Improvement is where God and the Devil fight for the detail

How to find the balance between good-enough and perfect.

I’ve recently had a strong argument with our UX director. Having worked on hundreds of apps, she is one of the most experienced mobile UX designers in the world, and –by the way– my wife. (Side note: We’ll talk in a next article about the pros and cons of working with family and close friends.)

We were reviewing a new onboarding flow for the Happyforce app and when I took a look at the first drafted screen I interrupted her and said, “wait a sec, there’s a question mark missing in this text–”, at that moment her face turned red, she completely freaked out and said, “I need your feedback on this onboarding flow and the first thing you say is that there’s a question mark missing in a draft text, are you kidding me?!”

Famous German architect Mies van der Rohe used to say “God is in the detail” expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly. You have to take care of every single detail because there lies the difference between good and great.

Barcelona Pavillion by Mies van der Rohe is a living example of how details build perfection

The problem with this famous quote is that it has a dark sibling that reads “Devil is in the detail(s)” and refers to a catch or a mysterious element hidden in the details. A personal interpretation of this idiom is that you have to be careful and don’t get lost in the details, investing too much time and effort while forgetting about the big picture.

So, how to identify when you should stop polishing up details and launch the thing out? How to find the right balance between good-enough and perfect?

Understand and accept different perspectives

What is important for you may not be for the others. You have to understand this, and at the same time, you have to make others clear what’s important for you.

I learned this long time ago while working in a large IT consultancy firm. After working for weeks in a PPT presentation I had to sit down with the partner/director to review it the old fashioned way: document printed on paper and red marker on the hand. I hated that moment because 80% of the feedback I used to receive was related to format issues: use the same font size for the titles, where to put the page numbers, how to align the bullet lists, when to end a line with a period or none… and just 20% of the time was invested in reviewing the actual content and the value behind it.

What was driving me crazy is that every different partner had their own rules: while one wanted bullets in the lists, other asked for dashes. Nonsense I thought. But I learned three important things:

  1. Details are important. My content was already good (otherwise I would be invited to work elsewhere), but the small details were what made that content either average or excellent.
  2. All the people that create excellent work share a common trait: their attention to the details.
  3. Although every individual may have a different view of what details are important and how to do things right, all of them show a high level of consistency in the way they work, they’ve automated their attention to details. This allows them to produce high quality work very fast.

Automate your attention to detail

What you want to do is bring your attention to the details, not your time. Attention means doing things with care and precision. This doesn’t imply been slower, it’s the opposite indeed. Ask a racing car driver: the faster you want to go, the more subtle you have to be on the wheel and pedals.

If you’re putting time, money or effort in detail, you probably are on the Devil side of the details: over-engineering, gold-plating, losing track… you name it.

Identify those details that doing them right or wrong takes the same amount of time, and do them properly. Make this a habit.

Writing a question mark at the end of a sentence takes the same time than not writing it. You only have to be aware of it and when facing between doing it right or wrong, choose right.

Eventually, you’ll notice that it doesn’t consume your focus or energy anymore. You’ll save tons of time later, and you’ll make others’ work easier.

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