UI/UX Design Approaches to Save Your Project from Design Debt

by Andrew M on May 31, 2021

Despite some common beliefs, having a simple Sketch library or style guide is not nearly enough to design a recognizable user interface with consistent user experience. From our 20 years of operating as a software development company that provides extensive UI/UX design services, we know that good software design comes from exhaustive research, thorough planning, and clear communication in both setting your expectations and managing completed work.

When you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that UI/UX design is a very intricate field that requires a deep understanding of how to anticipate user needs and preferences. It required experience and skill in building a UI that satisfies those requirements in full. If you want your product design to succeed, that is. Otherwise, you risk getting your software development project into big and costly trouble called design debt.

In this article we wanted to share with you some of the most efficient proactive design approaches and management practices that will help you create high-quality interfaces and keep your software solution design in good shape for years to come.

What is UI/UX design debt and why it should be taken seriously

Many projects today have design debt, a rarely discussed downside of iterative and incremental software development methods. As a term, design debt was based on the more popular concept called technical debt, a metaphor, coined by a renowned American programmer Howard Cunningham. As a pioneer in both design patterns and extreme programming, Cunningham encouraged companies to perceive cutting corners in the course of development as getting yourself into financial debt. Like taking a large loan that you will later have to repay at a considerable interest rate, development short cuts and lack of proper verification procedures will inevitably lead to extra rework, hindering the addition of new features and slowing your business growth.

If technical debt is a result of rushed decisions and poorly written code that affect the integrity of your codebase, making it unwieldy, design debt is the outcome of hasty feature implementation and development compromises that damage the integrity of user experience. All the thoughtful design concepts you chose for the product are continuously ruined by minor flaws and deviations that accumulate with every sprint and eventually turn into an inconsistent, disjointed UI that delivers a disappointing experience. When that happens, no matter how many more features your product has, your target audience would rather go with your competitor’s offer that is more aesthetically pleasing and provides better user experience.

UI/UX design debt is the outcome of hasty feature implementation and development compromises that damage the integrity of user experience. Minor flaws and deviations accumulate with every sprint and eventually turn into an inconsistent, disjointed UI that delivers a disappointing experience.

Where does design debt come from?

While a faster time to market may be a tempting goal, it should never be achieved at the cost of design quality. Otherwise, the usability and consistency of your UX and UI design will naturally start deteriorating. Without proper design verification and validation procedures, every incremental change, every new element or feature introduced into the design will slowly ruin the structural integrity of your product. Old features will become stale and the whole thing will suddenly look like it had no design direction whatsoever—a Frankenstein monster of disjointed elements looking as though they were patched together without enough thought given to the long-term consequences.

A diagram that shows how the cost of redesign and UI/UX design fixes grows dramatically with every step of the SDLC.

To make it more relatable, here are a few examples of the sources and most common causes of UI/UX design issues:

  1. Your team starts the project with assumptions. User goals and the problem you’re trying to solve with your product are not properly researched or tested during the planning and design stages. This leads to floating specifications, confusing navigation, and poor user journeys.
  2. The scope of the project is not properly defined, managed, or documented. Your UI/UX design company is dealing with changing/growing requirements and tight deadlines at the same time. This makes it extremely hard for them to work on every feature with the same care.
  3. There is no unifying plan directing the project. Designers have to conceptualize the product following their personal viewpoints which leads to conflicting opinions, inconsistencies, lack of cohesion in design, or misinterpreted product vision.
  4. Chasing short-term goals at the expense of design hurts your product’s long-term viability. The design gradually becomes stretched beyond its original intent (elements are added without due consideration and feel forced into layouts).
  5. The current state of your product’s UX and UI and the general design direction are disregarded when designing a new feature. For example, your UI/UX design agency is too focused on experimenting with the feature, trying to revolutionize it without paying attention to whether it fits in well with the rest.
  6. Due to the lack of resources, poor communication, or errors in specifications, junior designers are tasked with a job beyond their capabilities which leads to poor design choices, undue complexity, and logical flaws.
  7. Your UI/UX design services hand off features to the development team but are not involved in the implementation and validation processes. This causes potential design deviations and flaws to be left unnoticed or addressed at the last moment, causing delays, extra costs, and rework.

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The cost of bad design

Photograph of London’s Walkie Talkie building as an example of terrible design choices and inadequate design verification processes in the real world—an analogy proving the importance of UI/UX design verification in software development.

When left unchecked, design issues can sometimes cause a lot more trouble than a bad first impression, hurt user satisfaction, or loss of profit. And the problem is not limited to the software development industry. Here’s one amusing architecture design example for you.

Constructed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in spring 2014, the commercial skyscraper on 20 Fenchurch Street in London was nicknamed “The Walkie Talkie” for its distinctive design. And while the building’s appearance is rather debatable, it’s not the way it looks that made it so notorious back in the day.

The reason behind all the trouble the 38-floor skyscraper caused was its concave design. The building was designed in a way to expand towards the higher floors, which basically turned it into a huge curved mirror. During the building’s construction in summer 2013, this huge magnifying glass started reflecting concentrated sunlight that was six times stronger than normal, effectively unleashing a “death ray” of up to 243 °F (117 °C) onto the streets below. For about two hours each day, the incredibly powerful beams were capable of effectively cooking everything in their way. There were numerous reports of parked vehicles being horribly distorted with paintwork completely melted off.

Shortly after the incident, the skyscraper was nicknamed “Walkie Scorchie” and several parking bays in the area were temporarily closed as a precautionary measure. In 2014, a series of vertical fins were installed on the higher floors of the tower as a long-term solution to the scorching problem. Integrated to the outside of the skyscraper’s windows, the fins could be angled to stop the beams from burning through unsuspecting locals and their property. But even with one problem out of the way, the terrible design choices behind the Walkie Talkie were not finished terrorizing the city just yet.

In July 2015, another issue revealed itself when Rafael Viñoly’s skyscraper was accused of creating a severe downdraught effect. Apparently, the very same concave design had an unexpected impact on wind strength. When strong gusts of wind collided with the curved facade of the Walkie Talkie head on, the wind got redirected downwards at incredible speed and pressure. The downdraught was reported to have blown people over and ripped signs off nearby buildings.

The Walkie Talkie building is a great example of complete disregard for design verification and the consequences it can have for your business and reputation. Following all the distress caused by the building’s faulty design, the City of London Corporation has even started demanding independent assessment and verification of property developers’ design reports at the planning stage of the project. Royal Town Planning Institute described the building as “a daily reminder never to let such a planning disaster ever happen again.”

Why does good UI/UX design matter?

The main reason why most teams focus on sprint speed, prioritizing feature delivery over visual integrity, is that they don’t understand the real value of good UI/UX design. Lots of projects think that people won’t see the difference between a well-designed UI and its poorly coded doppelganger. But they are wrong. Top user experience design firms and research centers have long proven the correlation between the quality of a product’s UI/UX design and its financial impact on a business. Companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook invest gargantuan amounts of money and effort in UI/UX design services, refining the looks and feel of their products. This is because they are well aware that every dollar invested in usability brings a return in the range from 2 to 100 dollars.

This is best illustrated by an example from Dr. Claire-Marie Karat from the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

With its origins in human factors, usability engineering has had considerable success improving productivity in IT organizations.

Clare-Marie Karat,  Ph.D. in Psychology, specializing in human-computer interaction (HCI) design. IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center

She continues:

“A major computer company spent $20,700 on usability work to improve the sign-on procedure in a system used by several thousand people. The resulting productivity improvement saved the company $41,700 the first day the system was used. On a system used by over 100,000 people, for a usability outlay of $68,000, the same company recognized a benefit of $6,800,000 within the first year of the system’s implementation.”

This is a cost-benefit ratio of 1:100.

And while it may be a tough challenge to fix all the inconsistencies during every sprint, a proper proactive approach and timely UI/UX design services can help your software development project effectively deal with design issues and improve the end value of your software product.

Proactive design approaches and how they help keep your UI/UX design from going bad

Two smartphone screens with a comparison of the UI/UX design of the same mobile app UI before and after its implementation, showing slight yet significant deviations from the expected outputs.

After helping numerous businesses and projects around the world with UI/UX design services, we realized that accumulated design issues are a very common yet rarely discussed problem compared to technical debt. UX and UI design flaws are something many projects that came to us seeking help didn’t take seriously before it creeped up on them and hit them hard.

Here’s how it quite often happens:

  1. Preparing for the next sprint, the project manager realizes that there is something wrong with the UI: the layouts look wonky; font sizes and colors are not what they should be; alignments, animations, and micro-interactions are broken. 
  2. The team gathers a meeting. They take the build, compare it to the mockups and prototypes, trying to figure out what’s wrong. They see that the actual UI in development is way off of what it was originally designed to look and feel. 
  3. The project manager is confused. The stakeholders are pissed. The development team is demoralized. And the only question on everyone’s mind is: “Where did it all go wrong?” 
  4. The project ends up in a tight corner where they either hire an experienced UI/UX design company and invest considerable resources to rework the entire thing or knowingly deploy a faulty design with the risk of getting booed and refused by their customers.

Many software development projects today find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place asking the exact same thing. They wake up to an important lesson of just how essential it is to have a proper UI/UX design process established from the very start. Whether you organize the design process yourself or hire an experienced UI/UX design agency to do the job for you, this section explains the key problem areas and best approaches to keeping the design of your software solution from going sour.

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Prevent false assumptions with UX research

No matter how experienced an entrepreneur or designer you are, what you believe to be the best design solution for your software product or service is not necessarily true. When designing your software solution, faulty assumptions can sabotage the results of your entire project. So you should always do your best to base your assumptions and design decisions on in-depth research.

UX research

In order to base your design decisions and concepts on realistic scenarios and facts instead of mere guesswork, you have to systematically study your target audience and analyze their requirements and expectations for your software. You have to gather insights that would help you go deeper into the problem, uncover root causes, and unveil more design opportunities. 

A thorough user experience research will help you reveal valuable information that can be fed into your design process to guide successful UI/UX design decisions. The main goal of such research is to get the perspective of your end user on the solution you’re building—discover exactly what they need from your solution and the best way to give it to them.

UX research is not as hard as you may think. UI/UX design services utilize similar approaches to those of market researchers, business analysts, academics, and scientists. This includes methods such as interviews, surveys, A/B tests, and mere observation of your prospective users. Even though it’s best to be done the earliest, you can easily apply these UX research techniques at any stage of your design process.

To make it even easier for you, UX research methods can be divided into two groups:

  1. Qualitative research
    These are mostly soft research methods, field studies, and interviews that can help you understand why your target audience does what they do. Qualitative research methods feed your project with personal user insights that include anything from simple opinions to habits and motivations.
  2. Quantitative research
    These methods utilize a more structured approach to research, including statistics, data analysis, and surveys. Even though quantitative research doesn’t go anywhere near personal insights, they provide your project with measurable, objective data unbiased by your own assumptions. 

From determining what is relevant for your target audience to testing your assumptions and evaluating your design decisions, UX research is certain to significantly improve the UI/UX design quality of your future software product or service.

Competitor research

Whatever it is you’re building in today’s crowded digital market, you can be certain there is at least one other company that is also building or already providing a similar product or service. Therefore, it is critical that you gather as much information about your competitor’s software solution as possible to gain an edge.

This strategic research will help you study competing software solutions—identify and analyze their best and worst qualities, recognize common patterns, and determine what makes them so successful (or the other way round). Now that your design team has a better idea of the rights and wrongs in what your competitors are doing, they can utilize this valuable data to identify particular areas in your own software solution that can be improved.

Start off on the right foot with thorough design planning

Planning your UI/UX design process means balancing carefully between the level of design quality your users expect from your software solution and the budgetary and resource constraints your project is under. The effectiveness of your design planning phase is all about understanding the requirements your software product has to meet and working out an optimal course of action to achieve the desired outcomes within the estimated time and budget.

Managing your design budget and time estimates

Having the budget available for the design on your project figured out will always be one of the most important things in planning your course of action. This key piece of information will most likely determine the amount of time you have for the design of each feature and the approaches available to you. It will also help you get the priorities right. Of course, an experienced UI/UX design company will always find ways to add value to your design project regardless of the constraints you’re facing. However, having a clear idea of the budget available from the very start of the project will help your design team to be more mindful of your resources.

For example, a lower budget may result in shorter iterations with strict focus on the core requirements and features, whereas a large one will enable your design team to do a more extensive research and consider a wider range of options in chasing your project goals.

The rule of thumb won’t work when it comes to considering the budget and time estimates required for the user experience and visual design. They should be based on the unique requirements, goals, challenges, and levels of design input of this one, particular project you started.

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Defining and documenting the scope of the project

This is the tricky part your deadlines and costs will be based on. Normally, you should already have at least a high-level understanding of what you’re aiming for since you went through all of that design research. And so, now you can go deeper into planning your design processes by defining and documenting a list of specific design goals, features, functions, and deliverables.

There are three distinctive areas you should have defined and thoroughly documented in order to determine the scope of your project and narrow down the cost and time estimates:

  1. Product scope that includes all of the functions, components, and unique characteristics of your software solution.
  2. Process requirements that describe how end users will interact with your software solution from the technical perspective.
  3. Constraints that are permanent or temporary limitations related to resource, information, technology availability, etc.

Establishing a strict change management process

Whether it’s due to the changing nature of your industry, discovery of new competitors, or simply fresher, better ideas you got along the way, scope creep can sometimes be literally unavoidable. Remember, uncontrolled scope growth is generally a harmful thing you should always steer clear of. And if your estimated time and budget don’t allow you to turn the change process into guided continuous improvement, this means you should establish a strict change management process to effectively control it.

In order to avoid any misunderstandings, disagreements, or unexpected turns of events on the project, it’s best that any changes and shifts in the scope, resource allocation, deliverables, or timescales are formally defined, documented, evaluated, and approved before their implementation. This approach will ensure timely communication and efficient course of action to be taken in dealing with changes in your UI/UX design processes and scope.

Have a checklist of key UX and UI design deliverables

As part of the design process, your UI/UX design agency will produce a variety of design artifacts to help build an efficient problem-solving process for your software solution, generate and document ideas, and refine the design based on stakeholder feedback. Here is the list of the key and most common deliverables your design team should produce to keep the quality of your UX and UI design in check.

Persona profiles

Your designers will create a certain number of different personas in order to cover as many groups of users as possible. Persona profiles illustrate fictional characters, archetypical models of people who will interact with your future software product. These fictional characters represent different kinds of users, their goals and motivations, needs and pain points, behaviors, and even skills. Depending on the kind of software solution you’re designing, these profiles can also include information such as education, demographics, sex, etc. Persona profiles help your entire development team get a better understanding of your target audience and what they need from your solution.


An idea borrowed by UI/UX design services from the filmmaking domain, storyboards are a sequence of illustrations or images that outline user behaviors and actions in various scenarios. It is a sort of a comic strip that demonstrates what users would do under certain circumstances, in different environments, etc. Storyboards are a great way for designers to empathize with your target audience, to understand how and why users would act in different cases.

User journey map

These user experience diagrams represent a step-by-step process your users take to reach a specific goal. These diagrams consider what activities your users do as well as what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling as they progress on their user journey. This concisely mapped sequence of actions users perform helps your design team identify possible blockers and inconsistencies in user journeys. It helps them better relate to user frustrations and find ways to improve, simplify the currently outlined user experience.


This helpful design tool represents the full hierarchy and navigation structure of your software solution. The content in a sitemap is conveniently organized into pages, screen, and sections, depending on whether you’re building a website or an application. It’s a visually organized model of all the components and information in your software solution that shows you how users may transition from one of its sections to another. A sitemap helps your team lay out the information architecture for your software solution. By means of a sitema