When Best Practices Aren’t Best

After my big ole rant about “doing things right” the other day, I was swiftly stopped in my tracks by a comment made by Chris Brogan on his blog

Guess what? We’re all doing it wrong. Because we’re all doing it our own way, and it’s not always going to match the way you think it works best. And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Glad you got that off your chest.



Yeah, okay. I see where he’s coming from, and I see completely where I can be completely guilty of pushing my ideas of “right” onto others. It’s part of my perfectionism — something I know I struggle with, and which can have some seriously detrimental effects.

Is There Such a Thing As Best?

Part of me, though, still can’t shake the belief that there has to be some way of understanding what works best. Even if it’s not my idea, or yours — aren’t there best practices for a reason?

Let’s take an example I encounter every day at work. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a post-secondary institution, developing courseware for students. As part of my job, I interact quite frequently with Learning Designers (also called Instructional Designers) who are dedicated to making sure that the activities we prepare for students will actually help them learn something.

So, for example, if an instructor wanted to teach vocabulary by building a word search, a learning designer might suggest a crossword instead. The reason is fairly intuitive: a word search only focuses on the students’ ability to match letters from the word list to the jumble. A crossword, on the other hand, would focus on the meaning of the word (and its correct spelling).

Learning designers also work on best practices for things like learning styles — not everyone learns best by reading, some learn better by hearing, or by doing, or whatever. There is a tonne of research to support this, and it seems to imply that there are such things as “best” practices.

In my rant, I talked about things like accessibility and usability as being “best practices” for web design and development. This also makes sense intuitively, as it seems apparent that in order to reach the widest audience, we ought not automatically exclude those who (for example) use a screen-reader to browse the web.

Where Do Right Ideas Come From?

So we seem to be back at the point of contradiction that stopped me in my tracks. But then it occurred to me… let’s look again at what Brogan had to say.

And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow.

Yep, we will certainly get “there” no matter the approach we take. In a purely literal sense, we’ll all end up dead 😉 But I think what he was getting at is that it doesn’t matter if your blog posts are too long or too short — ultimately, people will read them (or not) based on whether or not they want to read them.

The question is, is this true in all cases?

I think in a lot of cases, people come up with ideas of how to do things the “right way” based on personal experience, speculation and best-guesses. Or, they do things the “right way” because that’s the way they’ve always done it, because it seemed to work, or because that’s what they’ve heard.

In many of those cases, yes, all paths will lead to the same ultimate end. You’ll have a program that works, a blog that people read, a network of friends, or whatever. But I think at the same time, you have to discern between the end result, and the end goal.

Is the End Point Really the Same?

Consider the example of the students who are learning vocabulary via the word search or the crossword. What is the end result? In either case, the students will have an activity which reinforces that particular terms are important. Some students will still pass, others will still fail — and ultimately, the activity will get the students to the end. Same with the web example. The design will still reach people in the end, and the development will still work for getting the information across.

However, a good activity can make it easier on the students. Maybe they can just do the crossword, rather than having to also create flashcards from the list of terms in the word search. A good web design/development will make it easier for the wider audience to hear the message. They won’t need to call someone to find the phone number on your webpage; they would be able to do it themselves.

In many cases, the end point is the same, yes. But what isn’t necessarily the same is the efficiency. All paths may lead to the same outcome, but one may be substantially faster, less painful, more rewarding, etc.

Of course, this isn’t always true. Sometimes (especially when you’re doing things based on anecdotal ideas of “best”), there really isn’t all that much difference between the paths you can take. Sometimes, taking the “not-best” path has some interesting results in-and-of itself — the journey can be just as illuminating as anything.

The key, of course, is to determine what the goal is. Is the goal just to get to the end point, no matter how you get there? Is it to do it quickly and efficiently so you can go home sooner? Is it to make it easier on customers so you make more sales?

When we focus more on the why, the how becomes more clear. In some cases, it may be best to follow “best practices”. In other cases, it may just be a waste of time and effort. Knowing (and foreseeing) the difference is the challenge.

2 thoughts on “When Best Practices Aren’t Best

  1. Here’s the premise. Yes, there are best practices. The thing is, we tend to view things from the perspective of the practices that are/were best for what WE have experienced. Me included. I tell companies to tweet as themselves. But @starbucks is doing just fine. I tell companies to blog about content that’s not directly about them, but about the space, but SUN has gazillions of blogs that are excellent and only about SUN products.

    It’s not that there’s no best. It’s that you can’t tell me what’s best for my people, and I can’t tell you what’s best for yours. Unless we have more to go on, and that’s rare. True?

  2. @Chris Brogan…: Yep, absolutely, I think we’re in complete agreement here. Ultimately, what works for one person or group may not work for another — simply because they are able to attain what they are going for, even in unconventional ways.

    I think in a lot of ways, the idea of best practices is over-used. Doing something “my” way because it worked for me doesn’t mean it’s a best practice, it just means its one way that worked. A lot of times, I think that’s how “best practices” arise — a few people do things one way, see that it worked, and declare it a “best practice”.

    We end up with a whole bunch of “best practices” floating around which really diminish the value of those rare things that we do have more to go on (things like accessibility, for example — and even in those areas, the best practices continually evolve as we learn more about it. Maybe we ought to call them “better” practices, rather than “best” practices?)

    Thanks for the conversation, I’m enjoying the opportunity for me to work some of this out in my mind! :-)

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