A few months back, I read Steve Jobs' Biography by Walter Isaacson. Early in the book Steve talks about a time when his father was building a cabinet and told Steve that the back of the cabinet should look as good and be built as well as the rest. It’s a story that informed Steve’s design philosophy from that day forward:
“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
Back of the Cabinet Mentality
Steve always paid meticulous attention to the little details even the ones that people might never see. When you’re designing interactive experiences, most of your time is spent trying to support your clients‘ big picture business objectives. You’re focused on making sure users can be able to easily find and purchase products, that the business can manage content,that users can easily find similar products, and so on. For designers, solutions to these problems are as much in the details of the user experience as they are in the overall design. It’s the small touches can make an experience great or one that's instantly forgettable.
I've recently discovered Little Big Details, a blog that focuses on how small details are handled across websites and applications and can help guide users down the desired path while enhancing their experience. Here are a few examples from the blog that illustrate the difference a detail can make:
While in the inbox, the Compose button is red. Then when switching over to composing an email, the Send button is red instead. In an age when every millisecond counts and email can seem painfully slow compared to IM and texting, this color coding is a small, simple detail that makes the user experience easier and quicker.
When entering in your credit card information, the icon for the credit card flips around when you get to the CVV2 Security code on the back of the card, a small UI improvement that helps educate the user of where that information can be found.
When typing in the search box, the autocomplete drop-down height will be limited so it doesn't cover what you may be watching. This is the kind of detail that’s meant to be overlooked by most viewers. The success here is that the design is so integrated with the user experience that what’s not happening is as important as what is.
When you receive a shipment email in Apple Mail, right clicking the tracking number allows you to immediately track it's location. Also, on iOS devices it auto-generates links for tracking information, phone numbers, dates and times, addresses, etc. Here, mail anticipates your next move and responds before you have the chance to go searching for additional information.
While most of these types of details serve to make the user experience easier, some are just there to make it a little fun:
When searching for a dirty word or phrase, instead of a safe-search error it returns results for the word 'kittens.'
Overall these little details don't amount to any grand gestures or sweeping statements. Most of the time these kind of details aren’t something users may even consciously notice (which can seem like an awesome excuse for not bothering with them at all). But anything you do to make the user experience better will does have an impact on some level — even if it’s not overtly obvious.
Users might not be able to pinpoint that the way Google Maps treats the white stroke around the black text on its labels makes these maps easier to read than say Yahoo’s maps. They’ll just decide that for some reason they can’t really explain they like Google Maps better. In design and in life you don’t always need to shout to get your point across, sometimes all it takes is a nudge—a small but powerful detail—to get people moving in the right direction.