How to identify and pay back Creative Debt

At a recent knowledge share day, a colleague of mine, Paul Stiles who is a Technical Solution Architect, talked about “Technical Debt”.

For me it was a real eye-opened because there are so many parallels to design… to Creative Debt. I’m calling it “Creative Debt” to avoid using the word “Design” which is also used in technical context.

“[Technical Debt is] a design or construction approach that’s expedient in the short term but that creates a technical context in which the same work will cost more overall to do later than it would cost to do now (including increased cost over time).” – source.

Just replace the word “Technical” with “Creative” and you’ll see how well it fits.

Good vs Bad Debt

Paul was talking about “Good Debt” vs “Bad Debt”. With Good Debt you are aware of it and you understand the consequences and have a plan of action to deal with them. With Bad Debt you can’t see the full scope of consequences, in fact you may not even see the Bad Debt until it is too late.

An example of Good Creative Debt is getting something live, minimum viable product with few, but complete sections. We know the end-users expect more, but for the time being we can keep them happy with a teaser version of the final product as the functions we have completed gives them a good end-to-end experience.

An example of Bad Creative Debt is a rushed through design trying to do it all but doing it all badly, Customers gets frustrated, the product doesn’t deliver on its targets, less money and confidence goes back in the product even though more is actually needed to be fixed and this keeps spiraling downwards. The Project Owner looks bad towards his organisation and the Creative team looks incompetent because people exposed to the product doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about why the product isn’t working. They judge what they see.

What causes Creative Debt and how to deal with it

  • Deadlines. What is the real business reason behind it? Is there one? Make sure it is communicated and understood what the Creative Debt impact will be on the product at launch and later on.
  • Timings. Is the timeline realistic or are we trying to fit an unrealistic deadline? Chasing the deadline can lead to insufficient time for the client team to gather and share knowledge and for the Creative team to understand the business objectives and the user needs.
  • Stakeholders. Who are the real stakeholders? Make sure they are identified and their buy-in secured.
  • End-Users. Is the users’ needs understood? Make sure a clear list defines what is known about the end-users and what else needs to be known to ensure a successful product.
  • Brand Teams. Are the brand champions involved? While the Brand Team may not be digital and you are told they don’t need to get involved, they need to be. After all you are creating a product that represents the brand in one way or another.
  • “That’s phase 2”. Is a tangible phase 2 defined? Make sure Phase 2 is clearly defined with a budget and an understanding of the end-users’ expectations of functionality to come. Don’t let phase 2 be this mythical island where good ideas and important functions go to die.
  • Technical Landscape. What is the technical restrictions? Devices, browsers, screen sizes and general limitations in the technology used. Avoid designing something that cannot be built.

More things to look out for here on this list of classic project mistakes.

Preventing Creative Debt

Creative Debt is invisible to your customer. Educate early and make sure the Customer understands Creative Debt is the responsibility of us all.

I find the best way to do it is to visually illustrate our structured creative process and have a discussion about the key risk areas (access to knowledge, securing users for interviews, securing feedback from the right stakeholders etc). Make sure you have strong project management to enforce the process and cash in the promises agreed.

Do not negotiate! If you start a negotiation route both you and the customer will focus on individual functions/resources and lose the bigger picture that is critical for a good end-user experience. Also, do not let technical personnel descope work. They will focus solely on functions without considering the end-user experience.

If you need to reduce size of the project, redefine end goal/targets and re-estimate. If necessary help define a tangible Phase 2 approach.

Responding to Creative Dept

Identify and communicate impact of Creative Debt as early as possible. Most often Creative Debt is nobody’s fault, but impact can be massive for a Creative project.

With Technical Debt, it is easier to ring-fence and create a Technical Debt backlog. However, Creative Debt unfortunately tend to have an impact on the overall user experience, so it is vital to accurately identify the impact.

Identifying impact will help you get a clear view of how to mitigate it or guide the user around it. The goal is to keep the end-user experience intact over ticking the box on a business objective because losing the end-user is a bigger issue long term.

Paying back Creative Debt

  • What is the value of fixing the issue versus the cost?
  • What is the impact/value to the end-user experience? Can we keep a coherent user experience?
  • Can we pay some of the Creative Debt back with a short-cut?
  • Live with it for now and re-evaluate based on end-user feedback later?

Whatever the outcome, make sure it is clearly documented and communicated both for the customer’s benefit but also for future Creative teams who may need to pick this up.

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