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The convergence god is in the details

When it comes to making successful convergent systems, it's the little details that mean a lot.

A comment in my article about Amazon.com's MP3 download store took me to task for picking nits about aspects of the service, especially about the quality of the usage experience. Fair enough--one man's nit is another person's show-stopper. But when it comes to convergence--hardware, software and services all coming together as they do in digital music, for example--it's taking care of those nits that are crucial to delivering satisfying music. Good enough is just not good enough unless you are happy being an also-ran.

Why? Because convergent systems are tremendously complex--both to create and potentially to use. The trick is to hide that complexity to the user so that it appears easy. Doing that requires huge amounts of work and difficult choices and, yes, paying attention to seemingly small details. Cumulatively these small details add up to either ease the use of the system or to hinder it. Look at how many poorly executed solutions to the digital music system have come and gone over the years. The basic idea of most of them was probably solid; where they fell down was in taking care of the details: ease of discovering music, rules for DRM, pricing, ease of transaction, ease of interface, and so on.

Being trained as a designer I'm perhaps more fussy about these differences than many people. It's hard for me to say, as I've been looking at the world this way for so long. But a recent article by innovation guru Michael Schrage reminded me of how far apart designers are from most people in how they look at the manufactured world, including things like convergent media systems. Schrage was participating on the annual IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) and BusinessWeek design awards, and the experience was so unexpected that he says he literally will never look at "designed" objects the same way again.

By far the most striking revelation for me was the collective designer obsession with detail. You've no doubt heard the phrase "God is in the details" or "The devil is in the details"? This design jury had heaven and Earth covered. You can talk "brand" or "vision" or "concept" or "insight" or "elegance" until you're blue in the face, but world-class designers care about how those ideals are expressed in the details. Something that I would dismiss as a niggling detail the designers would say revealed the essential point they were trying to make. Great design is about the ordering and intention of details that you can--or aren't supposed to--see and feel.

This is why Apple is held in such high regard by designers--its unstinting attention to detail. Nothing is overlooked. That doesn't mean they get everything right all the time by any stretch (Dan Saffer at Adaptive Path is complaining that iTunes is not a very good application, for example), but you can always tell that things have been thought about and paid attention to. If you're playing in the same pond as Apple, they set the bar for experience because of how they sweat these details, and that forces you to do the same.

What was worrying about Schrage's article is that it reminded me of how little conscious attention most people involved in bringing these convergent systems into the world have about these small but crucial details. That's probably why Apple has had a pretty much uncontested run for the last five years.