Details are the Difference - Ash Donaldson - Leading the Product

Details are the difference – Ash Donaldson, Tobias & Tobias

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Ash Donaldson Leading the Product

Ash Donaldson is Principal Behaviour Design & Innovation Consultant for Tobias & Tobias Australia, a design and innovation consultancy on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. At 2016’s Leading the Product conference in Melbourne, Ash shared some scintillating examples of how the details are the difference between good and great.

Ash opened his presentation with a personal story. “Recently we moved offices and we had time to reflect as a company. After going through hundreds of post it notes we discovered that we have a lack of time and space to reflect on what we do.”

Why the relentless pursuit of doing things fast? It all comes down to efficiency.

“Corporations have shareholders to answer to. These shareholders expect continuous growth. Because corporations are built on the assembly line, everyone has KPIs to meet. Marketing wants things that are new and shiny. Engineering wants to increase production velocity. The one common theme is speed. KPIs get bigger and deadlines get shorter.”

Ash explains that in the past, corporations had R&D units where research was unfettered. There were safe spaces, with people who had the ability to experiment without having to demonstrate tangible quarterly results. But in this busy and expensive world, R&D is the first thing to go.

To fill the vacuum and propel new products, Tobias & Tobias are often engaged to come in and help out. They ask – how can we do things better? The answer is through details and design.

How details make the difference

In the course of his very interesting job, Ash comes across countless examples of excellence when it comes to changing both user experience and company results.

  • Designers of early versions of the Eames chair found that their chair slid around the floor too easily. The feet broke off. They iterated until they had the product that they wanted. The small details made the difference between good and great, a combination of details combining to deliver quality. There are many imitators, but few of the same calibre.


  • The door handles on the Tesla car are sunk into the body to reduce drag. As the owner approaches the car, the door handles automatically extend. This welcoming gesture appeals to humans’ basic instinct to ‘humanise’ everything they interact with. Adding this feature would have cost money. But it frames the mood for the driver, starting the experience on a high note and making the difference between good and great.


  • Ash explains how one of his team members was upset that she had to replace her Samsung washing machine. Why? At the end of the cycle, most machines buzz or click. The Samsung model played Schubert – an extended ditty that is a completely redundant waste of money in development terms. This washing machine has the highest customer approval ratings in the industry. People publish laundry related lyrics online. Which is free marketing of the best kind – word of mouth.


  • Google maps uses details to make us feel positive. The voice service reassures you. It says “There is an accident ahead, but you are still taking the fastest route”. By letting you know that using Google Maps will get you there faster, this product has added details that make the difference.


  • Even clothes can make you feel different. In an experiment, people were asked to name a colour that they saw, even though the colour was used to write a different colour. For example, here the word says RED, but the colour you should say is ‘Black’. In a simple test, half of a test group was given a lab coat to wear. They performed better than the people wearing street clothes. In another test, all participants were given a coat. But half were told is was a painter’s coat. The others were told they had a doctor’s coat. The outcome? You guessed it… the doctor coat folk scored higher on the test. They had actually changed how people think about their own abilities.


  • A bottle shop had two displays, one of French and one of German wines. When the store played German music, more customers purchased German wine. Vice-versa for the French wine, even though customers insisted that the music had no effect. They didn’t even realise that small details were shaping their choices.


  • Another practical application is a dental clinic that had lots of customers missing appointments. To change this, the front desk asked people to write down the time and date of their appointment and read it back. What this does is create both a physical and a social commitment. Over the phone – the receptionist asked people – will you call if you change your plans? And they waited for response in order to create a verbal contract. The result was a drop in no-shows by 60%. The NHS applied this across the UK, saving $250 million pounds in wasted appointments.


  • A blogger named Dustin Curtis was able to quadruple the clicks to his Twitter account through wording.

-I’m on Twitter
-Follow me on Twitter
-You should follow me on Twitter
-You should follow me on Twitter here

The final wording garnered the best results, all from the tiniest amount of tweaking.

Ash summarises: “There are so many things we can do, but it’s easy to forget the details, especially when you are focusing on project instead of product.”

How do you decide which details matter? “Talk to customers. Don’t wait for time, budget or commission to do your research. Keep users involved. Go to where they are and speak to them. Literally. Ask them questions. Follow them around. Be part of their community and test with them at every opportunity. Record what they say to you and share the stories back..”

Ash’s parting points for the 2016 Leading the Product Conference in Melbourne:

-Tell Stories. This is paramount. Numbers are great. Not as good as stories.

-Create pauses. Don’t be obsessed with being busy. You need time and space to reflect. The demand for greater velocity is unabating.

-Share a meal as a team. Change gears. Share stories. Receive critique and feedback. Learn about each other and the business.

-Create personality in your product and don’t worry about pleasing all the people

-Design with learning in mind. You can’t predict your customer’s behaviour so work with models that you can develop and refine.

-Experiment and keep learning

“Don’t bow to time pressure, finishes Ash,  “To do well, we have to care about the details… after all, this is the difference between good and great.”

Leading the Product 2016 SketchNotes by Rebecca Jackson

About Ash

Ash Donaldson is Principal Behaviour Design & Innovation Consultant for Tobias & Tobias Australia, a design and innovation consultancy on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. He has spent the past couple of decades studying, practising, and promoting all aspects of human centred design – from Human Factors and User Experience to Behavioural Economics.

He has extensive in the industry with opportunities to work on many interesting projects, from doing the early research and design of to designing the new Intelligent Deposit ATMs for National Australia Bank.

Ash is passionate about understanding how people perceive and process information and using that knowledge to predictably affect their behaviours.