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Weighing the pros and cons of technical debt

Two business women in the picture doing coding.
Two business women in the picture doing coding.
April 22, 2024

How to prevent your tech stack from resembling a junk drawer in your house

Occasionally, time crunches, monetary constraints or other marketplace demands may require businesses to choose between getting their web or mobile apps up and operational quickly versus slowly and more soundly, from a coding or design standpoint. 

The result: Technical debt.

Accumulating technical debt is kind of like filling up that one junk drawer in your house.

While you started that junk drawer with good intentions, it’s become a disorganized heap of junk that no one person can take sole responsibility for.

This digital deficit often presents as imperfect code construction, less-than-perfect site design or buggy operations that companies understand they’ll have to address down the road if they hope to maintain long-term digital functionality.


When is technical debt worth it?

There can be real reasons why development teams must prioritize speed over perfection — particularly if a site launch deadline is looming. In these cases, opting for suboptimal coding or design to enable quicker delivery could make sense.

Technical debt always represents a calculated risk between present advantages and the cost of future fixes, however. Adopting a digital presence with intrinsic tech debt requires a willingness to commit to eventual digital redesign, recoding or repairs.

As is true with all downstream corrections, addressing tech debt can, in the long run, end up being more costly to design teams’ time and budgetary bottom line than building a site the right way the first time.

Before accepting tech debt, ask yourself: Is the current payoff worth the eventual payback?


Types of technical debt

Technical debts can manifest in an array of forms, including:

  • Code and design debt: Suboptimal, immediate code or design shortcuts enacted for fast delivery.
  • Architecture and build debt: Known foundational deficits in system architecture or the digital build environment.
  • Test and defect debt: Operational pitfalls due to inadequate site testing or known bugs.
  • Quality debt: Identified defects that compromise software functionality or performance.
  • Feature debt: Delays or errors that impact site features or functionality.


Strategies for managing technical debt

Managing technical debt effectively requires a strategic approach. Web and design teams should commit to regular assessments of their digital footprint to gauge the severity and impact of any existing debt-related deficiencies.

To mitigate tech debt’s cost to your users — and to your site’s functionality — designers should take a systematic approach to monitoring and abating it.

  1. Document debt presence: Keep a detailed record of all technical debts and their status in your organization’s digital tracking systems. Is their impact stable or deteriorating? Is this a newly uncovered debt-related deficit or a long-established one?
  2. Prioritize continuous improvement: Cleaning up tech debt is a case where grabbing the low-hanging fruit can pay dividends. Have staff designers make a habit of looking for easy, cost-effective coding or design repairs in their downtime. Implement automated systems to consistently check code quality and conduct regular code reviews to catch issues early.
  3. Focus on the big picture: For more involved debt repair redesign work, tackle projects that will net the biggest improvement to your site’s functionality and overall operational success first. Set clear timelines and objectives so that repair progress and subsequent improvements to digital KPIs can be tracked effectively. Use application performance management tools to gain insights into site functionality and to help identify and prioritize required debt repairs.
  4. Establish preventative practices: Set clear coding standards and conduct regular code reviews to prevent the accumulation of new tech debt. Establish a digital climate that reinforces correct behaviors and prioritizes routine maintenance.
  5. Know when it’s time for a systemwide overhaul: Incremental fixes can only go so far. Eventually, you may reach a point where your tech debt Band-Aids no longer help you achieve the functionality your digital footprint needs. When this happens, be brave and pursue a large-scale revamp of your systems and software. Seek help via a third-party digital design consultant, if needed. Such an overhaul may be costly, but you’ll likely save more in the long run both in terms of your budget and operational effectiveness than if you had continued to make small fixes that were getting you nowhere.

By taking such a targeted, conscientious approach to tech debt, your firm can feel safe taking on a managed degree of digital deficit. By monitoring and addressing potential debt pitfalls carefully, you can leverage tech debt as an agile tool to propel your digital growth.


How Wipfli can help

Wipfli understands the critical role digital technology can play in the growth and sustainability of your organization. Whether you’re looking for help grappling with legacy tech debt or a solution to bridge the gap between your current software state and your growth needs, we can help. Learn more about our strategic services.

  • Billy Collins
    Billy Collins
    Senior manager
    Billy puts humans at the center of every digital experience. He brings a user-empathetic perspective to digital strategy and product ideation that uncovers hidden ROI opportunities for clients.
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