Make Time For Quality – Lots of Time

I am always saddened to see plywood wheelchair access ramps retrofitted to multimillion dollar edifices. They’re ugly and incongruous, and shout “whoops, we forgot about you,” to a valuable minority of users. It leaves me hoping that the building owners sued the architects. Unless the building was designed before 1670.

Recently, I took over the completion of a functional spec/business requirements doc from a coworker. It was about 2 pages long and included about 8 wireframes. At the time, we figured it was “almost done”, just needed a little polish and it would be ready for engineering review.

A week later, the document was finally ready for review. It was 22 pages long, including 20 wireframes.

The Devil is in the Details

Corner cases, alternate flows, defensive design, and all those niggling UI details are your web app’s access ramps. They take a product from good to great. You can address them in the planning documents or you can deal with them in the code, but the Pareto Principle is alive in product design: 80% of a prodman’s effort is typically focused on these considerations.

Many users will never notice your attention to details, but it provides two potential benefits:

  1. Like any excellent craftsmanship, it occassionally reaps big rewards amongst general users. By extending their menu buttons one extra pixel to a screen’s edge, Mac designers created interfaces that are about five times faster than Windows interfaces. Ask a Mac user why they switched, and they’ll say it’s just easier, or maybe they like the pretty case.
  2. It rescues differently-inclined users. I’m talking about the access ramp riders, many of whom are overlooked by the competition. Look beyond the blog mavens and 18-to-34-Males. My Grandmother used Juno, instead of AOL because it was easy (I think Tog worked there too). Actually, look at the blog mavens too – the ones who use Backpack in spite of Outlook’s massive marketing budget, because it does all the right things, and does them well.

User Perceptions Scale Geometrically

Remember the Mac menus: one pixel, five times faster. A satisfied customer tells one person; a dissatisfied customer – the poor sap who stumbles into your unaddressed edge case – tells 11 people. Even in tight races like the new browser wars, Firefox and Safari stand out head and shoulders above Internet Explorer. In premium and emerging markets, the advantage is even more pronounced: iPod wins, Rio is a distant second, and there is no third place.

Quality is Addictive

It’s true, especially for users who care, whether because they’re mavens or face exacerbating challenges. Consider productivity guru David Allen’s argument for purchasing top-quality organizational products: if your file cabinet is difficult to open and you’re in a hurry, you’ll stack your papers instead. Ask a Whole Foods snob to join you in a local D’Agostino and watch their reaction. This is why New Yorkers love the Big Apple: quality blooms and survives in the Darwinian nooks and crannies of our concrete jungle – once discovered, it’s hard to ignore.

A fellow iconoclast recently admitted to falling in love with Flickr. They created an account on a whim, used it, and were delighted. Then they used it again, and were delighted again. And again. All those nice interface details and lovingly-crafted UIs just kept calling him back. In an increasingly disposable world, quality is a refuge.

Remember that “polish” is just one of several options for resource allocation. Limit scope, not quality. Keep your building small and it may not need that access ramp at all.


  1. Hee hee. You say “iPod wins, Rio is a distant second, and there is no third place.”

    Actually, I’m fairly sure Rio stopped manufacturing MP3 players a year ago or more. And yet they’re still getting cited as being #2 in the marketplace. 😉

  2. I’m discovered as a Riophile! At this point, the MP3 player contest has stabilized, but I still have fond memories. iPod has buried the competition, but I still have my own quality additictions.

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