Ask any business owner or manager what could be improved about the operations of their company and they will very likely tell you that they are working on “improving efficiency”. They are switching from waterfall to agile to improve efficiency. They are tracking tasks and measuring progress to improve efficiency. They are trying to establish repeatable processes and are experimenting with automation to improve efficiency. In a world where everything is becoming a commodity, efficiency is the latest craze.
At the same time, we naturally want to provide the best quality possible. And this is where it gets tricky. Because in pursuit of efficiency, people tend to give far too much weight to the number of tasks that can be accomplished in the shortest amount of time. Yet to create a product of high quality, the number of features and the speed of execution are secondary. What really makes a product great is meticulous attention to detail.
The details that make a product great are often invisible if you don’t pay close attention. But although they might not be obvious, those details add up to create an overall perception of quality and they will make a product more useful, longer-lasting, or, for example, more energy-efficient. In other words, caring about the details ultimately makes all the difference. But because a focus on efficiency favors measurable quick wins over long-term thinking, taking the time to get the details right is one of the things that is readily dismissed as a waste of resources. “We don’t have time for unnecessary details.” The end result is a product that has all the features the client or the team came up with but which lacks focus and vision.
But even if you know how important attention to detail is and are willing to walk the extra mile, there is a second challenge: Which details should you focus on? Which are the ones worth pursuing and which are a waste of time? You’ll never know for sure, of course, but there are two things that can help you make a decision. The first one is having a clear goal. You can also call it a vision, a mission, or principles. What matters is that it is not a “task” or a “to do” but really a set of overarching principles that everyone agreed upon and which can serve as a compass when you are uncertain. When you know where you’re going, every task is just a step towards your goal. It can be as simple as to agree that “we will at all times provide an inclusive user experience” or “our product is and will always be the fastest on the market” or “user experience, even over developer experience” or “we must not tolerate hate speech on our platform”. If someone then wants you to compromise on those guiding principles, you can remind them that this would undermine what your product stands for and you’ll be able to confidently make a decision that doesn’t favor the quick hack over building a valuable, resilient product.
The second tool at your disposal is to always be willing to learn and gradually improve. Nobody gets it right the first time, but if you didn’t allocate some time and budget for course corrections, you will never know which details aren’t working yet. Consequently, your product will never succeed in the long run. Even the world-famous designs by Charles and Ray Eames underwent several rounds of prototyping and improvement until, for example, the feet of the steel constructions stopped cracking and breaking off. So don’t skip your research, build prototypes, test, and iterate.
But remember: This is not about perfection. Perfection might not exist. But attention to detail surely does.
This is the third post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.