The Mythical User

Taking the mystery out of User-Centered Design

Don’t be the weak link

on 1 August, 2013

A while back I wrote about Death By A Thousand Bugs, the slow degradation of user experience that comes from keeping all those little bugs around that are just too small to feel like they’re worth fixing.  There’s another kind of death, death by mediocrity, that I want to save you from today.

Have you ever stopped to think about the difference between a really great product that you love, and its competitors that you don’t love as much?  Odds are, it’s the small details. When a product team has taken the time to think about all the little things, not only does the product feel more polished, it’s easier to use, and it’s a more comfortable environment.  It’s like a house, where your hosts have thought to clean the grime out of the corners in the bathroom.  It’s just NICE.  The details matter.

What are details?  

Everything.

From the corner radius on your rounded boxes, to the color of your dropshadows, to the way things respond when you click them, to the thoughtful predictions of user intent, there is no end to detail. I can’t list every detail of an application because they are truly, infinite.  Apple is a master of the details, though even they don’t think of every single one. Google, I’m sorry to say (as a very loyal user of their products) is not good at details in its UI.

Learn how to break things down.  There’s the normal view:  “Oh, it’s a page with a body, an aside, some ads and a call to action button”.  Then there’s the next level of attention:  “The body is 2/3 of the page and the aside is 1/3 on the left.  They are separated from each other by a colored border.  The ads all have borders and a label.”  Then there’s the next level: “Everything but the content responds when I mouse over it.  As I scroll new things appear.  All the borders are 1px.  Everything actionable has a drop shadow.”  And then you get really into the nitty gritty “The shadows are dark green instead of black.  There is a darker shadow on the most important thing.  Things that are meant to guide my attention are tilted at a 15 degree angle” etc.

This is, of course, a vastly simplified example.  But it’s important to see the progression – it’s like zooming in with a microscope on every single little element of every screen.  I like to start at the top and work left to right, top to bottom, but you can find your own method.  Think about the very atoms of what you’re looking at – and while you’re at it do your users a favor and ask if it really needs to be there.

Whose job is it to keep track of all the little details?

I can’t think a single person in a product team who shouldn’t be thinking of details.  There’s probably a funnel, with the product manager and designers thinking of the most details, but every person, from project manager to developer to QA engineer should be paying attention to these things and talking about them with the rest of the team.  If  designer misses the idea of putting helpful mouseover text on the icons, the janitor should be able to point it out and suggest it.  If the engineer notices that it would be neat if the eyes on the icon critter closed when the product wasn’t in use, they should be able to suggest it or even just build it.  How much you empower the people outside the “planning and design”  functionalities of the project is up to you.

I’d like to say that the product manager and designer should think of every detail, because detail is their job.  However, no one, two or ten human beings can think of an infinite number of things and I’ve already pointed out that details are infinite.  Even Apple misses things.  So the product manager should do their best and they should deputize every other member of the company to do the same.

You’ll find that certain people are really good at finding certain kinds of detail.  I’m really great at noticing visual design and interaction details, but I’m not always awesome at data details or QA details.  Because I like to set up tight all-way communications in my teams, I usually get the feedback that I missed a certain browser or resolution when I was QAing, and I actually keep a checklist.  Know where you’re strong, and offer that up to the team.  Know where you’re weak and find a workaround, whether that means trusting someone else to be strong there or making checklists or creating mnemonics or whatever works for you.

The user experience of your product is only as good as the least detail-oriented person working on it. Don’t be that person.

How can I train myself to think of details when I’m busy crafting the big picture?

That’s the easiest part.  There are some great blogs out there – one of my favorites is Little Big Details – and you can subscribe to them.  They only take a second to read each day, but they’ll change how you view the world.  While that’s happening, you can start asking yourself why all the time.  Why am I doing it this way?  Why do I like that?  Why did they do that?  Why should we do this?  You’ll start finding that the critical thinking will really improve your appreciation of everything you do, but it’ll also improve your understanding.  As a side effect, it’ll also increase your frustration with the world “Why did Safeway require me to choose payment method on the self-checkout screen and then again on the card reader screen?”.

Every time you see something you like, think about whether there’s an equivalent for your product.  Maybe the texture on the dashboard of my Prius (one of the many details that makes me love the car) inspires me to use a texture in the background screens of my app, just to make it feel more tangible or evoke a subconscious association.  Nothing in the world should NOT inspire you.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking of things holistically.  It just means you need to become a more flexible human being.

When should we start fine-tuning details?

This is a prickly question, because details can mean scope bloat and creep if you’re not careful. It can lead to analysis paralysis if you don’t practice pragmatism and prioritize well.

Start thinking about your details from the very first moment you conceive of a project.  Carry over details from previous projects that you’ve already thought of and implemented. Bring in the dreams of idealism.  Polish starts from the very first second, as you build a smooth surface to buff later.

As you move through the production process, details get more and more expensive to design and implement.  Too much, too late, and you have experience rot before the product even goes live.  So try to make fine-tuning a part of your DNA.

If you’re willing, empower your developers to just Make It.  I’ve worked with some great developers who knew that thing could pulse when you mouse over it, and I happened not to think of it.  They just did it, and showed me, and I jumped up and down with delight.  Just remember to encourage communication loops; surprises are a bad thing.

If you have a deadline, or if you are on an agile schedule, treat the details like a constant improvement.  Do as many as you can before you push, and then queue up a list of new things.  Always be adding to the list, always be improving.  I’m an Agile fan, so this comes easy to us.  Waterfall shops will have a little more trouble with that, since it’s often “get it perfect before you hand it off and then don’t even think of changing it”.  However, even in a waterfall world, you can build relationships with the people downstream and upstream, and make judgement calls.  What doesn’t increase scope too much goes in, what does goes on a list for the next rev.

Get started today

Go.  Go now, my child!  Look at your website, your app, your product. Break it down to every atom of form and function. Find a friend who’s anal-retentive and ask them to do the same thing. Find someone who’s good at describing things and ask them to describe to you how it looks, how it feels, how it behaves. And then make EVERYTHING better.

You can do it, I believe in you.


Today’s Interesting Link:

random.org – Random is hard.  Like really, mathematically hard.  Let these guys do it for you.  They have so many fun toys, that you’ll find excuses for being random all the time. And that can’t be a bad thing.

 Today’s Usability Quote:

 “If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.” – David Ogilvy on writing, but fits design

Today’s Music To Design To:

Cirque Du Soleil has so many good options.  However, Dralion has everything I love – haunting vocals, varied tempos, and a wonderful mixture of exotic and familiar.  You can’t go wrong with Cirque, and maybe it’ll even inspire you to get out of the office and go see them.  🙂

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