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Don't let experience debt damage your business

Have you heard of the phrase ‘experience debt’? It relates to the time spent, or space between between an acceptable user experience and the real thing which is often longer than planned. As you can imagine, a large experience debt, just like a financial debt, is bad news for your business.

Just to point out, this is not the same as technical debt, a phrase which is probably better known and more commonly used in software, tech and developer circles.  Experience debt may not be caused by technology, although technical debt can contribute to experience debt. That said, they usually share common causes: namely underinvestment and/or lack of prioritisation within the business.

So, to explain experience debt in more detail; if your users find your product or website frustrating to use, eventually they’ll give up and look elsewhere. Imagine that your product or website is a cash point. Yours has a longer queue and smaller buttons. People know this as they;ve used it before but now there’s another cashpoint round the corner which is must faster and easier to use and so, they’ve started going there instead.

Common Causes of Experience Debt

Always implementing “Phase 1” of a project and then leaving the design as is with no further iterations

You don’t stop learning to drive at the point you pass your driving test and in the same vein, a design is not ‘‘done’ when it goes live. It needs constant optimisation to make it work for user needs.

Changes in business processes and approach not reflected on digital platforms.

We see this a lot - wrong content confusing customers and businesses asking for data that they no longer process. A quick way to confuse and turn off your customers.

Changes in user behaviour and how they choose to interact with you

This one isn’t anybody's fault, just something to be aware of. Keep up to date on changes in tech and communication trends to ensure that users can connect with you in the right way at the right time.

Changes in business strategy

This is another common problem and a sure fire way to mount up experience debt. Does your strategy align with your offering?

Lack of measurement

If you’re not monitoring what users are doing, how can you be sure that your services are performing?

Movement in customer expectations

Be aware that more agile disruptors are redefining their expectations and increasing demand.

Symptoms of experience debt:

These symptoms will come as no surprise. Fix them and you’ll really notice the difference, as will your users:

  • Dated site / software
  • Persistent, long term usability issues
  • A disconnect in customer expectations post purchase - resulting in high levels of complaints about the discrepancy
  • Digital transactions cost more to process than physical - ie is it easier for the customer to go to the shop than to buy online?

Ways to avoid experience debt:

Move to a product management mentality in which you actively monitor performance and behaviour. This will allow you to balance incremental improvement especially on larger projects.

Adopt a common design system across your digital platforms, so that if a change is made in one place, it is propagated everywhere for uniformity. This is a way of future-proofing too as it’ll make it harder for inconsistencies to crop up when new pages or sections are added to your digital product.  

Measure user behaviour and interaction, set goals and targets around encouraging engagement at every stage of the journey. Go beyond pure beyond sales and satisfaction targets too, so that you can really drill down and see where and how experience debt could mount up.

Put in place feedback mechanisms to empower your customer service teams to act as an early warning for experience debt. They’re on the front line and likely to encounter common causes sooner than you are at head office.

Resolve those niggling technical debt issues, making it easy to deploy changes faster. Think about that cashpoint example - the sooner you make those buttons easier to read, the less likely your customers will be to find an alternative.

Democratise changes to digital platforms. This doesn’t mean design by committee which can often be a nightmare. I means empowering those making decisions about processes on other channels to maintain consistency across the business.

Invest in regularly reviewing and updating your content to reflect the reality. Out of date content is one of the fastest ways to grow experience debt as the customer starts having to hunt around to complete the task they’re doing.

Experience debt is bad

Yep, very bad. It can have a profound affect on customer experience which in turn, will affect your business. There are plenty of warning signs and some easy fixes too. You just need to be aware of when and where it can happen and then stop it before it’s too late!

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