Sweating the Small Stuff

January 2011

Little Big Details, a blog dedicated to those tiny touches that push software from useable to truly delightful, serves as a much-needed antithesis to Read the Fucking HIG.

In every industry, the vast majority of products out there are only 99% finished. We drive cars with terrible GPS systems, live in houses where the doorknobs are just that little bit flimsy, and watch television shows where the background is lacking in fine details. To get that final one percent right might require hundreds of hours of effort, and the thinking goes that most people won’t notice anyway.

Who knew, for example, that the iPhone Mail app has been carefully designed to decide when to scroll to the top of the screen to show you new mail? Many other developers wouldn’t have bothered: it’s a one percent thing. How about the fact that the book a character is seen incidentally seen reading on Mad Men has been carefully selected to suggest the existence of an entire world beyond the foreground narrative? And how many regular, non-designer folks could tell you that the text you’re reading right now is actually set in Junction (a humanist sans-serif font designed by Caroline Hadilaksono), and not in something ostensibly identical, like Helvetica or Arial?

There’s a widespread belief that if something isn’t immediately mind-blowing, it doesn’t matter. That any detail that might slip past the majority of your audience should either be cut entirely, or made big, bold, and red so that everybody will notice, immediately. After all, if a certain detail slips past your audience, doesn’t that represent wasted effort?

In practice, though, we like subtle detail because we like to be surprised. While most non-geeks mightn’t consciously notice subtle design detail, they do notice those decisions on a vaguer, sub-conscious level. Ask a regular iPhone user why they think the Mail app is such a great email client, and they might tell you that “it just works”. Ask any regular viewer why Mad Men is so fantastic, and they’ll tell you it’s because it seems to offer such a penetrating representation of an era – even if they mightn’t consciously make note of the details. Ask a regular reader about this blog’s typesetting and (I hope) they’ll say that it “just looks nice” – even if they can’t explain entirely.

Those details that only a hundred people might consciously notice are precisely the details that are worth polishing. Because, even if some of us might lack the well-trained eye to focus in on that final one percent, or lack the vocabulary to explain precisely what makes one product stand out from another, everybody notices the difference between a product that’s 99% completed and something that’s 100% of the way there.

(Update: If you enjoy Little Big Details, you might just love House of Buttons).