Monday 27 September 2010

Sweating the small stuff

One of the most boring parts of running any organisation is executing on the details well. I find many of the people I work with do not appreciate quite how important this is for their success.

Some great examples of this come from the world of the internet and ecommerce. Many Indian websites have woefully inadequate user interfaces / user experiences. Yet, there is a wealth of experience in designing user interfaces, especially to increase success in ecommerce. Take a look at this link for example. If you look at the first case study in the article, there was a 30% increase in sign-ups based on a simple wording change. Now, in any business, getting a 30% increase usually takes a lot of hard work. Here is a place where there's easy pickings, but for some reason, very neglected.

Perhaps this TED video from Rory Sutherland has an explanation ! For another great source for small changes making big impacts, read Yes! : 50 Sceintifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive

It is true that focusing on the details is very boring, and very time consuming. Top management doesn't have time to do things like this. However, any organisation that masters this will quickly have an edge over its competitors, and the edge will expand rapidly.  

The Japanese have long figured it out. Their TQM / Kaizen methodology empowers every individual in the company to keep making changes that improve things. That way, the burden of the detail is spread out across a large number of employees. (A side benefit is greater employee engagement !) This comes together in the Learning Curve. Do a thought experiment. If you can, across all the people in your organisation, generate a 1% improvement each week in say productivity through working on the details, in a year, that adds upto a 50% increase in productivity. 

This lack of attention to detail is often the reason for the failure of a variety of initiatives. A particularly egregious example from my working days was a Change Management System imposed by the IT department on the rest of the company, which the whole company was resisting violently. When I took a look at the system, it was pretty easy to understand why. The system worked, but the User Interface was like pulling teeth. For example, the user had to specify by when he wanted the change implemented. He had to select first the date from a drop down box - 1 to 31, without any default. Next was the month, followed by the year - 2001 upto 2099, without any default. I kid you not. Next three drop down boxes had the Hours, Minutes and Seconds, also without any defaults. Just specifying all this was more than enough to exhaust 90% of the users. And that was just one small piece of the whole form. You can imagine how unsuccessful that system was. Yet Senior Management was in denial - because not one of them ever used the system themselves.

I'd love to hear from you other examples of great improvements that can be achieved for little cost, or other ways organisations manage to Sweat the Small Stuff.


  1. Absolutely Rahul! On spot again!To add to your perspective - though what you mentioned is a no brainer, it does not happen due to neuropsychiatry causes. Many of us suffer from Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder sir! those who don’t have this disorder, they suffer from Attention Scarcity bug! ... humans have amazing coping skills – so we rely on dashboards, leading indicators, vital few, allizzwell etc. :)

  2. Yup ! We can cope, but we cannot excel in that mode !

  3. The other unfortunate bit is Indian business does not see Interface design as anything more than JiP jobs (Jazz it uP); that's why the IT services companies and captive Indian arms give it the respect it deserves; many Indian product companies want to benchmark against the best but do not want to invest in User Experience Design.

  4. I guess the real question is how to change this mind-set. I think the rise of Apple to be the most valuable technology company in the world based largely on design (including Business Model Design and User Experience Design) is something to talk about. But where are the visionary entrepreneurs ? And are our designers capable to carrying an entire business on their shoulders ? I guess we won't know until we try.