Details in design add up to big differences

It’s a phrase you hear often: The devil is in the details. Paying attention to small details—and in some cases, obsessively focusing on “what isn’t right”—can take help take a product from “nearly there” to “there” and beyond.

We take things for granted. It’s hard to learn how to look and it’s even harder to learn how to see. And while at the granular level it becomes extremely hard to fully understand impact of even one, well-thought-out detail, it all adds up. Every minute diode placed at just the right spot. Every one-line clause in a contract that seemed to be implied. Every well-placed washer. The details don’t dictate the overall direction or look and feel of a product, but they matter.

They are to a product as a personality is to a human being. They’re not the heart; they’re the soul. They’re what transform a “thing” into an “experience” and an “experience” into a “relationship”. For the companies and people who truly understand that, the competition that doesn’t has a hard time catching up. Prime example: Apple.

The reason Apple products are popular isn’t because they’re “pretty,” or because of the “reality distortion field” or marketing or social pressure or word of mouth or really any excuse. There’s truckloads of pretty things, there’s tons of good competing marketing, and at the end of the day they sell consumer products. No one (for the most part) is making people buy into Apple. And yet, people do buy into Apple and they do so in droves and with fervor.

Here’s the secret: From every single part of the process, Apple designs, engineers and worries about the details. Their products are of a very few that take an absolute holistic product approach to its logical extreme in order to create a deep experience that most people can’t really explain other than to call it “pretty.”

Step into their stores and you’re greeted with a clean, minimalist room filled with helpful employees, tables of usable and fully testable products and one of the smoothest payment processes in the business. The journey from the doors, to handling, to questioning, to taking out the credit card, to walking back out the door with a purchase is so insanely pared down and painless it’s a bit scary. But it doesn’t stop there. Even the status indicator lights on their devices have reached a new level of attention to detail: When they’re off, they’re invisible and when they’re on, they’re obviously visible.

But this is not just an ode to Apple. This is an ode to the smart decisions and changes that can be made to a product (or really, anything) that can surprisingly take it from good to great. They’re the simple things. They’re what most people will shrug off as unimportant. But they add up and usually, not in cost.

In 2006 IKEA released a coffee mug called the “Trofe”. It was priced at 50 cents a piece and was almost your standard ceramic mug except for the fact that it sold better than any of their current mugs and was a huge hit in the news, socially, and tangibly. Why? A notch. That’s all it took.

That notch, in the bottom of the mug was utterly simple to manufacture, design, and add yet the functionality gain was huge: When put through the dishwasher upside down, the notch prevented water from pooling in the base of the upturned cup. Sold.

The Bobble water bottle is another example that’s been popular. People buy bottled water in huge numbers and would use their own bottle if they had access to tasty, clean water easily. Industrial designer Karim Rashid attacked the problem in the simplest way possible: by using a minimal, clean bottle design and incorporating the filter directly into the cap. That small design change changed the act of filtering and/or obtaining clean water from an active task into a passive task while drinking whatever water from the bottle itself.

So how do you take a product to 100 percent? You need to achieve polish, ridding the consumer’s mind of any doubt that the product is unfinished. It’s all too common for makers to feel rushed: You’re under deadline. But if you care about your craft and your ideas, you’ll take the extra time, work late into the night and add the touches that you know will make your work really shine. You know that feeling you get when you think, “Oh, I knew I should have tried that”? Do it the first time it comes to mind.

Detail work isn’t easy. It takes time, inspiration, and imagination. It is however, very good practice — in the design sense, the physical sense, and the business sense.


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