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Elegance: The Forgotten Small Stuff

In any project or effort, there is big vision, small details and everything in between. It all matters, but it’s the details that are most noticed by the end user.

Well, not so much noticed as felt. This is an important distinction.

What is felt is delight…or annoyance. Clarity…or confusion. Satisfaction…or stupidity.

It would be one thing if the customer intellectualized what didn’t work. But most often, they feel lazy, tired or stupid. In The Design of Everyday Things, author Donald Norman explains that people tend to blame themselves when something doesn’t work, even if the flaw is in the design.

In this great TED talk, ad guru Rory Sutherland describes with humor the bad decisions businesses and organizations foist on unsuspecting customers.

He says organizations ignore what we know about basic human behavior. Big decisionmakers think the need to feel delighted or satisfied instead of confused is too simple to be important. So these decisionmakers overlook the details that, in the end, really matter.

He uses the example of Heathrow airport’s yellow signage that points to trains. You’d expect to see another yellow train sign later. Instead, you find a blue sign that reads, “Heathrow Express,” the proper name of the train. Someone in the process forgot to consider consistency, and that not everyone will know the name of the train.

It’s not that companies insist on bad decisions. It’s that good ones aren’t deliberately made or no one cares enough to walk a mile in the end-user’s shoes.

You’ve probably experienced…

The water pitcher that spills out the sides when you pour. (Was the pitcher tested before it went to market?)

The door that looks like it should be pulled but must be pushed. (Did the architect want to design a cool handle?)

The redundant, over-wordy text in a report that you can’t plow through. (Was an editor spared to save money or time?)

The website with confusing navigation or hard-to find contact information. (Did someone hire the secretary’s nephew?)

The generous and helpful pre-sale experience, followed by bad customer service upon return. (Did anyone design a complete system?)

Decisionmakers often disappear once the project gets going, or they don’t empower the people who will sweat the small stuff.

But the small stuff is the big stuff. The small stuff confuses us, slows us down, bores us to tears—making us not want to stay, return or recommend the experience to others.

And where does elegance fit in?

Sutherland asked for a word to describe this missing component to most business efforts, suggesting that organizations appoint a Director of Details. Several commentors suggested the word elegance. It’s a perfect word; developers often use this to describe well-crafted code.

Elegance is more than simple, clear or clean. Elegance throws in a little beauty for good measure.

Elegance is generous and considerate. Elegance understands. Elegance delights.

Entrust someone as Chief of Elegance, especially if you can’t tend to the small stuff yourself.

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