt: Why, What and How? (Part 1)”

  1. Jeff, I appreciate how you’ve identified the human factors (i.e., in this case psychological and behavioral) that cause us to make poor decisions. Looking forward to part 2.

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