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The price of UX debt is only getting higher

The price of UX debt is only getting higher

Awareness of the benefits of user–centred design is growing, something we are consistently reminded of as clients come to Fathom with more informed enquires and specific requirements.

Sadly, as demand for user experience research and design increases so too does the potential for work that is anything but user–centred to be delivered under the guise of UX. Without a explicit commitment to the needs of the user as the overriding design strategy on a project, underlying problems will remain, and these cannot be addressed through sheer force of Photoshop. This is a constant potential pitfall for clients who know may know what to ask for, but not what to expect.

A lack of adequate research and analysis of user needs creates debt – UX debt as it has been referred to. And, just as technical debt gives way to software entropy, so too will UX debt will yield its own poor returns in terms of usability and engagement. Errors and oversights made in the early stages of any digital project will gain compound interest over time. Then at some point, that debt will be paid by the business or organisation – almost certainly not at a time of their choosing, and likely to be in the form of failed conversions, lost leads, or diminished credibility.

The more a design process is driven by pure aesthetics, or brand, or the sheer whim of a designer or developer, the further off course the project will be when it reaches customers. And when the initial euphoria of a new website launch dissipates, when the invoices have been paid, when the flush of the first couple of months of declaring “we have a new website!” have all gone, what will be left will be performance… or lack of it.

Then slowly – painfully – a realisation will dawn that the only way to pay the UX debt is to redesign and redevelop once again. Often this will be articulated as a need for a ‘redesign’, a fresh lick of paint, where mistakes are compounded while the underlying problems remain. 

As Ryanair found out during its share price problems last year, lack of attention to the real issues of user and customer experience will eventually hit the bottom line. Customer and user expectations are soaring, as online services become more sophisticated. The gamble that you take in not addressing user experience comprehensively is not a gamble at all; the dice are loaded. No matter how polished the graphics are, no matter how prominent the Chairman’s message on the homepage is, no matter how much space is dedicated to that Twitter account showing how ‘switched on’ the business is, users are left feeling that maybe this isn’t the website – or organisation – they want to do business with.

A user–focused design process provides an organisation with all it needs in PR terms, where the message moves on from “we have a new website!” to “we have a new website that has been designed around you, our customer’. Which is not only a much more compelling message to communicate, but represents a more profitable strategy overall.



Photo by Alon / CC BY

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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