The success of a user interface depends on getting the details right.  That's not to say that a little bit of fit-and-finish work can save a horrible design, but a good idea won't thrive either unless enough of the little details are right.

I know that I am sometimes frustrating to work for because I can be a bit of a perfectionist around the UI.  Especially during the last part of the product cycle, I'm constantly prodding and poking (and asking those around me to prod and poke) to make sure that every decision we make is as good as it can be.  (I mean, you only get one chance to do something like this, right?)

Our development team has gone out of their way to provide us the opportunities to get the details right.  Unfortunately, sometimes getting the small stuff right costs way more time and energy than doing something "most of the way."  Yet, the whole team has remained committed to going beyond the "good enough" mentality so that the user experience is seamless in ways you wouldn't even notice unless we got them wrong.

One of my favorite examples of this was a design change we made a number of months ago called "Eat Dismiss Clicks."

Here's the setup.  Let's say that you drop down a menu in Windows.  Now, instead of clicking a menu item, you click somewhere else on the screen.  This has always dismissed the menu and sent a mouse click to wherever you clicked.  Nothing surprising so far; this is just how the Windows focus model works.

Now, let's say you insert a Picture in Office 12.  As you know from my discussion of Contextual Tabs, the Picture Tools appear in the Ribbon because the picture is selected.  So far so good.

You decide you want to add a shadow to the picture.  So, you drop down the Shadow gallery from the Ribbon and look through the shadows available.  You don't see anything you like, so you click somewhere other than the gallery to dismiss it.

BAM!  Your click goes through to the document.  Because the click wasn't on the picture, the picture gets deselected.  Because the picture got deselected, the Picture Tools disappear.  Now, all of a sudden, just because you didn't see a shadow you wanted, all of your tools disappeared and you have no idea why.

It's easy from a developer point of view to explain this as the "correct" behavior.  The behavior is perfectly logical, and it follows the way focus has worked in Windows for decades.  It would have been tempting to have just left this as is, and to have rationalized that people should make sure to hit "Escape" or to click somewhere on the Ribbon or title bar to dismiss the gallery instead.

But when we looked at people actually trying to use the product, they didn't "aim" their "dismiss the menu" click at all.  They weren't actually trying to both make the gallery go away and also perform some action with a single click.  Clicking away from the gallery was just an efficient and discoverable way of making it disappear.  The software was behaving rationally, yet it nonetheless managed to completely confound the user's expectations.

So, we had a quandary.  Making a fix was expensive, complicated, and involved working around the Windows focus model.  The test team was concerned that a lot of unforeseen quality regressions would occur.  Code down deep in each of the apps would have to change.  It was the kind of scary technical problem no one wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole.

Did we make the change?  You betcha.

Because it was too important to get the details right not to.  We bit the bullet, worked through the technical issues, found and fixed the bugs, and checked it in.

And now?  People find this part of the experience to be seamless.  No one ever notices the work the team did to get that detail of the design right, because it works the way you'd expect if you just sit down and start using it.  Sure, there's a detailed and complicated technical story behind how it works--but that's what we get paid for, figuring out how to put technology at the service of delivering great software experiences.

The "Eat Dismiss Clicks" story is emblematic of how our team has tried to go beyond to get the little things right in the Office 12 UI.  If we do the job well, the experience is seamless, responsive, and predictable, and it makes all of the extra work worthwhile.

It's the obsession to get the details right that makes all the difference.