You can't build a quality website in a factory

Paul Boag

Best practices in web design are not unmovable absolutes. Rather they are tools we can choose to draw upon and apply to our projects.

Most of us know that building a website is not something that can be done on a production line. Unless you are talking about small template-based websites for a particular sector, every website is different.

Each website consists of its own specific audiences, business objectives, design considerations and other unique factors. A cookie cutter solution is not going to do the job.

We desire structure.

However, despite knowing this we long to turn web design into a process. There is something reassuring about working through a pre-defined process. If we check the boxes and go through the motions we will emerge at the other end with the perfect website. We like structure, order and predictability. Unfortunately, as with most of life, building a website does not work that way.

Too much process can be damaging.

In fact being too process orientated in the way we approach our websites can be damaging. One example of this (although not the only one by a long stretch) is the WAI accessibility guidelines.

Companies love the idea of having an accessibility checklist they can follow to produce an accessible website. The problem is that the guidelines were not envisioned to work in this way. They are ‘guidelines’ to help you along the road to an accessible website, not a ‘set in stone’ route.

Absolutes can be dangerous.

Turning best practice into absolutes is dangerous. It leads to narrow thinking and poor quality solutions. Sure, usability testing is a good idea but may not be right for every project. Validating our code is important but not for its own sake. Making our sites responsive is good practice but there is the exception to every rule.

Best practice should be seen as a toolkit.

We need to view ‘best practices’ as a tool kit that we can use appropriately, rather than a process we work through religiously.

The reason I bring this subject up is because of some constructive feedback I have received on season 2 of the podcast. Some have been confused by the fact that on a number of occasions I have stated best practice and then ignored it. To many this comes across as hypocrisy. Unsurprisingly I don’t see it that way.

When I was studying art at University one of the things we were taught is that before you can do the more ‘abstract’ forms of art you first need to know how to draw ‘properly’. I believe the same is true with web design. Once you know and understand best practice you can pick your moments to disregard the ‘rules’ and make the best decision for the particular site you are working on.

The lesson here is to know best practice and use it. However, if you have a justified reason for taking another route then do so. Web design is not a factory line and we cannot treat it as such.