Experience Design

The importance of fixing broken windows

Sam Bowler
Sam Bowler

It was never clear to me why my teachers placed such importance on ties being properly worn or top buttons being done up.

I struggled to see how being more uncomfortable throughout the day could possibly help me understand photosynthesis or Pythagoras' theorem.

Broken Window

It seems that, whether consciously or not, my teachers were subscribing to a theory of criminology called the broken windows theory. It hypothesises that fixing the small infractions can, in turn, prevent the big ones from growing in prevalence. It might be a creatively adorned tie one day but the next it could be tripping up the younger kids or playing truant (this happened anyway, but that’s another story…)

The parallels with the design of user interfaces, although maybe not immediately obvious, are plenty. The seemingly smaller things — understanding the detail of a user's mental model, microcopy, consistent grid systems — may not appear important on the surface, but getting these things right sets the foundation for a truly great user experience.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the broken windows theory. The theory hypothesises that, if a potential criminal is walking down a street and sees a broken window on a building, they’re going to conclude that the street is not well cared for and, subsequently, break more windows.

Subway railings

Gladwell cites New York in the 1980s — a city rife with crime. More than 2,000 murders were being committed every year and there were 15,000 felonies committed on the transit system alone. The subway system was a particularly grim place, covered in graffiti, litter, and even referred to as "the transit version of Dante's inferno" by one law enforcement officer.

Sweating the small stuff is a core part of what we do here at Ridgeway.

Starting in 1984, a massive clean-up operation was ordered by the head of the transit police: graffiti was removed from subway trains and litter regularly cleaned up. Smaller crimes such as fare beating (failing to pay for the service), previously left unpunished, also faced a crackdown.

Arrests went up fivefold between 1990 and 1994 and the focus on misdemeanours was making a difference — one out of seven people that the police arrested in this period were already wanted for a different crime. The tighter rein enforced by the police had an almost immediate impact. Murder rates fell by 17% between 1993 and 1994 and then a further 23% the next year, leading in to a further three years of double digit decreases. Between 1993 and 1998, the murder rate more than halved.

Graph showing murders in New York

Data from: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/nycrime.htm

So, what can we take from the broken windows theory? Across projects big and small, it’s easy to get drawn to the blockbuster pieces of functionality, but we do this at the risk of losing sight of the nuance. Examples range from the tangible, such as Joshua Porter’s detailed microcopy which reduced support costs and increased revenue by addressing errors in form input for users to explain where they were going wrong, to details that simply bring joy for users like those showcased on the Little Big Details Tumblr. This Tumblr features, amongst others, Google’s Inbox showing a fishing hook instead of a profile picture to suggest a phishing email, and Coursera recommending online courses related to the job a user is looking at.

“Bringing joy” to users may seem like something fluffy and intangible but many have attributed Slack’s success (they’re now worth almost $3bn) to the fact that it looks, sounds, and feels different, with vibrant colours, fun interactions, and a fun and creative tone to make the user smile.

Sweating the small stuff is a core part of what we do here at Ridgeway. It's because we know that forgetting it can give a feeling of lack of care that can propagate in the user’s mind to one of overall dissatisfaction. Fixing those small broken windows makes the whole building a more attractive proposition.

But the best thing about these things? They’re often really easy and cheap to fix.