UX debt. How come and how to pay it off?

"UX debt" is a big word. But it relates to a recurring story in most large IT projects. You invest in new products and expand the functionality of the old ones, ensuring the growing value of your portfolio. You use new technologies to implement the changes within digital platforms. The results are as follows: a fully-fledged product collection, quickly-served customers, new tech stack. The business is happy. On paper, everything else should also be fine. What you may fail to realize is that without marrying business and usability reassessment these fast changes may undermine how users experience your product.

How come UX debt has accumulated in my organization?

The term “debt” connotes that you owe somebody something. You take something from somebody and at some point fail to pay it back. UX debt appears when you have long-unresolved user experience issues in your digital product that have mounted over time. So, the people you owe, in this case, are your users.

It sounds severe, though. What company would want to generate user dissatisfaction intentionally by gathering open usability shortfalls? Well, it’s not that simple. UX debt tends to creep even into the market- and client-oriented organizations that are relatively forward-looking in terms of incorporating the necessary new tech stack. How does it happen then?

UX debt demystified

UX debt affects large business entities with complex and nonhomogenous user tasks to execute. It accumulates in enterprise products that have many layers, segments, and functionalities. The specificity of such complex apps is shown well in this graphic from the Nielsen Norman Group:

The specificity of complex applications

The specificity of complex applications operating in specialized domains.
Nielsen Norman Group

The bigger the company and the higher the app processes’ complexity, the larger the propensity for UX debt.

💡 Which companies and what type of systems are most prone to UX debt?

  • Enterprises with multi-tiered applications
  • Solutions for specialized users performing wide-ranging, nonhomogeneous tasks
  • Legacy systems that are long in operation
  • Platforms subject to frequently changing ownership
  • Corporate systems affected by high organizational complexity
  • Products with a multitude of domain-specific user activities
  • Applications with multi-phase workflows
  • Organizations processing large amounts of data for user display

So, you know who is at the highest risk of going back on their UX promises. But how do experienced companies end up in this predicament?

  • Software evolution

First of all, incurring UX debt is by no means a short process. UX pitfalls are essentially usability deficiencies that have compiled in an organization over time. They often happen inadvertently, creating unintentional UX debt. This type of debt results from your software being like a living organism: it keeps changing because your organization, clients, and technological environment are also undergoing transitions. What used to work earlier may not be the most viable solution now. If you want to learn about the real costs of maintaining a legacy system, read this article!

The idea that software is subject to change is not new. Meir Lehman captured it well in 1974 as what was later referred to as the Lehman’s laws of software evolution. But in this age of profound digital transformation, it affects your business more acutely than ever before. Apart from UX issues that deter users from using digital products and platform support problems, if outdated, your product may also face maintenance issues, security breaches, and other challenges specific to legacy software.

Lehman also defined another principle that rules software lifecycle and reminds you to reassess your software after some time in operation. The law of increasing complexity stipulates that with the evolution of e-systems, their intricacy increases if not addressed or actively limited.

Lehman’s law of continuing change:
E-type systems must be continually adapted, else they become progressively less satisfactory.

Lehman’s law of increasing complexity:
As an E-type system evolves, its complexity increases unless work is done to maintain or reduce it.

Lehman’s laws of continuing change and increasing complexity in software. Source: Semantic Scholar

How to migrate to newer technologies with business goals in mind? Check for yourself!

  • Business and market priorities

One of the important reasons for UX debt, when looking at the issue from the business perspective, is following only business and market priorities without considering the long-term company strategy and its implications. While business motivations ensure you stay ahead of the competition, they can downgrade your users’ experiences when mismanaged.

Mounting subsequent changes and features added onto the product to satisfy new demands undermines the existing status quo of your app. In this way, you run the risk of reengineering your app for sound business reasons but may end up getting a Frankenstein app in terms of neglected UX as a result. As such, intentional UX debt is not uncommon, but it means that these postponed usability adjustments will catch up to you sooner or later. Users will usually be the whistleblowers of the change, signaling that they don’t know how to navigate the app or finding performance loops in the flow.

Types of UX debt summarizedType of usability debtIntentional UX debtUnintentional UX debtDefinition Loss of a digital product’s usability exacerbated by conscious decisions to prioritize other issues. Loss of digital product’s usability over time caused by the evolution of business, software, and the tech environment. Example Deliberate introduction of new features without usability analysis to satisfy customer requests. Overlooked GUI clutter (e.g., redundant bars or tabs) that went unnoticed, piling up in your app over time.

  • Changing project ownership

Another impediment to achieving your UX deliverables is a loss of knowledge resulting from a provider change, that is, the company to which you outsource your software services. Ideally, when choosing another service provider, you should ensure proper know-how transfer to new internal and external IT teams. It also pays off to stick to one competent IT partner when you modernize your applications. 

In practice, though, these situations are challenging to manage. New teams rarely get the onboarding and access to documentation that they need because such organizational and tech changes happen in a fast way necessitated by pending business needs. Without proper transitioning and change management, your IT teams, tech stack, and specialized expertise are subject to largely uncontrolled exchange.

  • Lack of Quality Assurance

What also prevents users from smoothly interacting with your software is a lack of or inadequacy of Quality Assurance (QA) processes. QA facilitates checking your platforms for bugs hiding underneath your features.

Technical improvements to a company's tech stack

The four types of technical improvements that can be made in a company’s technology stack (Aequilibrium). Source: Toptal.

It also helps determine what percentage of the code is covered by tests and if this ratio is enough for your needs. Undersupply of testers largely affects the whole workflow of your website or application. Poor QA also brings to the fore all the unaddressed or forgotten user experience flaws released to production without a quality check. 

Are errors bugging your users? 🤔 Learn how to deal with these and other UX issues through software modernization!

  • Shortage of up-to-date user insights

Do you stay in the know with your users’ needs? When asked this question, your natural response as an owner of a mature business would probably be “yes.” After all, your company has long been competing on the market for a good reason. But do you actually have proof that you serve your users well? Have you given your users a voice through tests and interviews?

Shortage of up-to-date user insights

It’s often the case that executives mistakenly assume that their experience on the market removes the need for user reassessment as their businesses grow older. Putting your own unverified assumptions ahead of real users’ needs is a grave mistake, however. While usability analysis goes hand in hand with entering the market for startups, it’s equally or even more important for mature enterprises with a solid market standing. Let’s take a look at why that’s the case.

  • Adding bolt-ons without usability analysis

Running a digital business means you need to be up-to-date with technologies and your users’ needs. However simple, this fundamental rule is a valid reason for many UX debt cases in mature businesses. 

First of all, it’s important from the scalability perspective. From a business standpoint, you need new features. That’s what the company’s growth dictates. But would you add new sanitary fixtures on top of old installations without checking if the old ones will work properly? It’s similar when you are bolting new additions to your software. Without a usability reassessment, they may be pointless or even dangerous for the whole system. 

💡 How to ensure proper user calibration in a fintech enterprise that’s about to expand its portfolio?

One of the moments when UX debt gets accumulated is when your organization is entering new markets. To stay attractive for both new and old users, reexamine the added user segments’ effect on user experience. Specifically, make sure your UX design team steers clear of mapping segment A users’ needs onto the expectations of the new ones. Conducting tests with all users will help your teams achieve this goal effectively and get a complete user understanding in these new circumstances.

  • Breaking established user habits

Another angle to the need for constant user analysis is the issue of user habits. Just like your software, your users also keep changing. Their needs and expectations towards elements of your product evolve with time. For example, some of their platform-related habits crystallize over the years and become fixed routines. It's similar to your typical established morning schedule. You get up, wash your face and make yourself a cup of strong coffee. After some time, these habits become so automatic that you don’t even notice them.

Users are subject to an analogous situation – their activities in the system should be seamless. That’s why these established activities may cause your actors to choose specific system paths over others along the user journey.

The problem arises when you disturb their routines by chaotically adding new bolt-ons on top of old well-established features without usability assessment. Such a mess may turn your users' habits upside down, causing them to get confused, thus fundamentally sabotaging conversions. It’s even worse if your user trails were not properly designed to begin with. Then, mounting new functionalities on top of the old mess is a nail in the coffin of bad user experience. So, you can see how a developing business presents you with user experience responsibilities that may turn into risks when unaddressed.

📙 How to upgrade user experience responsibly? Check out this software modernization case study!

What areas does UX debt encompass?

Jack Moffett from UXPin classifies UX debt into five categories: technical debt, functional debt, behavioral debt, visual debt, and documentation debt. This section will use his categorization to show you how you can attempt to divide various usability malfunctions to get a better hold of them.

Behavioral debt

Behavior debt is related to how the User Interface functions in your application or website. When looking at this type of UX debt, try to examine three aspects that affect the layout’s behavior:

  1. the time needed to operate the tools (if your app is old, the operational time may be sabotaged by too many buttons and tabs),
  2. design’s uniformity (whether the layout is unified across app’s segments),
  3. conventions in the UI (established layout consistencies).

📙 How to enhance the usability of a travel-tech solution through software modernization? Check out this case study!

Functional debt

Functional debt is everything that compromises the functionality of your enterprise product. It can cover wrongly assessed priority functionalities or obsolete integrations. Equally so, operational shortfalls can be related to Information Architecture skewed up because of too many added functionalities unaccounted for in the navigation and content. Another factor Moffett mentions is unexpandable UI design. Scalable interface design is what matters most for forward-thinking organizations that can anticipate their growth potential. To accommodate thousands (instead of hundreds) of users, your teams need to build products that function well, regardless of demand peaks. That means creating a flexible interface from the beginning, as André Oliveira notes.

Tech debt

Tech debt is a broad concept of its own. It covers all the neglected technical issues with your software, ranging from poor-quality code to low-performance scores and bugs. To address tech debt, you usually need strong collaboration between developers, QA specialists, and UX designers, as the problem can stem from both the frontend and backend of your platforms. Moffett classifies frontend debt into issues with browser version support, obsolete HTML, framework non-responsiveness, and dirty code. Backend debt, in turn, encompasses problems with performance, hardware, databases, and security. 


Visual deficiencies

Visual debt is connected with the effectiveness of the User Interface (UI) design of your platforms. While visual shortfalls primarily affect how your app or website feels, it often stems from both grave and seemingly innocent mistakes that, when accumulated, create an unpleasant experience and deter users. Let’s take a look at them.

  • Graphical User Interface

As your app gets older, you may find that static UI elements like button bars, borders, or title areas, cover much of the layout, thus compromising your platform’s functionality. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as chrome accumulation, should be avoided, as it limits your ability to render value to paying customers and internal users. Striking this balance between what feels suitable for users and what allows them to perform actions is necessary. 

  • Iconography

While poor iconographic design may seem like an innocent mistake, it can produce much confusion and inconsistency in mature apps. Moffett even argues that it’s the gravest visual debt sin. Nielsen Norman Group warns from making these common icon design mistakes:

  1. Don’t use icons that already have another set meaning.
  2. Avoid using icons that evoke broad, esoteric connotations.
  3. Steer clear of fuzzy-looking icons resulting from bad design.
  4. Don’t use icons repeatedly in lists.
  5. Keep away from using icons that can only be deciphered when they are in a set of icons.
Icons with multiple meanings

Icons with multiple hard-to-interpret meanings. Source: Smashing Magazine

  • Consistency

Visual consistency in color, typography, layout, and style is a category that is indispensable to a quality user experience, according to Moffett. Hence it cannot be overlooked when dealing with UX debt.

Consistency is one of the ten rudimentary Nielsen’s usability heuristics that gets frequently broken.

Nielsen's 10 usability heuristics

Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics

Consistency proves usable and allows users to learn when parts of the design that are alike look in a unified way and function analogously, as Anton Nikolov, a UX Collective contributor, notes.

Usability and learnability improve when similar elements have consistent look and function in similar way.

Anton Nikolov. Source: UX Collective

  • Trends

Moffett argues that trends constitute another factor contributing to poor app visuals. The reason is that users will notice if your app lags behind the competition in terms of look and feel. One example of this phenomenon is flat design that has dominated UX design since the 1950s, replacing the 3D lifelike graphic representations

  • Branding

The fifth contributory factor is branding. According to Moffett, branding is integrally related to cross-departmental communication of the layout changes. The reason for that is, branding is affected by various divisions such as Product Design and Marketing. Therefore, these departments' alterations should be communicated across the organization to ensure they all follow the same Brand Book guidelines.

  • UI copywriting

Last but not least comes copywriting. What is worth your particular attention, Moffett notes, are labels and notifications. Poor UI copy will mislead your users, causing them to lose time finding a solution. Here you will find a few practical examples of UI copy mistakes to avoid:

  1. typos,
  2. unsympathetic error communications,
  3. unlearnable shortcuts,
  4. grammatical errors.
Examples of unhelpful and helpful error communications

Examples of unhelpful and helpful error communications. Source: UX Design

If you would like to learn more about how to write advanced copy, refer to this article. Also, remember that User Interface copy is merely a part of UX writing, and the whole product communication you put forward as a brand matters as well.

Documentation debt

While we often associate documentation debt with code that lacks documentation, a lack of assets inventory can also negatively impact your ability to build on the work of previous teams. An archive of the design team's ideation and steps, UX documentation prevents you from relying only on the finished product for guidelines. Otherwise, your people may end up playing detectives, trying to find the motivations behind the existing UX inventory. What a waste of time that is! In this context, making a record of your UX assets and the reasons for the earlier decisions limits the level of UX debt.

A comprehensive stock of your UX resources should consist of the following elements:

  1. Brief
  2. User personas
  3. User documentation (user manuals, tutorials, user guides, installation guidelines, Frequently Asked Questions, support portals)
  4. Experience mapping
  5. Sketches
  6. Wireframes
  7. Mock-ups and initial versions (prototypes)
  8. Usability testing reports
  9. Specifications
  10. Style guides

At the same time, however, don’t forget about the general strategy which should direct the shape your product will take over the years.

6 best practices for eliminating UX debt once you know you have it

  • Keep stock of UX issues

Put the UX problems into the backlog and monitor both large and small issues. This way, you will not only keep an eye on the number of usability deficiencies that are coming up and their frequency, but, more importantly, you’ll be able to prioritize them later on. Also, keep in mind that many problems focused in the same area may indicate where you need to direct your attention. If one system segment frequently receives calls for help from users, it may be a candidate for a thorough analysis and redesign. 

  • Categorize UX problems into subclasses to facilitate further work

Classifying UX problems that reflect the scale of the work needed and the issues’ effect on your system is indispensable, as you won’t be able to address all UX shortfalls in one or even a few sprints. So, you can go for quick win parts, optimization candidates, redesign elements, or choose another matrix that best categorizes the characteristics of the necessary changes. It’s another essential step before prioritizing the problems and allocating your company resources.

Impact vs. amount of work matrix for classifying UX debt

Impact vs. amount of work matrix for classifying UX debt. Source: Medium

  • Stay eagle-eyed for secondary usability issues

Peripheral UX issues may inadvertently creep into the workflow and pile up. While they seem innocent at first, many small usability mistakes can create a real mess in your interface. Use the same backlog as you utilize for major issues, although you may classify problems according to their priority level – more about that in the next section.

  • Prioritize the importance of UX problems

In the face of tons of feature requests probably coming from your stakeholders, priority setting is an indispensable element of enterprise operations. Breaking down your UX debt issues into classifiable parts will help you prioritize them and create an app modernization roadmap

One of the available tools is a value and effort matrix. This orderly approach to prioritization marries the business and user perspectives to help you identify which usability shortfalls should go to the forefront of your list, as NNGroup states.

Value and effort matrix for prioritizing UX issues

Value and effort matrix for prioritizing UX issues in an organization. Source: Nielsen Norman Group

Another prioritization technique is called MoSCoW. Its name stands for priority categories: must-haves, should-haves, could-haves, and won’t-haves. In this approach, you typically focus on the must-haves and should-haves, whereas could-haves constitute optional elements on the list. Won’t-haves refer to those UX items that your teams will resolve in further development phases.

MoSCoW prioritization technique summarized

MoSCoW prioritization technique summarized

  • Rely on cross-functional teams

“Beware of the inside view,” said Daniel Kahneman once. Extrospection aimed at satisfying user needs is best when you have many viewpoints at your disposal. Therefore, aside from user input, engaging in the usability improvement process with a diverse group of software experts pays off. For example, these could be UX and UI experts, PMs, developers, critical stakeholders, and anyone else you feel can contribute to the shape of your revamped product. The main stakeholders should participate in workshop sessions, while other parties can partake in internal follow-up discussions. If you want to learn more about getting stakeholders on board during software modernization, check out this article!

  • Use UX success tools

Seasoned UX team members use a set of standard yet highly effective tools and techniques to identify the sources of UX debt problems. As a result, product assumptions and ideas made by process participants are verified in the crossfire of user input and critical examination. These insights are an indispensable part of the flow, allowing user experience assessors to propose solid qualitative and quantitative solutions.

UX debt mappingTool, technique, process elementHow does it help solve UX debt? Workshop Showing the business and general strategy aspects that have to be accounted for in the digital platform Stakeholder mapping Identifying the power and communication level needed to satisfy the UX modernization stakeholders App and website analytics Showing statistical patterns and irregularities related to app or website use Usability-oriented surveys Gathering structured user feedback to determine problematic parts of the system Interviews with users Shedding light on real users’ feelings and problems related to the application or website Usability tests Verifying which elements of the platform are not used in the desired way by users and need to be changed Usability audit (aka. heuristic evaluation) Assessing the interface’s compliance with usability principles Tech assessment Revealing the below-the-surface tech intricacies that undermine the system’s functionality

The above toolset is a handy list from which to start resolving UX debt issues, but there are more options, depending on the project’s needs.

Interested in UX tools and techniques? Check out also this detailed article on the topic!

How to manage UX debt to prevent its long-term accumulation?

So, you know UX debt can be a real pain in the neck, as so many different elements have to fall into place for it to be minimized. But is there such a thing as a lack of UX debt? In other words, in this digitally evolving world, can you ever eradicate these UX pains once and for all?

While some would try to convince you that, by using UX strategies, you can entirely eliminate UX debt, they’re wrong. In the face of constantly changing business context, requirements, aging software, tech constraints, and changing user habits, you can never entirely rid your solutions of the user experience pitfalls. It doesn’t, however, mean your struggle is pointless.

Instead, it’s better to adopt the UX debt best practices as a routine, not a one-time medication. This way, you’ll stay aware of the issues at hand to date, avoiding a pile of UX debt in the future. To manage design debt long-term, use our experience-based list of UX debt best practices.

6 best practices for continual UX debt management

  • Keep a UX issues backlog

A backlog is not only a starting point for eliminating usability problems as they unfold. It’s also a viable long-term strategy that allows you to keep a watchful eye on the level of UX debt that you’re accumulating and eradicating in the process of product development and maintenance. You will appreciate what an eye-opener it is, as it reveals how mature your teams are in addressing usability pitfalls in the shackles of daily project routine.

  • Monitor the usability clock

Running a successful business that relies on digital products means getting used to the idea of UX modernization. You won’t escape the fact that you will need to upgrade your platform’s UX regularly. After all, the value of your user experience should grow along with your business. Recognize this change momentum before it calls for a far-reaching platform transformation.

  • Audit your organization for UX maturity level

The user-driven approach to doing business (aka. UX maturity) is one of the most influential characteristics of successful enterprises, as the Design Management Institute research shows. If you are serious about stretching your UX muscle, why not audit your organization for the maturity level? This way you will know your strengths and weaknesses, and check where you are against the competition. You can use the NNGroup’s 6 levels of UX Maturity, which emphasize strategic thinking, organizational culture, the flow, and design results.

Levels of UX maturity

Levels of UX maturity according to Nielsen Norman Group

  • Keep enriching UX knowledge across all departments

If you intend to make a lasting difference to your products’ UX, make sure your teams have the necessary training to put their best foot forward. To level up the UX awareness across your organization, remember to share Product Design knowledge with: Developers, Marketing, QA experts, DevOps teams.

You can also create safe digital spaces for knowledge sharing where teams post their questions and share specific insights daily. If you are into something fresh, you can also create an internal newsletter with UX tips and tricks that capture your unique usability improvement approach.

  • Make iterative software changes, not a big-bang revolution

Make a rule of iterating changes instead of dropping them without prior analysis onto a functioning product. Induce teams’ sensitivity around the consequences of your actions. This way, you will increase usability awareness, making sure software changes are well-thought-out and more reasonable. By doing this you will also avoid scope creep, which often stems from “a lack of foresight and planning”. To stay on the safe side, your teams can use the common iterative design cycle where evaluation and refining in the spirit of continual improvement play a crucial role.

Scope creep, sometimes referred to as kitchen sink, function creep, requirement creep, or feature creep, are changes that cause continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project's goals.

                                        Source: Kate Eby

Equally so, you should create room for regular reviews and usability reassessment audits. Remember that your user base will be growing, features have a proven potential to expand, and these scale-related factors create potential usability loopholes that will get lost in the process if you don’t re-audit your system regularly.

  • Think globally before you make local changes

One of the worst things you can do is add functionalities now and again without giving their overall context any thought. Take this example pointed out by Desiree Johnson. You incorporated all the users wished for, but they still find the product visually distracting. To avoid bad judgment concerning new add-ons, take a bird’s eye view of your system before making any changes. This includes revisiting the whole product workflow and the general strategy, as well as consulting your UI-UX experts against the user insights you’ve gathered. It pays off to examine the user journey against the critical paths to see how well your product serves the users. Taking a holistic approach to UX design may also entail readjusting or tweaking the existing feature components before they call for a much more demanding complete rewrite, as Johnson notes. 

Software modernization strategies

Software modernization strategies

Final thoughts

UX debt is a big and scary-sounding word, but it denotes a common phenomenon where a pile of unresolved usability issues sabotages enterprise customer experience. Allowing your users to become trapped in your product because of poor UX quality is a debt you will have to pay in the end – and with interest. Therefore, try to manage user experience shortfalls not as a one-time improvement project but rather as constant responsibility and long-term commitment on the part of the whole organization.

Hungry for more knowledge? Check out our software modernization content collection full of educational resources!

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