What is product debt?
- 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?
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?
- 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?
How do you deal with product debt?
The overall algorithm is pretty straightforward
- Find it
- Prioritise it
- Pay it off
However, like with anything, there are caveats.
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
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.
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.