ARTICLE: Chris Albert

Trust debt: How minor inconveniences in your EdTech product grow into a pricey liability

In the world of EdTech product development, accumulating some degree of debt is acceptable. Minimal levels of design debt (design-related inconsistencies that occur within a product over time) or technical debt (shortcuts in development that prioritize speed over perfect code) are a reflection that you’re constantly evolving and updating your product. 

What happens, though, when multiple debts mount over time and cause increased user frustration? The result is trust debt — an increasing lack of confidence in your product and your brand.

Trust debt is typically the most difficult to identify because it’s an accrual of all other debts over time. It’s also the most costly to overcome. But understanding the contributing factors and taking preventative measures can help you mitigate trust debt before it becomes unmanageable.  

Trust Debt’s Costly Impact on EdTech Products

Trust debt is the manifestation of all of the inefficiencies, workarounds and frustrations your users experience with your product over time. Unfortunately, no product is immune to amassing this debt since it’s primarily driven by perception.

Severe contributors to trust debt (e.g., losing saved work) are usually realized early, often through direct customer complaints or a low net promoter score (NPS). In most cases, though, debt levels simmer under the surface. Users — usually without even realizing it — alter habits and create workarounds for these minor inconveniences.

For example, if the functionality to move items between lists behaves a particular way in one portion of your product but works differently in another area, users expend more mental energy to work around this issue. Eventually, the modified process becomes part of the way they work, but the annoyance lingers. 

As smaller irritations build and become more evident to your users, they can snowball into bigger issues. The result? An erosion of customer satisfaction that eventually leads to diminished trust in your brand as an EdTech product provider.

The stakes are high when it comes to trust debt. A dissatisfied user may eventually stop using your product entirely. And they may not ever return. At its core, trust debt is a customer retention issue. That’s why it is critical to take proactive steps to mitigate its impact.

Turn to User Research First to Prevent Trust Debt 

Input from users is your best defense to guard against trust debt. In fact, some level of information-gathering interaction with your users should happen at all times — not just pre-launch. This helps you understand not only what users want from your product but also how they are using it once it is in the market. Insights like these can identify frustration levels users might have with your product and give you the opportunity to remedy minor frustrations before they become major ones.

When evaluating new designs, look for ways to incorporate user testing with clickable prototypes. Ask about which features users like. Then dig deeper to uncover areas that could be potential problems. With that information, you are able to make adjustments prior to the product launch and minimize the accrual of any debts right out of the gate.

For products already in use by your customers, start by administering surveys to ask users about key features on a routine basis. Even a simple yes/no question is useful for capturing initial reactions. Consider including a comment box to gather more information about why a user answered in a particular way. Surveys aren’t enough, however.

Supplement surveys with 1:1 interviews to  observe how users are performing specific actions with your product — creating a course or an assignment, accessing the gradebook, etc. By asking participants to show you how they achieve tasks with your product, you have a chance to expose areas where they’re using your product in ways you didn’t expect. The ability to follow up with questions to dig deeper is invaluable in situations like this so you can be sure you’re understanding and solving the real problem, not just a symptom.

Finally, use public reviews to gather additional insights. People are taking their time to tell you what’s wrong (and even what’s right) with your product, so even if the feedback is negative, it’s still extremely valuable. 

Look at reviews, but also look at how people are talking about your product to other users on forums, social media, etc. Comments like “avoid this” or “I was really happy with the product until …” are a first indicator that you might be at risk for accumulating some level of trust debt.

Keep your approach to user research creative and varied to foster an ongoing dialogue that reveals the most relevant insights. Considering these insights early — and often — will help you keep debt levels to a minimum and keep your users satisfied.

Implement Tech and Design Standards With a Strong Governance Process to Drive Consistency

Every family of products should start with standard ways of working. Established standards and a regular cadence for governance reviews mitigate trust debt by putting specific guidelines in place for developers and designers and holding them accountable. 

Technical and design standards establish a level of consistency and guidance for how designers and developers should use components in the design system. These might include guidelines for when to use various button types or where to apply drag-and-drop functionality. Consistency lets users know what to expect when they interact with your products. It also increases their ability to use your products in the way they were designed. All of this builds trust.

Meanwhile, the governance process ensures that technical and design standards are followed, and allows for controlled evolution of the design system. Conduct governance reviews at a regular cadence to flag instances where guidelines are not being followed and establish a course of action. Supplement with ad hoc reviews when designers are exploring potential variations during the design of new features.  Effective governance can maintain consistency and also encourage innovation if handled correctly.

Without these standards or governance processes, the likelihood of unnecessary technical or design debt being introduced into your product increases. That’s because nothing is preventing the same interaction from being executed in different ways across your product. When that happens, your users need to work harder to learn and use the features, and your developers need to work harder to fix any issues. Eventually, these can grow into sources of frustration — and mounting trust debt.

Remediate Trust Debt Once It’s Accrued

If you are experiencing a consistently low NPS, receiving ongoing negative reviews or noticing an increase in users no longer using your product, you may be suffering from trust debt. When you find yourself in that position, a desire to eliminate — or at the very least reduce — that debt should be top of mind.  

First, realize that trust debt is much more expensive to remediate than other kinds of debt. It’s difficult to alter perceptions of a product or brand the longer they are reinforced. But it’s not impossible.

Your best chance at eliminating trust debt and improving customer retention is by investing in routine demonstrations of meaningful, regular improvements. Let your users know that you are listening to their concerns and that you want to work with them to understand their problems. And then involve them in the process. 

Invite students and instructors to participate in collaborative conversations about the challenges they have with your product — and how to solve them. Use their input to improve future iterations of your product. And once you have a redesigned solution, let users do the testing. Their feedback is critical since it’s their perceptions you need to change.

Ideally, you should also establish a regular cadence of communication with users and share what else you’re working on and what you’re trying to fix. Expose portions of the product roadmap (a simplified version) so users have visibility into key initiatives for the next semester or the next year. Then deliver on those commitments.

Regular communication and follow-through is crucial to re-establishing trust with your users and paying down the debt that you’ve collected.

Proactive Measures Minimize the Risk of Incurring Trust Debt

Trust debt is often recognized late in the game. By the time you identify it, your customers may already be looking for alternatives. 

But with intentional planning at the onset of a project and a commitment to engaging with your users early and often, trust debt can be kept at bay. And you can deliver an EdTech product that meets user expectations for an optimal experience.

  • Photo of Chris Albert
    Chris Albert

    As a UX Design Lead at Openfield, Chris is a deep thinker with a savant-like ability to untangle and simplify complex systems. Now in his 8th year with Openfield, the wisdom of his 20+ year career in design and his tireless devotion to his work and clients inspires everyone at Openfield. Out of the office, you’ll find him doing the same thing he does at work – ever advancing one of his many crafts and interests. He’s a letterpressing photographing traveling gaming car guy. Chris is our Renaissance man.

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