Details That (Don’t) Matter

How we as designers and developers can make our products amazing through the details that (don’t) really matter.

Last week, the tabindex HTML attribute changed my world. My friend Joe waved me over to take a look at his screen. He loaded up a page we’ve been working on that has an obnoxiously large search input in the middle of the screen. He tapped the tab key and the cursor jumped right to the input.

Dude, yes. This is awesome. How does it work?

I’m not trying to sound like some sort of elitist, but many people would never notice this simple yet dynamic detail. As some context: Joe and I are in the midst of a major site overhaul that’s spanned over a year and we’re officially down to a team of two from a height of four. In the grand scheme of things, does tabindex=1 really matter? Absolutely (not).

We’re magicians.

To most people, what we do every day as designers and developers is nothing short of magic. One second there’s nothing in the page. Look. Refresh. Alakazam. There’s an entire website. Think of your parents calling to ask for help with their passwords (hey, Dad!). Now try to imagine explaining to them how Git works. Or the benefits of using a CSS preprocessor. Or what CSS is. You get the idea.

To look at it through a business lens, I’m sure you could think of at least 10 things you could go into work tomorrow and implement that no one would ever notice. I argue that once we start capitalizing on this and start adding in micro details in that no one asked for, but are even the tiniest bit useful, we have the potential to make our products better and better. There’s definitely a limit when it comes to adding details and I’m not advocating you push off a deadline or extend a sprint to implement custom scroll bars, but throughout the process, there are things that come up. Start saying yes to those things when they arise and make sense to implement. They’ll add up and you’ll end up with an ever better product than you set out to build.

Most of us design, develop, and implement the ideas that other people come up with. We iterate on their feedback. We take criticism and magically transform the ideas into a better product. The process can occasionally be brutal and it’s easy to get fed up with the feedback and revision cycle and lose sight of the smaller details. But we can’t and shouldn’t. Remember, you’re the wizard.

Does it matter?

The elephant in the room is that, no, it really doesn’t. Users will be able to use a search bar without tabindex. They may never notice that that 0.2s color transition on links. Those sibling selector declarations to ensure text looks fantastic everywhere? I’d be amazed if anyone ever brought it up.

It’s the combination of these details that matter. And not only to people like us. There are plenty of articles, books, and even podcasts that discuss how subtle details can help create an overall positive impression of a product. And honestly, how boring would our work be if no one cared about the details?

Medium is a perfect example. Highlight a section of words while writing and you’ll get a word count in the upper left corner of the screen. From Little Big Details.

You never know who will pick up on your detail and make it even better. That small detail you implemented may evolve into something that could end up changing the landscape of our field. Take the hamburger menu originally designed by Norm Cox of Xerox, for example. If Norm hadn’t decided to implement that idea, we wouldn’t be having heated debates over its ubiquity and usefulness today.

A button tweak could lead to more conversions. An efficient piece of code could save countless hours of time. Without someone taking that action of implementing that detail, you’re looking at missed opportunity. So yeah, it matters.

Be obsessive. Sweat the small stuff.

I’m sure someone out there can relate to spending far too long picking the perfect set of colors. And secondary and tertiary colors just in case. Or refactoring a piece of code over and over in the pursuit of the fewest possible number of lines. But that obsessive attention to detail and focus on making the best fucking product possible is what makes those who are driven to innovate better than the competition. It’s a quality that proves just how dedicated and in love we are with what we do. So be obsessive. And search for others who are like you. We’re out here.

Regular people are using our products every single day. It doesn’t matter if you’re designing for 100, 1000, or 1,000,000 people, what we do as designers and developers has a real impact on real people. It’s important to remember that. Take pride in your craft and don’t forget the details. They matter.

Further reading.

Some great sites that showcase exactly what I covered here.

Little Big Details

Really Good Emails

Site Inspire


I’d also like to mention this is the first article I’ve ever published to the world. If you liked what I wrote, have any suggestions or feedback, or just want to chat — I’d truly love to hear from you. Thank you for reading. It means a lot to me. Here’s to many more.