Best Practices, Says Who?

Sometimes, it seems no practice is more saturated with (mostly) well-intentioned tips, guidelines and dos-and-don’ts than UX. I’ve lost count of all the Top 10 lists on the subject I’ve read and already forgotten. Online media is overflowing with articles and blog posts (much like this one) that purport to objectively lay down the law of what is good and right in the realm of user experiences, even though UX people are usually the first to caution against generalizations and to acknowledge that all users are different.

However, once in a while, you stumble on a piece of writing that makes you think and take stock of what you know, or think you know, about UX. Those pieces are usually the most meaningful ones, not because they give you pre-packaged, wholesale “truths”, but because they force you to try and frame your own truth.

Here is such a piece: http://thehipperelement.com/post/128705195169/15-ux-commandments

To summarize, the blog post outlines 15 basic tenets of good UX:

  1. Only ask the questions to which you really need answers.
  2. Demonstrate uncertainty.
  3. Reconstruct your own previous errors of thought and elucidate to your colleagues and clients what factors lead to a changed mind.
  4. Do not let the terms with which you understand the world get in the way of understanding it.
  5. Give up any desire to be the smartest person in the room.
  6. Remember that people — including you — have bodies, and bodies require movement, sustenance, rest, and relief.
  7. Leave room for creativity.
  8. Preserve and sustain whatever delusions you’ve found necessary to behave in good faith.
  9. Do not be afraid to state the obvious.
  10. A socratic bully is still a bully.
  11. Thoroughly prepare, including making preparations to abandon your preparations entirely.
  12. Listen with your body.
  13. Suspect charisma.
  14. Conduct yourself in such a way that your colleagues can eventually forget that you exist.
  15. It never hurts to start with the basics.

I found this blog post to be very interesting, but to me, who’s been in marketing most of my professional life, it’s also quite provocative. It’s a bit if a challenge to apply these tenets to marketing and sales, which is more about persuasion than usability; more about making experiences seductive than rational. The blog post seems to dismiss this as immoral, and while I can see that point, I think it is a bit naive and simplistic, and represents the issue in a one-dimensional manner.

The most concrete way I run into the dichotomy between functionality and persuasion in my work is when people ask me to apply “industry best practices”. It’s clear to me that clients don’t necessarily mean the same thing by that as do UX practitioners. To clients, “best practices” means that which through testing has been proven to increase conversions, but to UX practitioners, “best practices” typically means that which empowers users to do what they need to do, and facilitates task completion, as can be proven out in usability studies.

These two interpretations need to be reconciled, because ultimately, the most basic premise of marketing is that you can affect a change in what consumers want and intend to do, and that consumers may not always be 100% sure about what that is beforehand. So, at the very least UX should, in a marketing context, strive to support that decision-making process. And whenever someone tries to aid someone else’s decisions, it would be foolish to think that such an outside influence would not inherently affect the outcome. Whether that influence is moral or immoral is defined by what the suggested outcome is, not by the mere act of influencing the decision. Obviously, suggesting a donation to charity is not immoral, but suggesting a purchase of a product produced with child labor is. Either way, I would argue that there is no such thing as a perfectly unbiased or unaffected choice. As human beings, our choices are never entirely free.

So, what constitutes a “best practice” in an interactive medium depends on what the desired outcome is, and who is asking the question.

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