Back in high school, when the rest of the world was busy playing football, basketball, or something else socially rewarding, I was in the marching band. I don’t regret my decision to join the band. In fact, it has taught me a few lessons that I find useful even today. One such lesson occurred to me yesterday as our design team was discussing the 2008 Web App Summit. One of the highlights of the conference was Jason Fried’s presentation, “The Little Things Matter: Building Web Apps with Laser-Like Attention to Detail”. He spoke about taking something great and making it even better. Walt Disney referred to this concept as “plussing”, a concept that allegedly started with the Jungle Cruise ride. “Walt Disney coined the term plussing as a way of making an idea even better. By telling his workers to plus it, even when they think they nailed it, gave Disney that extra edge when it came to quality animation back in the day. Pixar is a staunch believer in plussing their work. And it shows.” – ward-o-matic.
So the marching band story: In marching band, I was in the drum line. We had an amazing drum captain and were lucky enough to have a band director who had a masters in percussion performance (there is, I learned, a proper technique for playing the triangle, no fooling). The drum captain was extremely disciplined and had that same attention to detail that Jason was talking about. They both worked us hard making sure we were tight as a drum line: that we knew our parts and were together on our double-stroke rolls. We went on to place in every competition we entered and win a good number of them. However, before all this, in one of our first marching competitions, one of the bands before us had what I thought was a killer drum line. They all donned matching Chuck Taylors and had some killer stick tricks. In my heart, I wanted one day to be able to beat that drum line. As it turned out, our one day to beat that drum line was that same day. We very much beat that drum line. We didn’t have tricks as cool or outfits as flashy as they, however, we were much tighter and had paid attention to the details that matter in making a good drum line.
So when you hear people like Jason Fried, Walt Disney and John Laseter talking about plussing, the most important thing to realize is that they focus first on the details that matter. Only after that does it make sense to attempt to make improvements. So when I as an interaction designer ask myself what are the details that matter, I usually answer myself that they involve supporting the work flow of my users. Nobody is going to care whether you’ve timed your expand/collapse effect right if the application as a whole isn’t meeting their basic needs. How do you meet your user’s basic needs? The answer to that question is forthcoming in another article. But here’s a teaser: it involves talking to them.