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Conceptual debt is killing your design process

Conceptual debt accrues when we take shortcuts in developing the foundational concepts behind our products.

There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.

Ansel Adams

The primary way I add value to design teams by helping them overcome conceptual debt. (After all, making sense of things is a designer’s job.)

Conceptual debt is taking shortcuts in articulating, documenting, and socializing our understanding of what the thing is, who it’s for, and why it matters.

It’s like technical debt, except instead of taking (sometimes necessary) shortcuts in developing the code behind our products, we take shortcuts in developing the foundational concepts behind our products.

Conceptual debt accrues rapidly when a design culture allows understanding to be assumed but not assured. Debt gets added every time someone says, “Got it, sounds good” when they either do not get it, do not think it sounds good, or both.

These common symptoms alert me to the presence of conceptual debt:

  • Design Déjà vu — It feels like you’ve having the same conversations over and over again without any progress.
  • Process friction — Things that seem like they should be easy are instead rather difficult.
  • Head-scratching — People – users, stakeholders, whomever – should get it. But they don’t get it. And we don’t know why.
  • Burnout — People just can’t with this any more. Ack!

Those are just a few. The symptoms of conceptual debt are legion, including, but not limited to, absolute failure and bankruptcy.

The causes of conceptual debt, while also numerous, are a bit easier to inventory.

  • Inadequate Distribution of Understanding — One person understands the thing really well, but they either aren’t good at explaining it or don’t care about others understanding it. (Don’t you worry about X, let me worry about X!) Powerful visions are meaningless if they can’t be communicated. This is why many startup founders need to find a communicator they can rely on sooner than later.
  • Mental Model Misalignment — An information architecture problem wherein the way that we (the product design team) think about the thing isn’t how our users think about the thing. This type of misalignment is described well in this product management article that seems to be the first coinage of the term conceptual debt.
  • Lack of Purpose — Understanding isn’t possible because we are on a fool’s errand. There’s no good reason to do whatever it is that we’re doing, but we either haven’t realized it or haven’t admitted it yet.
  • Nobody is Writing Anything Down, God Damn It — Clarity is possible but will always elude us because we haven’t made documenting shared understanding anyone’s job.
  • Fetishization of Ambiguity — Whoever is making the calls waves their hands and says “we’ll figure that out later” whenever a salient question is asked. Must be comfortable with ambiguity? Bullocks. Ambiguity should be managed, not tolerated.
  • Hustle Culture — The culture doesn’t allow people to press pause. Being too willful or impatient to call a timeout and make sure everyone is understanding each other is a sign of weak leadership.

Having worked primarily on the content side of things in my design career, my interest in conceptual debt is no coincidence. When the concepts that underpin a design aren’t clear it’s impossible to do my job as a content person. So I’ve had to learn all kinds of ways to create clarity and pay down conceptual debt, whatever my supposed role or job title was. (Clarity, to me, means understanding something well enough to explain it to someone else who needs to understand it.)

You’ll find many of those methods in my talks and workshops and the articles on this site. I look forward to exploring more of them — and those I apply while wearing other hats like product owner, information architect, project manager, etc. – in future posts.