• Design

(Not So Simply) The Best: When the Concept of Best Practice Falls Short

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
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A question that is often asked by clients is “what is best practice here?”. This can be with regards to how to structure HTML, provide accessible content, or with design overall. Sometimes, the answer is straightforward. Other times, the concept of best practice can’t be easily relied on to give a straightforward answer.

What is “Best Practice”?

The term “best practice” is a common phrase used across industries to indicate a set of methods or procedures that are generally accepted as the most correct or effective. Oftentimes, what is “best practice” has been validated through research and experience to produce the optimal results for whatever you’re trying to solve. In web development, you’ll often hear “best practice” used in reference to specific programming techniques or ways of representing content in a digital context.

Let’s take a look at an easy-to-understand example of best practice. Consider a scenario where you want to upload an image to your website - there are proven best practices to enact when uploading an image to make sure your image is accessible to all users:

  • Ensure your image is visually parsable (i.e. it is not so dark, lacking in contrast, or is not such a poor quality that you cannot tell what the image is)

  • Including properly written alt-text so that visually impaired users can gain the same information that non-visually impaired users would

  • Properly encoding your image so that it renders correctly

  • Optimizing the image file size so it is accessible for users who may be on a poor-quality internet connection or may have limited bandwidth

Another straightforward example exists regarding headings, where best practice indicates how and when to use which heading tags (keeping only one <h1> tag on a page and properly labelling tags with the correct hierarchy based on the content structure, to name just a few).

Where does the concept of best practice fall short?

While the concept of best practice is highly effective at communicating the most effective method for straightforward topics such as accessibility, semantic HTML, or coding practices - it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny in the realm of web design. Oftentimes, clients ask questions such as “what is the best practice for the design of the navigation on my website?” In truth, questions like this do not have a straightforward answer. When you get into the more subjective areas of building websites (like the design of the navigation, or button design, or colour usage) the lines of best practice become blurrier.

Let’s consider the example of the question “what is the best practice for the design of the navigation on my website?” While there are best practices for how to do things like encode links, or ensuring that the navigation items are readable - there is no best practice for the overall design pattern of the navigation. What style of navigation you should implement on your website comes down to the specific context of your site - the idea of there being one “best practice” falls short in this situation since what works on one website may not work on another.

If the website is a relatively small site with three key landing pages, a straightforward navigation structure (imagine a logo and three links to those key landing pages) may be the best solution for directing users to the content that we want them to consume. Alternatively, this would likely not be a good solution for a large multinational business. Imagine Amazon or Wal-Mart’s websites, the enormous amount of content on these sites would almost certainly require a more robust and complex navigation solution than our small website. 

In other cases, an unconventional navigation structure might work best. A visual artist may want a navigation structure that sets herself/himself apart from the crowd and gives the user an impression of distinction and uniqueness. However, even though the aesthetics or the UI/UX pattern of the navigation may be unconventional, those granular best practices will still need to be implemented as it gets designed, built, and coded (i.e. using the correct HTML, making sure that navigation items are readable, etc).

How to think about best practice in context of web design

So, we can see that it’s not always a straightforward path to defining “what is best practice” when it comes to certain topics. Although there are no hard and fast rules about when the concept of “best practice” should be applied and when it shouldn’t - it becomes easier to grasp when you think about what you’re trying to apply the concept of “best practice” to in a holistic sense. Questions to ask yourself can include:

  • Do I truly mean best practice or am I asking what is the most common method?

  • Am I asking what is best practice with regards to something that is subjective (i.e. font choice or colour selection)?

Once you start thinking about best practice as a concept that applies to certain elements of web design and development (rather than thinking about it as something to be strictly and rigidly applied to all areas of the web), you’ll open yourself up not only to creative and effective solutions but also gain a greater understanding of where and when to apply the concept of best practices.

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