Best Practices: Rationale or Rhetoric?

As consultants we get asked to develop a content strategy, governance model or performance management framework based on “best practices”. In response we cite research studies, analytics and trends or methodologies in user experience design or web strategy that have become commonplace in the field and have yielded results for our clients.

Yet recently during a meeting, our client visibly frowned as the topic of best practices was raised. “Who decides a best practice?” she asked.

Mike Myatt wrote for Forbes that “best practices are nothing more than disparate groups of methodologies, processes, rules, concepts and theories that attained a level of success in certain areas, and because of those successes, have been deemed as universal truths able to be applied anywhere and everywhere.” He then dismisses them as nearly useless, adroitly observing that one organization’s best practice can be another’s recipe for failure.

So when, if ever, is a best practice for the Web useful? I can think of three scenarios where I would offer a best practice to support an approach:

  1. It’s based on science about how humans read text, view images or otherwise respond to interfaces, content, movement and sound. The paradox of choice tells us for example that when presented with a lot of choices, our brains struggle to make a decision and oftentimes, can’t make a decision. This is helpful to know when planning navigation menus.
  2. It’s based on actual data, not reported opinions by users. Looking at the search terms that audiences put into a search engine tells us something about intent. It may not be the full story, but now we can pick apart what people are seeking to discover usage patterns.
  3. It’s genuinely helpful. The people who thought to put the simple “K1K 1K1” tip (with the space showing) next to the postal code box get a big thumbs up for labeling form fields so the form is accepted by the website and my package is on its way.

The key to using best practices for the Web is recognizing that what we know about the science, the data we collect and the way people use new devices will change, and therefore, our best practices have to change too. Recall the three-click rule? That was a best practice that stated that the user’s desired content should be three clicks from the home page. Along comes Google, and now the best practice isn’t the relative distance from the home page, but it’s the work needed to improve search rank so users get to your content directly (bypassing the home page altogether). Best practices are not eternal truths: they are informed guideposts that when combined with a solid strategy, can be the basis for better Web development.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.


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