Wait. How can a best practice be bad? I mean, it’s got the word “best” right there!
The truth is, "best practices" are frequently misunderstood. There are instances in which the “best practice” is actually the right way to do things. It's a documented standard, specified to meet regulatory or ethical standards.
But often, people use the phrase “best practice” to describe what’s actually a common practice.
Best practice are habits
We all have habits or customs that we follow without thought. It might an individual tic, part of the company culture, or even lore passed around among professionals. These approaches or methods become so ingrained in us that it’s hard to imagine things any other way.
It’s always revealing when an outsider calls these habits out. They’ll ask why something was done a certain way. The answer comes back that “it’s the best practice.” Usually, that’s said in a tone that suggests “I can’t believe they’re asking that” plus a little bit of “I hope there are no follow up questions.” There’s usually not a rational argument describing why it's the best practice, or for whom.
This is a real problem. In these cases, the best practice acts as a proxy for the hard work of problem solving. It's a shortcut. And shortcuts taken without due consideration can be dangerous. As Shane Snow argues, “the best practice is often arbitrary and based mainly on habit—the results of conditions that no longer apply.”
Best practices need context
Of course, that’s assuming the conditions ever existed in the first place.
Heydon Pickering tells a good story. He was hired for a consulting engagement as an accessibility expert. He noticed that when the designers created inline forms, they used a single line rather than a box. He pointed out that they didn’t look much like inputs and might confuse users. The designers cited Google’s Material Design guidelines. In their minds, Pickering recounts, Google’s authority legitimated the approach. They were following what they thought was a best practice.
Here’s the rub. Later, Pickering happened to be reading up on Material Design. He discovered that Google themselves had, through research, discovered that their simple line did not prove to be as effective as enclosing text input fields in a box. They stuck with the line anyway.
Pickering had been right. As it turns out, just because Google (or anybody else) approached something in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s a best practice—for you, for me, or for anybody.
Best practices are contagious
In Pickering’s situation, there probably was a best practice. It was the one that Pickering recommended as an accessibility expert.
But his recommendation was competing with an alternative that was accompanied by a much more powerful narrative: Google’s vaunted Material Designs system.
This points to another problem with best practices: it can be really hard to separate an actual best practice from a trend.
A trend—whether it’s in design or strategy or anywhere else—spreads like a contagion. Somebody implements it. A couple of others spot it, and they like it enough to adopt it, too. A couple more people see each of those implementations and, well, you get the picture.
A company whose is work is as visible as Google can act like a super-spreader. People think that if a company as big and as successful as Google have done it, it must be a good idea.
Of course, nobody knows the actual origin story. It might have been a good idea, built on a rock solid foundation. But maybe not. Or, maybe it was originally built under unique circumstances, to meet the specific needs of a niche audience. You don’t know. That’s often the problem with best practices: they’re not widely used because they’re good; they widely used because they’re widely used.
Best practices cultivate sameness
The result is homogenization and commoditization. If everyone follows the best practice, in theory, everyone is doing the same thing. That’s a huge missed opportunity. As Jay Acunzo writes, “in the internet age, best practices have become stable stakes.” We’re in an age of digital abundance. Whatever you are building, you’re competing against any number of other solutions that, to a customer’s inexpert opinion, will pretty much the same.
So why do people want the best practice? Sometimes, what they’re really looking for is security. As Annie Duke argues, we tend to come down harder on risky failures than supposed safe bets that also fail. People take comfort in the familiar, and sometime they’ll value that over more effective solutions. We disincentive people who stray from the best practice, and as a result, stifle creativity.
People opt for the best practices because a defensible decision may be more important to them than a good one. Or, they simply don’t want to make a decision that will call attention to itself.
In the long run, this will limit your ability to truly solve your customers’ or users’ problems. You won’t be able to differentiate your solution. Instead, you’ll be in a race to the bottom where the cheapest or most available option wins.
Best practices are heuristics
Better to call a best practices what it is. It's a heuristic—a shortcut. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. When working under constraints, a best practice can act as a sufficient method. It’s helps get something viable out the door faster. If that’s your goal for now, so be it.
But don’t mistake it for the best solution. Acknowledge the risk involved in employing the best practice. Question it. Treat it like an assumption—one that should be tested. Flag it as a provisional solution.
And understand this: your best practice may actually be a missed opportunity. By going with the stock answer, you’ve lost a chance to develop something that will get you ahead of your competition, or help your customers or users in a novel way.
So, most of all, create an environment where your team feels comfortable questioning so-called best practices. Give them space to try new things and test them out, so they don’t always default to the “best practice.”
That’s how you move from best practices to best solutions.