Debt vs. Capital

In software we often talk about a metaphor of "debt": decisions we make now that save immediate time or effort, but that compromise a system or product's design in some way. What makes these choices debt is that they don't just have a fixed cost, but actually incur "interest" in ongoing damage to the product's user experience as well as your ability to further develop the product. Minimizing debt is great, but reads to me like we're already admitting defeat. What if we set our sights higher? What if instead of trying to just minimize debt, we strived to invest, to actively build capital?

(Note: I'll primarily be talking about user experience debt here, but I believe a lot of the metaphor applies to technical debt as well.)

User experience investment is work up front that will pay off with reduced effort in every subsequent initiative you take on. Unlike debt, which taxes both your user experience as well as your team velocity, UX investment actually pays off double— it makes it easier for customers to use your product as well as easier for your team to make your product better.

I want to share three key assets in a UX "portfolio" that pay off huge dividends over time.

Knowing What UX Is

The first and most fundamental piece of user experience investment is an understanding of what UX actually is. Hiring a great UX generalist early on pays off huge, in the same way that a great first sales, product, or marketing hire does: they know the things that you don't know that you don't know.

Even if you don't have a full-time UX person, there are still big returns from having everybody involved in product development spend some time learning basic UX skills. Reading a book or two or attending a design thinking workshop doesn't make you a UX designer, but it's far better than nothing. Just the mindset of asking "how will this affect the user's experience?" before making product changes puts you ahead of the pack.

Understanding the Customer

Another asset in a UX "portfolio" is tools and mindsets that help you understand your customer and their problems. Most successful organizations already understand at least one customer and one of their problems, but as you grow, the types of customers you serve and the problems they have get more complex and diverse.

When my team reworked PagerDuty's trial experience last year, we started by instrumenting the site with user analytics in order to understand how new trial customers were using us. That was critical for the success of that project, but also completely changed the way we did research. Rather than awkwardly use SQL to reason about behavior, anybody at the company, regardless of technical knowledge could ask a plain English question like "How many people edited an escalation policy this week?" and get an answer within seconds. This tooling may have only saved a few dozen hours on its first project, but the real kicker is that is has made every project we've done since that much easier…and that much better for customers. Compound interest!


Simplicity has some obvious benefits— it tends to be easier for users to learn a simple tool, for example. But I think one of the biggest gains from a simple product is that it is much, much easier to change than a complicated one.

Sometimes, despite your best-laid plans, you have to move the user's cheese. Sometimes you realize some core assumptions you made several years ago were just flat-out wrong, and you have to make some big product changes in order to move forward. An ultra-simple product is like a line of credit you can draw from to make changes without causing users undue pain.

If your product's models and workflow are simple enough, a big change might not be too bad. You might get a "huh" at first glance, but then be able to train customers on the new stuff easily. Intercom did a great job of this when they switched from top navigation to side nav. It was jarring the first time I logged in, but because the site structure is simple and easy to use and the iconography stayed consistent, it took me about 30 seconds before Intercom-with-left-nav became the new normal for me.

A counterexample might be JIRA's Agile development features. I love JIRA, but its Achilles heel is its hyper-flexible configuration. You can basically set up any workflow for any object in the system, which means that when Atlassian rolled out a simpler, more opinionated interface for agile development, you either had to create completely new projects, or would bump into all sorts of incompatibilities between your previous setup and what JIRA Agile expects.

Where you can't be simple, you can at least be consistent, and consistency is one of those things it's especially helpful to do early on. Before a feature exists, it's no extra effort to use one label vs. another to name it. After it's already built, then you have to both decide which label is correct and go and change the other one anywhere it might appear. Using horizontal nav one place and vertical nav elsewhere? Unless there's a guide for it, now you're not just confusing users, but also adding the burden to designers and engineers to make that vertical-or-horizontal decision on every single interface they build. A style guide or strong UX principles can help bring more consistency and simplicity to even a complicated product.

Common financial advice for Millenials is "save often, early, and consistently, even if it doesn't seem like a lot at first." A few dollars a paycheck seems like nothing when you look at house prices or retirement calculators, but through regular savings and compound interest, it can grow to a large amount. Likewise, small money leaks — a car payment, an expensive gym membership, or a taste for $15 martinis or fancy shoes — can end up eating through even a high salary.

I see user experience (and technical) investment in the same way. Spending precious early engineering time on these areas may at first seem frivolous, but if you're in it for the long haul, the investment pays off daily by making your product easier to use, easier to build, and easier to change. While many startups are blowing their money on the flashiest technology they can find and the hottest design patterns, I prefer the UX millionaire next door: the one with a simple product, crafted with care, building their UX nest egg so that when they do need to borrow from it, they take just what they need and use it to do wonderful things for their customers.