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Posted: 14 September 2023
By Alastair Lee

Angels in the detail

How can we tell when a design detail is core to the user experience, or something we can safely ignore?

Tent in a field with my son in a chair

Some details matter

My friends often take the mickey out of me for being ‘Mr Detail’. I think it’s because I tend to notice small things and mention them in conversation. Things which they think are insignificant.

I also like to drill into blurry distinctions to find something solid. I say things like “Yes, but what does that actually mean?”. I have more of an appetite for this, it seems, than most people.

However, as I was listening to an audio-essay on my dog walk this morning (Philosophy for Troubled Times by Kieran Setiya, if you’re interested) I heard something that made me feel somewhat vindicated. “We live in detail, not abstraction” said Keiran. Yes we do! I thought.

The door that doesn’t close properly. The choice of word in an email. The amount of salt in a sauce. The position of a button on a web page. These details affect our lives. We may not always be aware of it, but we feel their impact.

The other day I went camping with my son James. Having scoffed sausages and toasted marshmallows we retired to our tent. James was asleep almost immediately, but I found it hard to drift off. So I reached for my Kindle. Unfortunately it was out of battery.

I rummaged quietly through my bag and found a charging block. The wire was connected to the block, so I just needed to connect the other end to the Kindle.

I pushed, but it didn’t seem to go in. It was kind of in, but I couldn’t be sure. I considered pushing harder, but I didn’t want to bend the socket.

Then I remembered that it’s Micro-USB, and kind of trapezium shaped, meaning you need to put it in the right way up. So I flipped it over and tried again. It still didn’t seem to go in properly. Perhaps I had already mangled it?

I needed to look at it to understand what was going on. But switching on the light would disturb a sleeping James. Hmm.

People say that Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive were obsessed with detail. And many were annoyed by their decision to design their own ‘Lightning’ port for the iPhone, rather than using the Micro-USB port that was standard on so many devices at the time.

I agree with the argument for standardisation and I’m pleased that USB C (also symmetrical) is now going to be mandatory across all devices, at least in the EU. But I can also see why Apple wasn’t happy to adopt Micro-USB. Being able to plug a wire into your phone without checking if it’s the ‘right way up’ may seem like an insignificant detail in a boardroom in Seattle, but when you’re hunched in a dark tent fiddling with a wire for far too long, it feels quite important.

Angel spotting

The problem, of course, with ‘staying on top of the detail’ is that it consumes resources. We can’t focus on everything. So we have to distinguish between the details that matter and those that don’t.

How do we do that? Well, it helps to have some criteria. When hiring we usually judge candidates according to a set of criteria – skills and qualities that we have defined as important to the role.

But choosing criteria for what’s important in product design is hard. It runs deep. As deep as values and business models, and big strategic bets.

Apple sells a combination of beauty and usability – the quality of the user experience. People interact with their plugs, so for them, designing a plug that ticks those boxes was important. Not an insignificant detail, but a part of the user experience and another chance to express what Apple stands for.

When you think about it like this, the definition of ‘detail’ starts to dissolve. Supposedly ‘small’ things become highly significant when they play a role in a bigger story.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. But so are angels – the details that can tip the balance, shifting the experience from the ordinary to the delightful.

To find your angels, you must consider the essence of what you offer, and how that is felt through the experience of those who use your products and services. You must understand what’s important them, even when they are not aware of it. And then you must find ways to respond that are consistent with your brand.

So yes, I am Mr Detail. And when it comes to your experience of life, so are you (pronouns aside). If there’s a difference between us, it’s in what we each perceive as important. Which is a question of some significance, don’t you think?

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