Design | 2 min read

The thickness of napkins


What does a napkin tell you about a restaurant? Quite a lot, surprisingly.

Study after study shows a strong correlation between quality of napkin and customer satisfaction. That’s not to say you can hand out deliciously thick napkins in a shitty burger joint and immediately get five stars on Yelp. Correlation is not causation. The napkin represents a degree of care, preparation and devotion that goes above and beyond asking if they want fries with that.

Nathan Bowers once wrote that quality is fractal. Quality offerings display self similarity. Any small part of it is indicative of its whole, meaning you can make a good judgement about an entire product by looking at a small piece of it. This is as true in software as it is in restaurants.

Chef Gordon Ramsay, in his autobiography Humble Pie, defended his obsessive perfectionist nature, arguing he has to obsess. You don’t win Michelin stars without a relentless dedication to quality.

“It doesn’t matter how amazing the steak is, if it’s served on a cold plate it’s crap. If it’s served with a dull knife it’s crap. If the gravy isn’t piping hot, it’s crap. If you’re eating it on an uncomfortable chair, it’s crap. If it’s served by an ugly waiter who just came in from a cigarette break, it’s crap. Because I care about the steak, I have to care about everything around it.”

The parallels in software are obvious. If you see a few lines of very poor code, you can make a reasonable judgement about the developer. If the developer has been in position for quite a while, you can also then judge his manager, and by judging the manager you can judge their manager, and so on.

That’s the nature of fractals, they go all the way, and you can follow them in both directions. An insatiable desire for quality software trickles down to everything from making sure that the logo is meaningful to making sure the homepage screenshot is correct, all the way down to making sure the font used in a Christmas card is correct. Excellence is not an act but a habit.

We judge humans this way so it shouldn’t be surprising that we judge software the same. Great companies are exactly what they repeatedly do. If you care about design, you care about every single design detail. Even the ones that “don’t matter”.