On sweating the small stuff: lessons for design and content


“The details are not the details; they make the product”

Charles & Ray Eames


Unqualified advice

Not long ago, I read Richard Carlson’s little book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. It’s a classic—even a trailblazer—of the self-help genre, countenancing a reordering of your priorities in order to live a calmer, less stressful life.

Even if you haven’t read Carlson’s book, some of its prescriptions might be familiar from more recent books like The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight or The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson. If there’s a core belief underlying these books (and most of their bookshop shelfmates) it’s something like this: there are things that we can change, and things that we can’t. We’ll be better off—calmer, happier, more productive—if we can stop worrying about the things we can’t change, and start focusing that energy instead on things that are genuinely under control. So: stop bothering yourself with how other people think of you; that’s up to them. Stop fretting about something that happened this morning; that’s in the past. Pour those energies instead into the two things you can control: your own thoughts, and your own actions. By forgetting the small stuff, we can focus on what really matters. 


99% perspiration

As a way of living your life, that all sounds pretty good to me. But reading Carlson’s book, I couldn’t help think what bad advice “don’t sweat the small stuff” would be for anyone in our business—anyone, that is, building or designing websites, apps, marketing campaigns, or anything else.

This seems truer online now than ever before, when we are surrounded by such keen contests for our attention and it’s so easy for any customer to turn away or find an alternative to almost any product or service.

I, for example, am very busy and I live in London, one of the busiest cities in the world. As a result, I often find myself catching up on personal admin on my bus journeys home.

There’s no space and no wifi, so I have to use my phone; and I’m tired and in a rush, so the slightest annoyance—an unexpected navigational dead-end; a number entry box that brings up the letter keyboard—will send me away from the application I’m using and onto the next task. If that happens, there’s a good chance I’ll be put off and look for an alternative.

I’m not the only one like this, so if we want to avoid putting people off like this we have to sweat the small stuff. We have to focus on the tiniest details and think about the ways they might enrage people. And we have to test with real people to diagnose where these pain points might unexpectedly pop up.


Sweating design and content: UX and usability testing

UX designers are (or should be) advocates for the user: constantly sniffing out both pain points and opportunities to make anyone’s time using your product better. They are, in other words, experts in sweating the small stuff. How? By cultivating empathy: learning to look at a product not just with “the” user’s eyes but considering the eyes of users in different situations: old and young, differently abled, in different cultural contexts, and on all sorts of other axes; identifying those most important and their behavioural traits.

It’s through this process of getting under the skin of the user that a UX designer can achieve their goal of making users’ journeys to completing tasks—whether that is to purchase a product or learn the answer to some question, for example— as easy as possible. The result is a win for everyone: happier customers with higher conversion rates.

One of the big challenges here is that people are different: they have different goals, different ways of thinking, and different tastes—and a website, page or app will never just be used by one type of person.

The best way of figuring out what users will and won’t like is the obvious one: to ask some actual users. One of the most powerful tools at a UXers disposal is usability testing—or getting real people to use the product for real and learning from their interactions with it.

Of course, gathering users’ thoughts isn’t the end of the work: then comes the challenge of collating their responses and incorporating their feedback into your work. Since users will never fully agree, some prioritisation is inevitable at this stage. Figuring out their core needs or tasks is a good place to start: what is the one main thing that people are using this page for?


Sweating design and content: microcopy

There are thousands of little things a copywriter or designer can do to entertain, delight or reassure a user—or otherwise encourage them to feel a certain way, do a certain thing, or simply not stop using the product.

Take microcopy, the small bits of text on an app or webpage that show the user around and help them to perform actions, such as buttons, navigation items and error text.

It can be tempting to think that there are no real decisions to be made here, or at least that any copy that “does the job” will be equally effective. It’s tempting, in other words, to treat microcopy as small stuff that doesn’t bear thinking about, when in actual fact it can make the difference between a click and no click, a contact and no contact, a sale and no sale.

If you need to be convinced of the outsized impact seemingly trifling details can have on behaviour, there’s a wealth of evidence from the fields of psychology and behavioural economics. Take, for example, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s lauded concept of the Nudge—a small intervention designed to affect positive behavioural change. A famous example can be found in the men’s bathroom: a small sticker of a fly (or other insect) in the bowl of a urinal has the effect of significantly improving the aim of the urinal’s users. Other examples abound in the worlds of politics and policy, but their overall message is simple: it’s possible to influence people’s behaviour with relatively minor and subtle (even subliminal) interventions and changes.

A good place to start thinking about microcopy is to identify something that isn’t working and see if tweaking the copy can have a positive impact. Say a webpage that you hoped would lead users to your online shop is failing to do so. What do the links between the two pages say? Is it clear where the links will take the user? Do the words you use make the onward journey seem easy and pain-free? Are there any worries a user might have on the page, and have you done everything you can to assuage them?

Here, too, usability testing can be crucial. Sit down with a new user and get them to interact with the page out loud. Another great tool is A/B testing: building two versions of the page with only the text in question changed and seeing which encourages more clicks.


Sweating technology

It would be a mistake to think that only elements of the customer’s actual journey can be approached with this sweat-the-small-stuff way of thinking. The same goes for the technology that underlies that journey. For a start, pain points that you discover when taking a close look at your UX, UI or copy might require technological work to be fixed: changing a text link to a button, for example, or to round off an example I threw up earlier) including the few lines of code that will bring up a number keyboard instead of a text keyboard in an app.

Beyond that, though, there are plenty of questions for you to ask about the tech itself. What are the little details that you tend to skip over in your tech that could make an outsized difference?


Sweating for yourself

Just like Carlson’s book, what I’m advocating for here isn’t really solution, but a way of thinking. Depending on your professional discipline, it might be a way of thinking that you’re used to practicing yourself, or you might instead be used to trying to focus on the big picture.

Whatever your role, spending some time sweating the small stuff—thinking hard about the little things—really can make the difference between a successful product and a failure. It’s the difference between giving a busy person on the bus just enough reason to tap out to another application, and holding their precious attention.

It’s a way of thinking I’m still learning myself. If you're an experienced Sweater of the Small Stuff,  I’d love to hear what matters to you. Otherwise, good luck!

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