The design’s in the details

When it comes to the product you’re delivering, do sweat the small stuff.

A snapshot showing part of the design exploration work that went into the creation of a service icon for IBM Cloud Event Management. (Original artwork by Shaun Lynch, one of our IBM Hybrid Cloud Visual Designers.)

Details help build trust. In any app or web product, the layout, the iconography, the language, the colors, the button text, etc. all contribute to how people experience that product and influence their perception of it.

Even if they don’t exactly know why, people can feel when some aspect of an app or website is “off”. Say a graphic is five pixels left of center, or the typography forces you to squint slightly, or maybe two icons for different functions look really similar — in all these cases, the user feels the discord.

The value of precise details goes well beyond making things pretty for the sake of prettiness. Research has shown that the efficacy of our minds is vitally influenced by our emotional states, which means we perform better when we’re at ease with our physical and virtual environments. Inside a pleasant user experience, the boundaries between work, exploration, and play begin to dissolve. Instead of desperately hitting different buttons in frustration, the user completes tasks easily and thinks: Cool. I wonder what other puzzles I can solve with this tool?

The details are not the details. They make the design.
— Charles Eames

Let me give you a couple more examples of where seemingly small design details can have a significant positive impact on the overall experience.

In the Google Inbox mobile app, if Google thinks a message is a phishing email, it shows a fishing hook instead of a profile picture. So simple, yet so helpful.

(Google Inbox. Thanks to http://littlebigdetails.com/ for this example.)

I also noticed recently that the good folks at Medium have recently changed the platform’s reader appreciation model to offer more granularity than the standard like / don’t like control (see their article “Introducing claps” for details). They’ve clearly done their user research and put real thought into the user experience of the new “clapping” metaphor and UI interaction. The subtle differences in the icon based on prior usage and hover behavior, the apt animations, and the the count displays all work together to provide a delightful user experience.

Medium’s new “clap” mechanism for showing reader appreciation.

In this era of information overflow and iterative design, the once-sought-after “genius idea” has taken a backseat to everyday, simple ideas done brilliantly, simply, and with an eye for detail.

Think of the anecdote of Steve Jobs calling his coworker at 3 in the morning to talk about what screws were being used on the inside (i.e. unseen) part of his machine. This might initially seem crazy, but Steve Jobs’ obsession with details was core to Apple delivering the kind of ground-breaking, exemplary consumer products that it is now known for.

Thankfully this focus on the user experience and to all of the small details that contribute to it is becoming the norm — not just in consumer-facing technologies, but now too in enterprise software (although there is still some catching up to do).

The Coding Horror blog has a great post by Stack Overflow co-founder Jeff Atwood on “The God Login” that applies rigorous thought to the minutiae of login screens, an aspect of our lives we encounter daily and yet rarely think about. Amongst other things, the post advocates reducing the process down to its most simple and vital components. It offers concrete and detailed guidance about using clear language, well labelled buttons, and talks about the need to provide appropriate guidance and feedback to the user in different scenarios.

Image taken from “The God Login” blog post by Jeff Atwood: https://blog.codinghorror.com/the-god-login/

Like anything done really well, great product design is a reflection of skill, perseverance, and attention to detail. Every atomic design moment — all of the “microinteractions” to use Dan Saffer’s term — count in the overall user experience. This applies to any kind of product design, in any environment and in any form.

Sadly, when teams don’t have this focus on the details, their products start to suffer from the “death by a thousand paper cuts” syndrome, where more and more small design quality compromises derail the overall user experience.

To my mind, Harvey S. Firestone got it right all those years ago:

Success is the sum of the details.

The difference between a good versus an awesome product usually lies in the details. At the end of the day, if your design culture and focus is not dedicated to constant improvement of the little things that form the overall user experience, no matter how good your product is at the core, someone else will take your idea and polish it into something better.


Arin Bhowmick (@arinbhowmick) is Vice President, Design at IBM based in San Francisco, California. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.