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Strategic insights
Add the little things

Written by on December 20, 2008

To make a great product, you need to pay attention to the little things. You should stay away from "things" that get in the way, but at the same time, embrace those that help you progress.

It is the little things that define the experience. It is the subtle features that make your product faster and smarter. It is the finer details which makes it pleasant. And it is the little things that takes your product above what is expected.

These "little things" can be put into 5 categories:

1: Exploring the sensors

Sensors is a relatively new way to drastically enhance the experience. It is about using touch, infrared sensors, sound, vibrations, gestures, image recognition, and all the new advances we see in today's technology.

One example is the Teeter game on the HTC Touch Diamond.

This game is very simple. You have to get the ball from one part of the playing field to the other, without falling into one of the holes. There are literally tons of games like this on the market, but this one is special. They have added a number of little things that drastically enhance the experience.

For one thing, the game is played by tilting the phone itself, as opposed to using controls and buttons. This is an ingenious way of using the accelerometer.

But they also added two other little things. One is the sound, which is very subtle, but spot on. The other is the vibrations. The phone vibrates when you hit a wall. You can even feel where and how hard you hit it. You get a different, yet subtle, vibration when you fall into one of the holes.

Without these vibrations and subtle noises, the game would still be playable. But it would also be a very basic experience. Adding the little things, like vibrations and sound, turns this into something much more than it is.

(Video review by ZDNet)

2: Extra quality and finesse

Spending time on the quality and the finesse has always been an effective way to create a better product. But while the overall quality should be good, it is the subtle changes that really make a difference.

One example is the wire quality used with Apple's headphone (for the iPods). They are much softer than regular headphone wires. This means that every time you reach into your pocket, you get this silky like feeling in your hand. It actually feels good.

Staying in the world of iPods, you will also notice a difference between the old and the new iPod Touch. The new one has a slightly curved back, with edges that continues all the way to the front. While the old one was flatter and had a sharp edge. The result is that the new iPod feel much better in your hand. It is an incredible tiny change, but it really makes a difference.

The difference in quality is not reserved for physical products. In web applications it is about taking care of every single pixel. Creating just the right visual impression, and fine tuning how the web application interacts and responds.

3: A quicker path to information

Another way to create a great experience, is to make it easier for people to get essential information. It too is often the result of a "little thing" being added to a product.

  • Like when your car flashes its lights when you lock it.
  • When your microwave oven beeps when it is done.
  • In Word, you can simply glance at the status bar to see how many words your document contains.
  • Or select a number of cells in Excel and it will show you the average or the totals of those numbers. You don't need to tell it to calculate anything. It is just there. For people who do a lot of analysis, a little thing like this makes life much easier.
  • When you search (in some browsers) the matching text is highlighted, making it much easier to find.
  • In Mac OS X, you can see the number of unread emails or RSS feeds directly in your dock. You don't need to turn away from what you are doing.
  • Live Messenger displaying when a friend of your is typing a message (or when he is not)
  • And Flickr is displaying the upload status in the title bar.

All of this, and many more, are "little things" that seems insignificant, but makes an incredible difference to how friendly and convenient your product appears.

Word count in word. Even showing how many words in the selected text

Total, Average and count in Excel's status bar

4: Power-user functionality (for ordinary people)

Yet another way to really improve a product is to provide "shortcuts" to advanced features, but in a way that is simple to do for everyone.

  • Like how Live Messenger (and most other IM's) allows you to type ";)" which is then turned into a picture.
  • The browser that allows you to right click on a word to look it up in a dictionary, or search for it.
  • When Google is turning a search for "239 USD in EUR" into "239 U.S. dollars = 167.296654 Euros". It is a little thing, but I use it all the time.
  • How certain search engines allows you to subscribe to any search query.

5: Neatness

The final "little thing" that can really make a difference is neatness - as in the appearance of the finer details.

The new MacBook is a very good example of this. It is absolutely perfectly designed. There are no distracting lines, everything is aligned just right. Nothing is out of place.

Compared to the latest Lenovo ThinkPad, almost everything is misaligned. There is a dividing line that isn't straight, the "grove" that helps the screen sit in place is not placed at the same point at either side, the screen is displayed off-center... and the list goes on and on. Everything is just slightly wrong.

The difference might seem insignificant. It certainly doesn't stop you from doing your work. But it does make a difference in how you feel about using it.

It is the same with all other products.

  • Car manufacturers spend a lot of time making sure that the gaps between the doors and the side panels are exactly the same everywhere.
  • Clothing manufacturers make sure that your clothes is sewed together exactly right
  • (Talented) web designers make sure that everything is aligned correctly and the icons are made using the same color-scheme, lighting and perspective.
  • Even cartoon artists, takes care that their lines are consistent in thickness and sharpness.

It is the little things that matters

Without these little things, you product might still be very good, but it isn't great. It doesn't go beyond what is expected. It doesn't give that extra sensation, nor does it look "just right".

Just remember that adding the wrong "little things" will turn your product into a frustrating experience. The right "little things" are those that enhance your product, without distracting the person using it.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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