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Product debt

 

We all know the concept of technical debt. Yes, those are all the things we avoid doing until something breaks. At least with a technical debt, we can blame developers but there is another kind of debt that's purely on us and that's product debt. 

What is product debt?

Product debt can appear when we cut corners in our PM work. For example when we
  • rush to release something and then don't revisit it later
  • don't think systematically
  • go with the first (easiest) idea
  • discount internal or external feedback
  • don't do enough research
  • stuck in analysis paralysis 
  • just do what we're told not knowing why

Some examples of product debt

  • Interaction patterns differ across the app confusing users
  • Some data could be accessed through the API, some other data - not
  • The product violates the dominant design or best UX principles
  • Some of your customers pay more for the same value because they joined before your new product offering was introduced 
  • Half of your product is optimised for mobile but the other half is not
  • That one feature you built on a large customer's request now needs to be explained to all other customers, cluttering the UI and your offering 

So many ways of how product debt can appear, it could be because of something you as a PM did or didn't do. But it could also be there even before you. Especially in mature products, it's almost a given - there will be some product debt. When you start working on an existing product - it's important to study the product debt and understand it. And when you start from scratch, it's a good idea to stay vigilant and avoid massive product debt. 

Why product debt is bad? 

Similarly to our modern economy, debt is a part of almost any product. Most products can afford a little debt, some could even benefit from it as it might allow them to move faster. However, a large product debt could inevitably create problems for even the most successful products. And if a large debt is not paid in time it could lead to product's degradation. 

What's particularly bad about product debt? It could 

  • slow you down
  • lead you towards bad product decisions
  • prevent you from innovating
  • frustrate your customers and employees
  • increase your churn

How do you find product debt? 

To understand product debt you need to wonder about why certain decisions were taken in your product. You need to understand it on a feature, product and portfolio levels. As it often happens in product management, asking "why" a lot really helps. You could also ask
  • Who are we building this product for? 
  • How do we know their problem? 
  • What evidence do we have for our solution? 
  • Is it an iteration of the product? When the next one due and what needs to happen for that? 
If you don't find satisfactory answers to the questions like that it well might be that you're dealing with product debt. 

How do you deal with product debt? 

The overall algorithm is pretty straightforward

  1. Find it
  2. Prioritise it
  3. Pay it off

However, like with anything, there are caveats. 

Misalignment 

You think it's a product debt and someone else disagrees. They say it's an experiment or maybe a part of a bigger plan you aren't aware of. Most misalignments appear because people get naturally attached to their work and the decisions they made. You need to be careful calling something product debt, it might be your boss's favourite pet feature. 

Keeping appearances

Sometimes your entire team might agree something is a product debt but still be reluctant to do something about it. They might worry about how will it look for the rest of the organisation. Would it mean the product team made a mistake? Would they trust us less? The fact you're asking those questions already a sign of potentially dysfunctional product culture. Mistakes are essential to create successful products and if you're afraid (or not allowed) to make them - perhaps you're not in the right place to succeed as a product manager. 

Constantly prioritising for the short term

Firstly, there is nothing wrong to prioritise for the short term sometimes. Say you have an important deadline to hit or a particularly nasty bug to fix. It's only a problem when you do it all the time. When all you do is running from one fire to another, not only it makes your product life miserable - it strips you of many opportunities to succeed with your product. 

Keeping product debt in check

To avoid large product debt you need to keep your eyes on the product vision and continuously validate it. The "why" behind every important product decision should be clear and it should bring you closer to your product vision. Inevitable product debt should be identified, described and prioritised for solving. Your approach to dealing with product debt should be transparent and understandable for the entire organisation. 

Summary 

Product debt could be a useful concept to understand when building products with speed, consistency and quality. Left unchecked, product debt can slow you down, impair your innovation and frustrate your customers. Understanding product debt is mostly about doing your PM work fully and knowing why decisions are taken. When identified, product debt could be prioritised and solved similarly to technical debt. Willingness to recognise product debt and work on solving it is a sign of healthy product culture. 

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