Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Importance of the Little Things

You're on vacation and just arrived in a small town you've never visited. You're famished. Would you eat here?

  1. Eat where? The place looks abandoned!

  2. No way! It looks like the only food this place serves is a knuckle sandwich.

  3. Sure. I like to live dangerously.

  4. Only on the recommendation of a trusted individual.

Although the setting may differ, we've all faced similar situations when traveling. If you're in a big city and need guidance, you're likely to reach for one of those freebie publications in your room—you know, the ones sponsored by the local "Visitors and Convention Bureau" or Chamber of Commerce. Although packed with gushing ads, you can usually find a map and a list of restaurant descriptions. Or if you're high-rollin', you might call the hotel concierge.

But if you're visiting a small or out-of-the-way town, you might be forced to resort to your own wits to find a good meal.

That's what we expected to do when we rolled into Pinos Altos, New Mexico, a small historic town (population 3,500) just outside of Silver City (population about 10,000). But thanks to the savvy Silver City Chamber and our gracious hosts at the Bear Creek Cabins, we had a world-class experience.

At check-in, Bear Creek's manager, Daniel, pulled out the Chamber's 11x17-inch single-sheet visitor's guide. One side boasted a map of the surrounding area with suggestions for day trips and excursions; the other, maps of Silver City and Pinos Altos with points of interest clearly indicated and described.

And that wasn't all. Using highlighters, Daniel sketched the best routes into and out of the town, made suggestions for local adventures, marked the locations of the best restaurants (along with Wal-Mart and Albertsons) and offered to make reservations for us. As a result of such thoughtfulness, our three days in Pinos Altos were an unexpected highlight of our Southwest vacation.

UXCentric as I am, I marveled at how such attention to the "little things" added up to create a noteworthy experience. Silver City's single-sheet visitor's guide looked pretty plain compared to the glitzy and glossy tomes we saw in Santa Fe, Taos and Sedona—but it was much more helpful. Why? Because it placed the visitor's perspective first and sweated the details. Those thick big-city guides may look good, but they're all from the perspective of merchants, restaurateurs and hoteliers.

Which brings us to the lesson at hand. As Web designers, we all give at least lip service to the idea of building sites from the user's perspective. Some of us take great pains to do everything we can to achieve this end. But let's not be naive. Web sites are always in a tug-of-war between the needs and goals of their sponsors/companies and end-users—and the victor is usually the one with the deepest pockets. (Hint: It ain't the users.) Being UXCentric means living in this tension every day.

That's why the little things are so important. I submit that for most sites it isn't the information architecture, visual design, copywriting and UI that promote the ideal user experience—though they all play essential roles. No, I think it's the sum of the little things that make the difference, the little things that demonstrate that someone took a great deal of effort to consider the user's perspective in the tiny and mundane details. What's especially cool about this is that these little things usually cost little to implement—just like that Silver City visitor's guide cost little to produce.

By the way, thanks to Daniel's recommendation, we had an outstanding meal at the Buckhorn Saloon (pictured above). Built in the 1860s, the Buckhorn has been operating continuously for more than 100 years. The experience of dining in a truly authentic Old West setting (no fake theming here) adds flavor to the excellent steaks, prime rib and seafood. If you're ever near Silver City, don't miss it.


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