Since asking this question, I've come to a better understanding of how question scope should be defined (more precisely than this question's original version), so I'll better define the scope herein.

Nuances in Interface Design

Somewhere in my question, Do Interfaces Really Need to Look Good?, a user expressed vivid appreciation for the nuances of graphic design, expressing their importance. I didn't agree so much with the importance of such subtle features in graphic design, so I posed this question.

Are the nuances of graphic design important?

In user interface design, I've heard artists stress that the "smaller things" are actually of equal importance with the "general features", or at least, very important.

General Definition of Nuances

The smaller things are the subtle features, the nuances of an interface's design. The effects of light touch, going unnoticed without close inspection but contributing to the page in a collective way.

I personally love to pay attention to finer detail; I think subtle detail collectively makes a design unique and adds finesse. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a very important aspect of interface design.



enter image description here

While Facebook's design is beautiful, crisp, and, in my personal opinion, good-looking, all of the visual features that I see are very obvious, each serving a specific purpose. I don't see anything that goes unnoticed at the first glance.

Every feature seems to be an important aspect of the page's layout and functionality, not a supporting detail that adds unnoticed finesse to the design.


enter image description here

Twitter, on the other hand, shows a handful of interface design nuances. Subtle outlines, the subtlety through which the twitter icon is engraved (top, center), faint clouds in the background, as well as a few other non-functional, decorative features of subtlety in mobile versions of the interface.

Many of the features seem to provide subtle, decorative value to the interface's design without directly contributing to the its functionality in an obvious way.

The (Updated) Question is:

Can these nuances add value to any design, or are they simply a personal taste decision?

  • @Yisela I've been revisiting these old questions to improve any that haven't been successful. To alter this one to be a non-duplicate and to comply with answers given pointing out the proper question, I've completely reworded the final question. Is this question still a duplicate? May 20, 2014 at 1:28
  • @JonathanTodd Looks great! Re-opened. Would be a shame to close a question with so many good answers, too.
    – Yisela
    May 20, 2014 at 2:53

4 Answers 4


I think you're looking at the question wrong.

It's not a matter of "smaller things" or details being automatically more or less important than the broad aspects of colour and layout. It will always depend on the specific detail you're talking about.

I think you get closer to the key issue when you ask

Can they be useful in any and every situation to improve user experience, or are they simply a personal taste decision?

Some small details can greatly improve user experience, by helping the user find information or understand the functionality. Small details can also sub-consciously influence perception about the style and feel of the site and therefore of the organization it represents. In that sense, they can be very important.

But at the same time, there are countless small details that a designer might fret over that really wouldn't make a measurable impact in a user survey.

The same can be said, however, for the "big" elements of the design: some aspects of colour choice or layout will greatly affect a user's reaction to a website, and others will just be seen as a style choice where multiple options could have been equally valid.

The thing to remember (and what the "artists" you reference were probably trying to express), is that some small details can have a large impact on user experience. But you need to judge the importance by that potential impact, and not on an attempt to define what is or is not a "detail".

Oh, and as for that Facebook layout:

You don't specify what you do or don't consider a "small detail" and therefore why you don't think the site has any. I see many:

  • The icons in the top bar change colour depending on whether there is anything new, in addition to the little red flags.
  • Similarly, the "20+" new posts notification next to the "Home" link is backed by a dark shadow inviting your to click.
  • Shading is used on the timeline (on the right) to show where you are in the timeline -- if you scroll or jump to posts in the past, a different year will be written in dark letters.
  • In the horizontal nav bar, the current heading is highlighted twice: it's a different font colour, and it has a little pointer notch below the tab heading to connect it to the main content.
  • In the "About" box on the left, key terms are highlighted in blue. Yes, that's pretty standard web UX, since these terms are also links. But it could have been expressed in different ways, with underlining instead of colour for example. But the colour draws your eye, and then your experience with blue text on web sites makes you want to reach out and click on the link.
  • On posts, the time posted is given in relative terms ("about a minute ago"), instead of in timestamps. It makes it more personal and comfortable -- you don't have to check your watch or think about timezones -- and in this case it reminds you that the person who made that post is currently online and might answer you right away if you commented.

These are all things I would consider "small details". But they are all things that have been carefully designed in order to keep you clicking and scrolling through the web site.

You write:

Some of the features are subtle, but every feature seems to be an important aspect of the page's layout and functionality, not a supporting detail that adds unnoticed finesse to the design.

But the question is, how many people actually stop and think and link colours and highlights and time formatting and such when they are actually using the page? If you had to design the page from scratch, would you have thought to include them? Yes, they are all important aspects of the layout and functionality -- that's what makes them important details, no matter how small. But they can also at the same time contribute "unnoticed finesse" to most users' experience.

  • 1
    I agree with much of this answer; I'm posing questions to the community that oppose my own opinions so that I might create more objectively answerable questions. Apr 16, 2014 at 21:30
  • Two points that I think either I've either caused by not being detailed enough, or that have eluded your attention: The part where you say I'm getting closer to the key issue - My entire question is me attempting to pinpoint and clarify a single key issue. I'm not jumping from topic to topic. And the part about not specifying what I do or don't consider a small detail... Where exactly in the question am I not furthering the specification of what I consider to be a small detail? Apr 16, 2014 at 21:36
  • General Detail: More specifically, anything that is an important, obvious factor in the page's layout. - anything else, which maybe wasn't as self-explanatory as I imagined, I consider a small detail Apr 16, 2014 at 21:38
  • 2
    The problem with definitions like that is that everyone has a different perception about what is or is not "obvious", what will or won't be "noticed" consciously. Some people notice things others don't.
    – AmeliaBR
    Apr 16, 2014 at 22:15
  • 2
    Fair enough. My whole post can probably be summed up as "Don't worry whether your design choices are small or big, worry whether they have a positive impact on the user or not."!
    – AmeliaBR
    Apr 16, 2014 at 22:45

In a way, I think you have the cart in front of the horse. There is the old saying; if you take care of the pennies, the pounds take care of themselves.

Of course, you need to be able to step back from details to see the whole now and again, but the devil is in the details.

To quote the Master; da Vinci:

Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.

There cannot be elegance and usability without attention to detail: you can build from a small element and up, it is wildly tricky to build from a set frame and down. Ideally, of course, it should be from both simultaneously.

  • O'Reilly, you're really talented at saying some wise-sounding stuff that brings in upvotes like flies to pie without providing an objective answer! I'm not quite sure whether I should accept your answers or put them on fortune cookies :P You're a creative mind, but you can at least append an objectively motivated answer to that philosophy. Apr 16, 2014 at 19:49
  • I assure you that raking in votes are certainly not my goal, I feel more that my mind is a bit flakey, and prone to misunderstand questions. Again; I will mull a little. You might get some more answers with more Baddaboom! accept :) You want concrete examples, and that is trickier than I thought...
    – benteh
    Apr 16, 2014 at 19:52
  • Yes, its tricky. It's easy to throw out an opinion (not necessarily a bad contribution) on this sort of question, but it's vital that in the end, the result is a well supported, objectively founded answer with concrete detail and/or example. Apr 16, 2014 at 19:58
  • Fair again, I think maybe the problem is more that I have not been clear enough. Inside my head it makes utter, objective sense :S
    – benteh
    Apr 16, 2014 at 19:59
  • Of course it does, it's always so with creative minds; The trick is to translate that personal understanding into something a six-year-old can grasp, according to Einstein, relatively. Apr 16, 2014 at 20:01

As with everything, context is critical.

If we're talking an emergency shut off valve at the gas pump, no, the 'little things' probably aren't important at all. Focus on the big thing "Make it obvious and large" is all you need.

If, on the other hand, we're talking about differentiating a product in the marketplace, then it's pretty much entirely about the little things.

Take Apple, for example. There was nothing innovative about the iPod and iPhone in that MP3 players and touch screens had been invented long before they came along. What was different, however, was the total sum of the 'little things' that were put into these UIs. They are a joy to use because Steve Jobs did care as much about the little things as the big things.

Other CEOs, such as Jeff Bezos have adopted that same focus on the details.

In terms of user engagement, it's often the finer details that makes the UI 'sticky'. One recent presentation that I felt sold that concept well is this one on how to make your game designs 'juicier':


Of course, in the end, finer details SANS any big picture functionality is pointless. But all things being equal, paying attention to the details is what can really sell an experience to a customer.

  • Please update your answer to comply with the question's improved scope and detail, if necessary. May 8, 2014 at 10:00
  • @JonathanTodd I don't think I need to change the answer. It still stands well with your updated question. The little things are often very important and if not paid attention to, can be the make-it-or-break-it factor. Another phrase that you might be interested in is "Design for delight" 52weeksofux.com/post/531355592/design-for-delight
    – DA01
    May 20, 2014 at 4:46

It depends

Visual nuances have a different level of importance depending on where you are in your project, the type of project you're working on, and the number of people it reaches.

For websites that are primarily tools it's all about the general features. Once they've reached a certain number of users the small things tend to matter, especially in the face of competition.

The rules for designing a website for a band, a restaurant, etc are completely different. In those situations fashion and good taste matter more, but a certain lack of polish is usually permissible due to budget and time constraints. But polish does matter for portfolios.

General rules

Regardless of the project, good design is inside-out design.

For early stage designs, glows, gradients, drop shadows, and textures are often a distraction. However, when a website design is live and running then these details can be added to solve minor UX problems. You could add a dropshadow to a popup window to make it stand out more.

Visual nuances are often distractions from good design, because its a form of premature optimization. Dieter Rams states:

Good design is unobtrusive... Good design is as little design as possible

The details that matter

Details are important, but not the small visual nuances that go unnoticed. All design details should register in user's minds in some way and affect their behavior. The hidden details like the inside of a Mac computer are about a different topic, namely, craftsmanship.

This doesn't mean design needs to be sloppy. Dieter Rams also states:

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance

The visual details that matter are sometimes so hidden that you can only see their value by analyzing real user behavior.

For example, the design you attached looks that way largely to cater to Facebook's users in third world countries. They had another radical design that they largely abandoned. This article goes into more detail: https://medium.com/p/ed75a0ee7641

  • This is a very, very good answer. May 8, 2014 at 10:02
  • Also: Please update your answer to comply with the question's improved scope and detail, if necessary. May 8, 2014 at 10:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.