Adam Smith

Always Add Polish!

May, 2009

Polish is often the difference between success and failure when getting stuff done. Literally, this is one of the top ten reasons ideas fail.


Polish is why PostScript lost to Adobe PDF. Postscript had an eleven year head start on PDF, not to mention it's free and open source. Try to use it, though, and you'll end up on the command line and downloading extra programs that are GUI wrappers.

I ran into this failure mode again last week when I downloaded Microsoft Sandcastle, a documentation system for .NET libraries. It's as powerful as LaTeX but just as user unfriendly. I finally found an open source project called the Sandcastle Help File Builder, which provides a nice UI. There's no doubt in my mind that the extra step costs Sandcastle 80% of its potential users.

It's always sad to see a product fail just because the experience lacked polish.

I haven't seen Google Android yet but my first reaction when I heard about it was that It will lack the polish of the iPhone, and fail because of it.


Imagine you work at a software company and your mom sends over a feature idea for your product. When forwarding the email to your product manager, you could add


or you could write

"My mother, bless her soul, thinks about our product in the shower. She came up with the idea below. It could be a useful addition to the next release. I think our eskimo users would appreciate this feature."

We all understand, I think, that adding these short thoughts to your email makes it more likely to be read and reacted to.

Yet we all, myself included, get lazy and stick to the easy "fyi." It's just easier to not invest the emotional energy to add value.

Data Versus Polish

I suppose robots would be fine with the PostScript command line or the "fyi" email. You could send all of your source code to the Microsoft HR robot and get a rejection or offer leter in ten minutes. No resume needed!

The truth is that we're all human, and adding polish lowers the amount of emotional energy needed to grok and respond to emails, user interfaces, ideas, etc.

The concept is remarkably right brained for someone like me, but I think that's why engineeers often fail at adding polish.

We don't learn this stuff in college. But we should.
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