a pile of dirty coffee cups
PHOTO: Izzie R

Imagine you have a big family and a large supply of tableware, but the dishwasher is broken, so you decide not to wash the dishes after each meal. From breakfast through dinner, you accumulate an increasingly larger pile of dishes until you run out of tableware. 

When you go to the kitchen, you are met with an overwhelming pile of dirty dishes. The mere thought of dealing with it stresses you out, so you decide to go and lay down. But when you wake up and go to the kitchen the next morning for your morning coffee, you realize you have no choice but to roll up your sleeves and do the dishes. And when you are done, the cycle starts all over again.

User Experience Debt Sneaks Up Fast

Now imagine you go to work, where a new IT system has just been implemented. The system was designed without any input from you or any other prospective users. No one has made sure the system was easy and appealing to use or that it looked similar to any of the other systems you have worked in before. 

When you use the system, you get frustrated — not only with how complex and difficult it is, but also because it looks and behaves differently than your other systems. The new system does not support your work in the way it could at all. Over time, new functionality is added to the system. But the more systems and functionality that is introduced, the more complex and difficult the digital work environment becomes.

When the gap between an acceptable user experience and the actual user experience increases, a user experience debt is accumulated — similar to the pile of dishes that will build up at home if you don’t clean the dishes after dinner. What you do with your dishes at home is your own concern, but what happens with your digital work environment and the user experience debt is your employer's responsibility.

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The High Toll of Growing User Experience Debt

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t clean their dirty dishes. Instead they increase their user experience debt faster than they pay it off by implementing new IT systems without putting much thought into those they already have. 

Think of it in terms of accumulating financial debt: instead of paying off the original loan, your debt keeps increasing. Eventually, you reach a point where interest payments alone eat up all your purchasing power. 

The same thing happens when you accumulate a large user experience debt. The pressure of the ever-increasing user experience debt drains your work capacity.

The user experience debt can reach levels where it becomes a serious work environment problem. Therefore, an organization needs to actively work to "pay off" the debt by making investments in areas such as higher usability, more consistent design of different systems and better integration.

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