The Broken Pixel Theory


Over the past few months, I’ve started writing blog posts and stopped half-way through, or even worse, I finished them, but thought they weren’t good enough to be posted. Sometimes it’s because I felt like there wasn’t a real call-to-action to the post, other times it’s because I didn’t think the point was well-made. Recently though, I realized that this was causing a writer’s block and the way to unblock myself was to keep writing, regardless of my perception of its quality. “Done is Better than Perfect” and all that. So in the spirit of Ira Glass (See video above), I will practice, practice, practice.

The Broken Pixel Theory

The Broken Window Theory is a fairly well-known criminology theory that correlates the well-maintenance of neighborhoods with lower crime rates. The idea is that a building with a broken window will lower the guilt barrier of breaking another window, which snowballs into a higher crime rate. I stipulate that the theory applies both to application UIs, as well as the code that runs them. A UI with a broken pixel will lower the guilt barrier of breaking another pixel. If unchecked, these broken pixels can snowball to a culture of qualitative indifference.

There are many examples of The Broken Window Theory in daily life. For example, a clean desk tends to stay clean until a piece of paper stays on it for a couple of days. Similarly, I’m much less likely to care about a 2-3 pixel UI bug when the whole UI is a mess. Nobody would care about my bug, and even if they did, they probably won’t notice my bug among the swarm of other bugs.

Sweating the details is important not only from an aesthetic perspective, but also from a cultural perspective. A company’s culture is one of its greatest assets, and its products are a reflexion of it. Apple’s products are polished and smooth, Google’s products are fast and technical, Amazon’s products are simple and frugal. The Broken Window Theory applies not just to the user facing products, but everything internal as well, from the letter head to the internal websites, and all the energy put into maintaining a high level of polish is a worthy investment.

If you thought this blog post was interesting, you may also enjoy Braden Kowitz’s Why you should move that button 3px to the left