The concept of ‘technical debt’ is familiar to software practitioners. Wikipedia defines it as “the implied cost of… choosing an easy solution now, instead of using a better approach that would take longer.” In other words, if we take shortcuts we will have to pay for it down the track.

We should be applying this thinking to the decisions that impact customer experience as a whole, now, and in the future. These decisions involve not only user interfaces and software systems but also products, services, policies and processes, and even the structure and culture of an organisation. We call this ‘experience debt’.

With any debt, there are both good and bad types. Debt is good when, although you are borrowing against future effort, you are creating a higher potential payoff, for example by getting to market faster or validating an idea before perfecting it. If we effectively recognise and manage experience debt, we can shift the balance towards ‘good debt’.

So how do we recognise ‘experience debt’, and how can we manage it and pay it down?

How do we recognise experience debt?

When redesigning the mobile quoting experience for a car insurer, we quickly recognised the challenge of designing a complex experience for the small screen. The only viable solution involved re-thinking the questions and radically simplifying the quoting process.

The typical response to the question, ‘do we even need this field?’ is ‘yes of course it’s always been there’, or, ‘compliance will never let us take it out!’. Only after showing hard evidence of customers failing miserably in testing, we would often find out that there was, in fact, no valid need. This is an example of policy and process as experience debt – requirements that have long since lost their reasoning but persist through folklore.

Mapping customer journeys is a great way to bring existing experience debt into sharp relief. When we mapped the ‘moving house’ experience for an energy retailer, we discovered a journey that was so laden with experience debt that it was significantly easier for customers to switch to a new provider than complete the move. This debt ran deep – into the billing systems, CRM, consumer and supplier contracts, digital channels and contact centre training and procedures.

How can we manage experience debt?

VC firm Firstmark describes a pragmatic approach to managing technical debt, breaking it down into three categories:

  • ‘Deliberate’ debt, where effort is deferred to bring understanding forward or accelerate time to market (‘good debt’)
  • ‘Accidental’ debt, such as outdated design from changing customer expectations
  • ‘Bit Rot’ which is avoidable degradation caused by lack of good practice (‘bad debt’).

We can apply a similar framework to experience debt.

Deliberate debt

Working with a startup insurer and rushing towards launch, there were plenty of trade-offs in defining the Minimum Marketable Experience. For example, automated round trips for capturing certain customer information were de-scoped. These were to be handled manually at launch and built out later as demand for the feature grew.

This type of deliberate experience debt needs to be captured on a backlog so that an individual feature it is not forgotten, and more importantly, to give a sense of the overall quantity of effort that has been deferred. This is essential for future prioritisation, planning of resources and releases.

Accidental debt

Customer expectations change over time, so even the ‘perfect design’ will accrue experience debt eventually. Addressing accidental debt requires proactive investment. The payoff may be retention of existing customers or there may be an opportunity to leapfrog competitors – especially if the change in customer expectation is coming from outside your own industry.

Seeking to improve the toll payment experience for a road operator, we drew from changing customer expectations created by experiences outside of the domain, from rideshare apps to mobile games built on progressive commitment and payment models. Applying the principles we learned resulted in a fresh approach to toll products and the payment experience.

Experience rot

Like all those little purchases that add up to credit card bill shock at the end of the month, the experience equivalent of ‘bit rot’ is all the decisions that are not in the customer interest but which slip by unnoticed, or which nobody has the energy to challenge. Watch out for decisions that cross more than one organisational ‘silo’, as poor communications often leads to compromised outcomes.

Working on the redesign of a government service, we encountered multiple policy and process barriers to providing an ideal customer experience. These included excessive documentation requirements, complex pricing and inconsistent usage rules. Modern experiences, delivered through customer channel of choice, thrive on simplification – delivering customer benefits and efficiencies.

Changing government policy can be slow and hard but must start somewhere. Providing the evidence to support the need for change, and tying it to customer and organisational outcomes, is a core activity of design.

Creating a positive culture of experience debt

Just as paying off the credit card will be to no avail if you keep racking up new charges, keeping on top of experience debt may require a behavioural change in your organisation. The key behaviours that must be encouraged are capturing ‘deliberate debt’ on a backlog or similar; keeping an eye on changing customer expectations and periodically re-visiting and reinvesting in your key customer experiences.

Most importantly, create a culture of vigilance against ‘experience rot’. Encourage communication and collaboration between functions. Challenge ‘the rules’ by asking ‘why’ and quantifying the actual cost of maintaining them. Hold the customer experience in the highest light and stay determined to maintain and improve it!