‘Best practice’ is an expression that the digital world has fallen victim to using way too liberally. We are frequently asked ‘what’s best practice for…?’ or ‘we want to ensure that we meet best practice in…’. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re designing a strategy or creating an interface, someone will have a view on, or a need for, a ‘best practice’ something.
I looked for the definition of best practice recently and discovered a range of examples of the expression in use (courtesy of Oxford Dictionaries):
'The company is applying best-practice in all aspects of its relationship with its employees at every level of the organization,' he said.’
‘Now reputable companies are applying the same best practices, creating a win-win environment.’
‘The research is too sparse to anoint a single best practice with anything like a cost-benefit efficiency rating.’
‘'The absolute best practice in a merger is to use the technology you have,' he says.’
These definitions alone prove the point I’m about to make. When you boil them down, they all say nothing at all. And it’s that expression ‘best practice’ that’s doing the damage — because it means nothing. Best practice infers a universally accepted — and universally understood — standard of excellence. This is a wonderful idea if not for the fact that ‘best practice’ is simply not a tangible standard. It’s an idealistic concept and it’s an expression that’s used most often by people who don’t want to, or more typically don’t know how to, be more explicit.
I’d argue that it’s a forgivable expression for someone who lacks specific domain knowledge and is buying in expertise to help them achieve something. “We’d like our service to be best practice” really just translates into 'we’d like our service to be recognized as being as good as the best'. It’s a genuine sentiment at least.
In the digital world, best practice is thrown around like wine at a wedding. It’s used too often by consultants to inflate the value of their recommendations by inferring that they are built upon a bedrock of accepted industry excellence. By referencing other examples in common use and identifying those as examples of best practice, many consultants reassure clients into making decisions based on their recommendations. They can frequently achieve this without any supporting rationale; the client simply trusts that best practice is a guarantee of success, or is at least a reassuringly risk-free option for them to take and defend if they need to. It’s a 'trust me' built on 'because everyone else does it'.
The reality is that liberal use of best practice recommendations is not just a bad habit, it’s a dangerous one. It directly stifles progress by giving over-inflated value to what is safe over what is right. It also ignores time. The whole concept of best practice is built on an assessment (however constructed) of average historic success, not future potential. Does it guarantee that what has been successful historically will be the best solution to an individual solution in the future? No. But it sure as hell suggests it, especially when delivered by an ‘expert’.
We’re in the business of design and we’ve learned over many years that best practice rarely equates to excellence. It equals safe at best, average or outdated at worst. Few, if any, of the great leaps in design, in any sector, at any point in time, would have been considered great examples of prevailing best practice. If anything, they have been considered the opposite, resetting expectations of what is considered the best. Ironically, the series of copycat solutions that subsequently appear en-masse are, over time, then considered to represent general best practice.
The next time someone recommends that you do something based on best practice, call them out on it. Ask them why they are making the recommendation for you specifically. If their answer involves the words best practice again, send them packing and don’t let them come back until they can articulate the rationale behind their recommendation, in your context.
Remember, best practice is a great expression to hide behind. Don’t let it get in the way of doing the right thing.