In design, details matter

Have you ever experienced a cascading menu that seemed to run away from you as you navigated it?  This is one of those subtle usability failings that can lead to a disembodied hatred of a site or application.  Very few people will notice what’s actually going wrong, let alone what should be done to fix it.

Galileo

Galileo (Photo credit: dglambert)

Ben Kamens noticed when Amazon got this right.  Not only did he notice, he wrote up what he found and developed a jQuery menu you can use on you own site to achieve the same fix.  The improved implementation, by the way, has its origins in noticing what direction your mouse is moving — if it’s headed toward a sub-menu, this implementation gives you a chance to catch it.

The moral of the story?  When you get this stuff right, most people never notice the details, but they’ll notice the feeling of quality in the product.  Nobody loves an Apple iAnything because the edges are chamfered exactly so or because the icons are rounded just a bit, but they notice that it feels solid and sorted out.  I’ll bet you’d have a hard time finding people who can tell you exactly why a BMW feels better than a Chevy, but most of them will agree that it does.

As a designer, it’s important that you do, in fact, notice the little stuff, and that you understand how these details contribute to the quality of your product.  With any luck at all, you’ll work for an organization that also gets this stuff, because you’ll also find it pretty frustrating to try to explain details like this to a bean-counter that hasn’t got any awareness of this relationship.

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Microsoft still struggling to put pieces together

I’ve been a Microsoft developer for a lot of years now.  As such, I’m intrinsically motivated to want to see them succeed.  For that reason, it’s painful to see what’s become of the Microsoft juggernaut.  Office hasn’t given us a meaningful improvement since somewhere around Office ’97.  Windows fared a little better, probably due in no small part to the dismal showing of Vista, which made Windows 7 look like a breath of fresh air.  Despite this, I still think Microsoft fields the best set of developer tools, top to bottom, of anyone, and I’d love to keep developing solutions with them.

Microsoft Office Mobile on Windows Phone

Microsoft Office Mobile on Windows Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a fan of Microsoft, then, I’d love to see Windows 8 take off — on the desktop, tablets, phones — everywhere, but it’s not, and I don’t have to look to far to understand why.  I recently upgraded three machines at home from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and I have to admit that the tablet features appear to have been duct-taped onto Windows 8 with little regard to optimizing the experience for either type of client.  I can only imagine what the phone experience is like.  I’m still finding myself at a loss for where various bits and pieces have wandered off to.  Thank God for search, or I very well might have downgraded by now.

Worst of all, there are signs that Win 8′s problems are a bit more widespread than my own personal adoption headaches.  Well-known developer evangelist Rocky Lhotka wrote a post this week addressing licensing headaches that could very well keep enterprise customers from adopting WinRT for internal applications, and MVP John Petersen wrote about the continued lack of applications for Windows 8.  Are these problems affecting Microsoft’s bottom line?  It may be too early to call, but reports indicate that Microsoft is cutting prices on Windows and Office, and that’s not a good sign.

As far back as I can remember, Microsoft has been king of the “platform”.  They’ve always understood that there’s a synergistic relationship between OS, applications, developer tools, and users.  It’s possible to be successful successful in one or two of these areas, but if you’re able to leverage success in one area to grow in another, the leverage is tough to beat.  It’s too late for Microsoft to win mobile by meeting Apple or Android in a heads-up battle.  Same goes for tablets.  If Microsoft hopes to be relevant again (let alone dominant), they need a holistic solution that blows open a market that Apple and Google don’t already own.

So, what’s left?  Unfortunately, there’s very little obvious green field left, but the one real hunk of market where Microsoft actually holds the high ground is entertainment — namely, Xbox.  Sadly, Microsoft has been running Xbox like its own little company since Day 1, so although it works really well with Windows, there’s so much more synergy to be had in home computing and entertainment if Microsoft would merely re-assemble pieces and parts they already own into a platform that would actually add value in the home.

Curious?  Stick around — next time, I’ll lay out the product that could save Microsoft if they’d just break down some walls and build it!

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