Why “best practice” must die

Anyone who’s worked in the web is aware of the “best practice” cult. To me, it’s a lazy creed that exhorts us to switch off and plunder others’ work, and the time has come to rebel.

Firstly, there’s the pure language involved. “Best” implies something that cannot be improved upon. A world of best practice gives us creationism, chariots, and gramophones. It negates progress.

There’s also a more sinister side, which is when it’s wheeled out as an argument in design projects that are heading off the rails:

“Ah, but that’s not how eBay do it”.

The unspoken implication is that eBay know better than I, and therefore I should defer to their wisdom. It’s an argument that I find misguided more than insulting. “That’s not how eBay do it” is industrial, corporate thinking, entirely irrelevant to the 21st century. For the truth is that large companies often don’t have a clue about design. One’s skill and knowledge are entirely independent of the size of your employer: I’m confident I know as much about my profession as the employees at any large company.

The best practice trump card also fails because it doesn’t understand the nature of practical design. It’s not a transferable commodity: you can’t just screw a design solution into place. Good design must be appropriate and relevant to the particular problem. The factors involved—technological, strategic, sociological—are far too complex and variable for a plug and play approach. To say “Well, a dropdown worked here…” is to ignore factors that can actually work in your favour. A company that rejects the easy route and takes the time to understand technology, strategy and users can offer designs that makes it stand out from the rest.

I’m not advocating isolating oneself from the surrounding environment. For instance, at Clearleft, we regularly perform competitor analysis at the start of a project. It’s useful to see where others’ strengths and weaknesses lie, and helps us understand the landscape. However, not once has it given me the answer to a design problem. That always comes later, with thought, with detail, and after many failed attempts.

So let’s not allow the enforced limitation and unvoiced threats of “best practice” to pollute our thinking. It’s harder work, sure, but standing out and being better always is.

Cennydd Bowles