A short story about craft

You may have heard about Steve Jobs’ obsession for design details – and I wanted to share a short story of my own.

Back in 2006-2010 I worked at the BBC. I was on what was called the “Radio & Music” side of the organisation, helping to build the websites for all the BBC Radio stations and events like Glastonbury. I was part of the team that launched BBC Podcasts and BBC iPlayer for Radio (since replaced by BBC Sounds).

As part of this, I had the privilege of getting to know some of the team building BBC iPlayer – one of the first successful online long-form video products.

The Flash video player for iPlayer was a development of something called the Embedded Media Player (EMP) – the first time the BBC had consolidated their more than 180 (!) media players into a single interface. This created an opportunity to standardize the design of this core component.

Product and design folks LOVE this kind of thing and there was heated debate around everything from the shape of the play button to should the timer count up or count down.

But one area where people weren’t paying much attention was the volume control.

But one of the designers on the team was obsessing about the details (as all good designers do). He had an idea.

He was a fan of the seminal rock “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap — which also happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time.

In the movie, there’s this one particular famous scene:

This is Spinal Tap

The original designs for the volume control of the EMP, like most volume controls, went from 0 to 10. But wanting to inject a bit of fun into the product, the designer updated all the mocks to show the volume control going up to 11 in homage to the great Spinal Tap.

Why? Well, sometimes you just need ONE LOUDER!

The engineers loved it, and built it into the prototype. The EMP was dogfooded internally for a few weeks, and no one noticed — or at least no one in the leadership team noticed until just before it was ready to ship. Then one of the product leaders discovered this little feature and asked it be removed because it was a “silly detail”.

There followed a heated debate about “utility” and “confusion” and not “trying to be different” – but in the end, the product leadership team decided (rightly, IMHO) to keep it in. Spinal Tap is a classic, seminal, British institution — just like the BBC.

And to this day, everywhere on the BBC website – including BBC News – the volume goes up to 11.

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