Friday, June 5, 2009

Little details matter

People tend to think about the big things but overlook the little details. As a result, I think that little details can often reveal hidden, subconscious truths. Here's some examples, and a story that illustrates how powerful little details can be.

Many companies say that their customers are the most important thing to them, that customer focus is their number one priority. If this is true, then why do so many companies display only their products in their lobbies? What if they displayed the names and pictures and videos of their customers instead of their products?

And what about visitor badges? If visitors are welcome, why do we give them crappy badges with VISITOR on them? What if there were temporary badges printed on the fly with the names of the guests instead? Or even better, name badges that were ready upon their arrival. Wouldn't that make a guest feel welcome?

We all know that first impressions are important. Why is it then that many companies outsource their front desk to a security company? What if for one morning, a senior executive sat on the front desk and welcomed the staff? Wouldn't that be cool? What if the front desk staff had responsibility and a small budget for keeping the lobby fresh, fun and interesting?

Many executives say that their staff come first and that they value their people. If this is true, why is it that so many Board Meeting agendas have finance as the first agenda item and HR as the last? What if HR was the first agenda item instead?

I remember a regular monthly conference call that I used to attend some years ago. Every month the most senior executive on the call would say "this call is the most important call that I do every month". If this was true why was he was 5-10 minutes late dialing in every time? What if he was always the first to dial in instead?

Many websites say that they welcome feedback. If that is true then why do I have to register before I can submit comments? What if I could leave anonymous feedback but have the anonymous feedback visible only to registered users?

And now the story:

I had the great pleasure of visiting the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) offices in New York a couple of weeks ago. As you may know, they have recently taken control of Scientific American. NPG is busy making space in their offices for them. The desks and cubicles have been set up and are waiting to be fitted out with equipment. Over the last few weeks Scientific American staff have been visiting their new space in small groups to see what it is like. Before the very first group arrived, NPG made sure that there were nameplates above each new desk. Imagine how good it feels to visit a new office space that isn't even quite ready yet, and to see your name above what will be your desk. You can also see who will sit next to you. Wouldn't that make you feel very welcome? It is a little detail. I bet it makes a big difference.

Finally, a warning to anyone who thinks they can "fake" the little details. Humans have built-in authenticity sensors that detects inconsistent behaviour and recognizes token gestures. It is this same sensor that tells us when a CEO blog is ghost written for example. Little details are surprising and unexpected to the receiver and yet seem completely natural to the person that thinks them up. For the Nature example I am sure the thought process was "these new people must be feeling apprehensive about moving, how can I make them feel welcome? Well, one thing I could do is to put their names over their new desks before they arrive..."


  1. spot on. In my field we're often speaking of the "user experience" but this is so much more Human.

    how do we forget about it so easily?

  2. Great insight - its amazing how much goodwill employees will give to their employer if they feel valued in the little things. I worked near NPG for a while and, yes, they were fantastic at thinking in that way.