Avoid the Hidden Costs of Taking Shortcuts in Software Design

January 30, 2024
Close-up of overlapping hundred dollar bills

In today’s risk-averse economy, businesses often adopt conservative spending strategies to mitigate risk. This cautious mindset prompts questions about what expenses can be trimmed, delayed, or replaced with more economical alternatives. We have all experienced meetings where questions such as, ‘Is it a necessity?’, ‘Could we postpone it to a later date?’, and ‘Is there a more cost-effective alternative?’ are asked.

While most of the time these are sensible questions to pose when planning for the future, doing so can inadvertently lead to delayed, prolonged, or even increased costs. UX Theater, a term coined by Tanya Snook, exemplifies this risk. It refers to a deceptive approach to design, which prioritizes surface-level design, over-focusing on core user experience issues, and relies on assumption-based design rather than real human feedback.

Whether you are a business owner, product manager, designer, engineer, or team lead, it is imperative that we understand how to identify and avoid the pitfalls of UX Theater and other comparable ‘shortcuts’.

Shortcuts in Practice

Here’s an example I witnessed first-hand. I was helping a customer build out a new feature they wanted to add to their existing website. This customer prided themselves on their site’s user-centric design. And from my outside perspective, the existing site looked the part. It wasn’t until much later that I found out there hadn’t been much effort behind the site’s user-centricity.

When I asked what kind of preliminary research they had done for this new feature, or if we needed to build a research strategy, I was quickly dismissed and told we didn’t have the time or budget to conduct the research. The deadline was the most important factor.

I sat there second-guessing and thinking to myself, “How do we know if people want this new feature?” We didn’t know, and we were moving forward on assumptions. At the time, I was too nervous to speak up and the project moved forward without validating with end-users. Fast forward to a few months to the launch and the new feature fell flat; end-users did not use it. Moving forward without real end-user feedback ended up being a waste of time, talent, and cost. Even though the feature was delivered on time, it added no value to end-users and led to a drop in usage of the product.

Considering the Consequences

I still cringe when I think back to the above project. All things considered, the consequences that resulted were light. In comparison, I’ve seen other cases where cutting corners had been detrimental to how a business’s users perceived their products.

Below are a few of the many consequences that can be the result of a team or business shortcutting UX efforts around their product:

  • Disengaged customers
  • Tarnished competitive edge
  • Loss of customer loyalty
  • Increased cost of digital marketing
  • Increased customer acquisition costs
  • Lawsuits
  • Harm to brand reputation
  • Poor press and reviews
  • Wasted budget and time

How are you ensuring alignment with your target markets? Finding the answer to this kind of strategic question will reduce the risk of making poor investments, and avoid leaving end-users with sub-par experiences.

Striking the delicate balance of priorities between a business’s profitability and maintaining a sustainable commitment to its users can be difficult. By implementing proper UX practices that uncover key information early on with generative research efforts, like user interviews, businesses can actively work towards an ideal balance without introducing unnecessary risk.

The word ‘Research’ can feel heavy and time-consuming. But research can be done in small increments throughout the product’s development. It serves to check in on how goals are aligning as we build. With it, you are far more equipped to clear and secure a path to a successful future. Instead of moving forward based on assumptions, your team now moves forward with valuable and informative data.

Listening to the User

On a recent project, our team experienced a case where early user research significantly boosted business value. While collaborating with a customer on a web application for internal staff and customers, the initial belief was that it should be designed for desktops only. However, after user interviews, it became evident that this assumption was incorrect.

Through interviews, we discovered that both user groups planned to use the application on smartphones, tablets, and desktops. Internal staff emphasized the need for tablet and mobile optimization for on-the-go usage, while most of their customers preferred using the application on shared desktops.

As a result of the early stage research, not only did we save time and money, but the application was optimized for the hardware it would be used on. By the end of the project, the customer was already looking to scale the new application to be used internationally.

Because we built this application in a way that fit a user’s normal day-to-day way of work, they were able to adopt the new application into their routines quickly and it built a stronger, more transparent relationship between our customer and our customer’s customers.

Don’t Let Your Organization Fall Into the UX Theater Trap

Some businesses will push to skip over initial testing and research. One way I like to challenge this tendency is to invite those who are hesitant to join me in the testing sessions so they can witness feedback firsthand.

When they see the user succeed or fail tasks during a session, it becomes abundantly clear to them why testing early on is critical to a product’s success. One of my favorite parts of this job is seeing a customer’s live reaction to how users interact with early designs. It is always nice to see how invested they are whenever they sit in on a user testing session.

When businesses have full exposure to the process, they can speak to its value better than just skimming through a findings report they received. Those who are brought along can be internal champions of doing UX the right way. In a related article, Tanya Snook describes this as “mentoring upward”. Having a key stakeholder vouch for early-stage UX activities makes the discussion around the importance of UX on a project much easier, especially compared to the argument being solely on the designer’s shoulders.

Be Proactive, Be Curious

As a business owner, there will be instances when eliminating design initiatives feels like the only viable option. Challenge yourself to resist this reflex, and instead encourage your team to actively participate in generative research. This research will provide a more informed product that gives greater value to your business. Remember, validating assumptions and misunderstandings early on will save you and your team a lot of time, effort, and money.

As I bring this to a close, I’d like to encourage you to actively practice bringing a curious mind to your next software project. Seek out the design talent that can conduct the research your business, and its products, require. As designers, a large part of our job is driven by curiosity. With teammates who can champion our work, designers can fully reach their potential and help you reach your product’s desired outcomes. Together, with a shared curiosity, we can uncover valuable information through research while avoiding perceived shortcuts and the costly assumptions they introduce in a product’s development lifecycle.


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  1. Snook, Tanya. “UX Design Has a Dirty Secret.” Fast Company, 2021, www.fastcompany.com/90686473/ux-design-has-a-dirty-secret.
  2. Snook, Tanya. “UX Theatre: Are You Just Acting like You’re Doing User-Centered Design?” Spydergrrl, Blogger, 11 Mar. 2018, www.spydergrrl.com/2018/03/ux-theatre-are-you-just-acting-like.html.