Best Practice, Current Convention or Consensual Hallucination?

Given the pace at which things change in the realm of web, when is something a true best practice, merely a current or common convention, or are we all suffering from a “consensual hallucination” as Jeremy Keith says? What was a best practice yesterday may not be tomorrow, or even today for that matter.

Are things moving so fast that best practices don’t really exist any longer or does our use of the term need to change to reflect today’s reality? My goal here is to open up some discussion and thought on how and when we use these terms and how to avoid falling victim to hallucinations.

Best Practices

The unfortunate reality that I have witnessed over the years is the term best practice being used when someone is trying state their case as fact. They look around the web to see what everyone else is doing and proclaim it a best practice. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are best practices and that they should be followed. What I’m saying is the term is often used as a crutch.

True best practices are those things that change little over time in their grander context. User research, for instance, has evolved many different techniques over the years, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for user research. User research as a whole is a best practice but individual research techniques that change or evolve regularly are themselves only a convention.

Same holds true for much of web design and development. Most of what John Allsopp wrote in his Dao of Web Design article reflects best practices we should have been following since day one. Ideas and concepts that are as true and useful today as when he wrote about them over a decade ago. Most of the techniques we’ve used since then have merely been the current convention of the time – table layouts, float-based layouts, responsive design. Changing and adapting as technology allowed.

So how do we define best practice, what is it? How can we tell a best practice from a common convention and is there really a difference?

Defining Best Practice

Dictionary on Mac: commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective. a practice which is most appropriate under the circumstances, esp. as considered acceptable or regulated in business; a technique or methodology that, through experience and research, has reliably led to a desired or optimum result

Wikipedia: A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered. Best practice is considered by some as a business buzzword, used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use.

By these definitions current conventions and best practices sound a lot like. Hold that thought for a moment and let’s talk about current conventions for a minute.

Current Conventions

Current, or common, conventions tap into the knowledge users have gained while using other websites before they come to your site. If they are use to seeing the company logo in the upper left corner of a page, why not put your logo there? This way they don’t need to learn where to find your logo, they’ll just look where they are use to finding a company logo. Sounds reasonable, right?

Current conventions are a way to acclimate a user quickly by drawing on what they already know. It minimizes the information gap between current knowledge and needed knowledge in order make use of your site. But not every convention is actually a best practice, merely an accepted method based on previous experience.

When does something become a convention? The short answer here is, when something is adopted so widely that it is expected to be that way. Like a logo that is also used as a link to the sites homepage. Even thought this was never the intended use of logos it’s done so often that when it’s not we may feel like something is broken.

If current conventions are things done so often that it’s expected to be that way, then doesn’t that make it a best practice? YES, and at the same time NO.

Is There Really a Difference Between Best Practices and Current Conventions?

Yes, Virginia there is a difference. The key commonality among the three definitions above is the notion that a best practice is better than other options. Current conventions are not necessarily better but are widely accepted as standard. This is a subtle but significant difference between the terms.

Case in point, the “hamburger icon” used to denote a navigation menu on many sites and mobile apps todays. Is this a best practice or simply a current convention? There are no studies or reports that show that prior to its adoption for this purpose that anyone had ever looked at this icon and said “Oh, that looks like it means navigation menu to me.” It never happened.

The reality here was that few big players adopted it, thousands upon thousands followed their lead without ever questioning, and today the hamburger has nearly reached true iconic standing. Hell, I use it all the time because it has gained so much traction with users.

This is a case were something was adopted by enough people that it became a common convention and is largely considered todays best practice. So much so that many sites are even using it on the large screen views now. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is actually better than other possible icons that could have been used, just that it has become accepted and understood by users.

This difference between best practice and current convention is one we need to be aware of so we use the correct term when appropriate. We need to ensure the integrity of each term so that when we use them we are clear on the intention of the message being conveyed.

Best Practice/Current Convention Crutch

I mentioned at the beginning that there are often times when the term best practice is used as a crutch. By that I mean it’s used to point to what is often just a common convention in effort stop people from questioning decisions being made. “{Big Name Company} does this so there’s no reason to question this decision.”

Used in this fashion the terms meaning becomes diluted. The more it’s misused this way the less effective it becomes when it is used correctly. True best practices often have plenty of proof to support their use beyond the simple fact that everyone is doing it. You can usually find reports and studies to substantiate the assertion of best practice.

User research is good example. There’s plenty of case studies and reports that show how user research as a whole has had an impact on the quality of a products outcome. Individual research techniques on the other hand have much less consistent results. Some techniques work better than others as a whole and some better than others for specific research needs. Some techniques evolve over time so the current method reflect conventions that are more appropriate to the moment.

Make no mistake though, conventions have an important role in creating useful, usable, desirable websites. Consider what it would be like if every website, all 9+ billion of them, tried to use a different icon for a menu. Whether or not the hamburger icon is the best option to denote menu is no longer all that relevant. The important thing is that so many people recognize it as menu now and, the longer it persists the more iconic it will become.

Consensual Hallucination

When Jeremy Keith talks about our “consensual hallucination” about web design he points to variety of things that many of us once referred to as best practices. Hind site being 20/20, many of those assumptions now seem so clearly flawed it’s hard to recall why we bought into them in the first place.

An ideal width for a website is great example of best practice that was really more of a hallucination. We went from 640px to 800px to 960px to responsive. Truth is, the web never really had an ideal width to begin with. It was always fluid but many simply couldn’t let go of the control they had grown use to in the print world.

Here is the reality of the situation. As long as technology changes, so will the web. The real problem is that people don’t change as quickly as technology. (Someone else said this but I can’t remember who. If you know, let me know so I can give credit where it’s due.)

The fact that people don’t change as fast as technology isn’t just a problem for the end user, it’s a huge problem for the content creators, developers and designer of the web too. We need to find ways to become as fluid and adaptive as the web if we want to be better than our competition. Don’t give in to the hallucination created and followed by others.

It’s easy to say “This is how {Big Name Company} does it.” and hope their apparent success will become yours. The more likely reality is you simply become another look alike site and that may call into question your credibility. It’s easy to reach for a prebuilt solution or framework to speed up design or development for today. This often comes at the risk of once again looking like everyone else or using bloated code meant to deliver more than you need.

Just Because Apple’s Doing it Doesn’t Mean it Works.

Obviously Apple is only one of many sites people look at find design trends. If one more person says, “This is what {Big Name Company} is doing on their site, so we should do it on ours.”, I’m going to loose it. This is where many consensual hallucinations come from.

The question is not WHAT these trend setters are doing on their sites? The question is WHY are they doing it? That’s the answer to be looking for.

Unless you work at that company you have no real way to know if what they are doing truly works for them. Let alone if the same approach will work for you, your content and your audience. Every site has its own unique considerations that should determine what, how and why it’s designed.

For all you know, that big name company is about to deploy a brand new approach because the one you’re so eager to adopt isn’t really performing well for them. Or, it may be that so many others have made derivative versions of their site that they no longer stand out in a sea of immitators. The real question is, do you want to lead or follow?

Just to be clear I’m not advocating reinventing the wheel every time, and I’m also not saying don’t follow conventions or best practices. There is plenty of value to be found in learning from the success of others. What I’m saying is don’t blindly follow someone else’s lead. Break those success stories down to discover what made them a success and why. The real answer rarely lies on the surface. You need to dig deep to find the real truth of the success.

They say there are only 7 stories in Hollywood. Let’s never let them say there are only 7 design on the internet.

Challenge Best Practices and Current Conventions, and Stop Hallucinating.

Do your research, form a hypothesis, build a prototype, test it, learn, update and test some more. This has been a key to Amazon’s success. How many people try to emulate the look and feel of Amazon’s websites? While it’s wildly successful in how it performs (read, it makes Amazon a butt ton of money), let’s face it, it’s not the most attractive site on the net.

Amazon tests the hell out of every little detail on the site to see if they can make it perform better. They are looking for even the smallest uptick in performance, what many might even consider insignificant improvements. They’ve discovered through constant testing that things like the slightest improvement in page load time can translate in significant improvement in customer conversion.

The only way to stop joining in on the consensual hallucination of others is to do your research and test your work. In the end what you’re likely to find is that some combination of real best practices, current convention, and some self-discovered innovations that no one else is doing is what’s best for your site. This will only happen when you challenge best practices and common conventions to find out what really works for you.

Share your thoughts.

Sidebar: The “Hamburger” Menu Icon

From what I can gather, the idea behind the hamburger icon is rooted in the fact that most navigations menus are created using an unordered list element as their base. Some research has shown that a portion of people think the icon represents a list which seems to have furthered its consideration for use. That said, menus are not always portrayed as lists. This makes it hard for users to instinctively correlate the icon and the message we want to convey. Only due it’s frequent and consistent usage has it become a standard for menu.

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Mike Donahue

Just a guy that's passionate about creating useful, usable and desirable experiences for all humans. I love nature and wildlife photography, it's my source of artistic expression and inner peace. I live and play in South Florida with my wife Nikki and our girls (dogs) Layla and Cassidy.

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