How to Avoid Falling Into Design Debt

August 3, 2022
How to Avoid Falling Into Design Debt

Cutting corners in order to save resources (time and money) often comes with disastrous consequences. The only way to remedy these consequences is to backtrack to a moment in time before the corners were cut and invest the resources that should have been invested to begin with. In a way, this is like paying back a debt, which is where the term “design debt” comes from. However, any resources wasted on failed attempts incurs interest on the debt, ironically making design debt quite a costly mistake.

Luckily, all design debt is avoidable. In this article we’ll look at some examples of design debt, how designers fall into these traps and how to avoid them with the right tools and mindset.

Design Bloat

It’s important to keep design files clean and organized, otherwise redundant layers and inconsistent styles build up. Eventually, this makes design files harder to use and the designs themselves bloated and visually confusing. During handoff, design bloat becomes code bloat, making development unnecessarily more difficult. It’s like a chain reaction of unfortunate events.

While messiness causes anxiety for some designers, others seem to thrive in chaos. However, pressure to deliver is the main reason why some handoffs can seem so careless. Either way, when it comes to cleaning up design files, doing so along the way (or at least before each handoff) is the most efficient approach, despite how tempting it can be to borrow time by intending to tidy up later.

Regardless of what UI design tool you’re using, there are ways to easily bulk-select, rename, reorder and delete layers/styles.

Although Sympli Handoff can translate designs to code and facilitate back-and-forth comments when issues and questions arise, the best design handoff is an organized one that makes sense immediately.

As designs mature, they become harder to maintain. In order to keep design files simple and maintain visual consistency, you’ll want to reuse certain styles and components where it makes sense to do so. For designs that are more complex, you might even want to consider organizing them into a design system. Use Sympli design systems to house your design’s color styles, text styles, grid styles and fonts so that designers are less inclined to contribute to design bloat.

Lack of Research Data

Design is a process. This means that some design operations (like research) can’t be carried out retrospectively once the opportunity to do so has been missed. As an example, a lack of UX research could not only result in a bad user experience, it could also leave us without a roadmap to get us back on track.

Unfortunately, the best solution in these types of situations is to start over completely. It’s a very expensive mistake to make either way.

Pressure to deliver and lack of research experience are two reasons why teams skip research, however, the most common reasons come down to several misconceptions. Typical excuses (that should be avoided) include:

  • “Research is too expensive”
  • “We already know what our users want”
  • “We don’t need research because we have analytics”

In the long run, taking things slow and embracing research gets products to the finish line faster and in a more predictable manner. It also prevents teams from wasting all of their available resources on a single attempt at shipping a product.

Use Sympli for design reviews. Grab feedback from stakeholders familiar with the users’ needs, using contextual comments to discuss critical concerns. When necessary, Sympli’s Slack, Jira and Azure integrations can help teams organize and document the results of research tests and studies.

Skill Gaps

Nowadays, the role of a designer is more complex. Users expect accessibility, usability, privacy and a consistent visual experience (to name just a few things). It’s not rare to see teams with accessibility advocates, data protection experts, design system specialists and so on, and when something is critically missing, this is referred to as what’s called a “skills gap.”. Rather than hire the right talent/enough talent, companies say things like:

  • “Just Google how to do …“
  • “We’ll think about … later“
  • “We’ll hire more staff when … happens“

Naturally, when designers don’t have the skill, time or bandwidth to carry out certain tasks, this leads them to cut corners. It’s important to consult with existing talent about what’s missing since they’re best equipped to identify skill gaps. The cost of having designers do jobs they don’t know how to do (or having them not do the job at all) is way too high.


Design debt is most often caused by design bloat, lack of research data or skill gaps, so it’s important to keep design files organized, never skip research and ensure that all skill gaps are filled by knowledgeableknowledgable individuals with the bandwidth to execute those skills well.

It’s also important to remain focused on the real objective, which is to build a great product, not to reach key milestones by any means necessary. Although it can be tempting to question whether we really do need to invest time or money into certain things like design systems, the reality is that we can’t afford not to because the risk of design debt is far too high.

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