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Paying down design debt

Developers use the term technical debt to refer to the backlog of inevitable future work produced when things are implemented in a quick and dirty way. An application can accrue design debt as well—user interface issues created by design hacks that must be resolved eventually. Like financial debt, you may find you don’t have control when the next payment needs to be made.

I was recently forced to make a minimum payment on some of Cozi’s design debt. In our case, our flagship PC application Cozi Central had a setup experience that omitted an important step. Cozi Central includes a photo collage screen saver that we think is pretty darn cool. Until this month, however, when you first ran Cozi Central on a Windows PC, the application took over your screen saver, and it didn’t even ask you.

Terrible, no? The story starts way back when we first created the product. The screen saver happened to be the first part of Cozi Central we wrote. We started giving families our very first pilot release, and Cozi Central did at that point was act as a screen saver. There didn’t seem to be any point in asking them if they wanted to use the screen saver—why else would they install it?

Fast forward a year, and Cozi Central now did a bunch more: it had a family calendar, a shopping list you can call up with your mobile phone from the grocery store, and a way to leave messages for family members. In fact, the product did enough that there were some adopters who wanted to use everything in it but the screen saver. Those people didn’t want the setup experience to silently take over their screen saver. We knew we needed to take care of that, but month after month we kept pushing off this work in favor of fighting bigger fires. We were carrying design debt.

The vast majority of users love the screen saver. One even wrote us specifically to relate how delighted they’d been by the photo screen saver they didn’t even have to ask for. We did hear complaints from a small number of families, though, and a few weeks ago we finally heard from one user who was irate. Let’s just say that business professionals may have photos on their PCs that they don’t want suddenly displayed during a presentation.

It was finally time to pay down our design debt, so we recently added new page to our setup experience that describes the screen saver and asks the user whether they want it:

This isn’t a great solution—throwing a question into the setup experience is a clear hallmark of a design hack. This approach could easily cause issues later if we ever really do need to ask the user another question during setup, and discover that two questions in setup is one too many. We’ve made the minimum payment, but we’ve still got more design debt going forward.

I’m happy that at least one Cozi user found the new UI acceptable. (Their post is, hands down, the funniest commentary I’ve read about Cozi Central yet.) On we go.