Defying conventions

Paul Boag

As the web matures an increasing number of conventions are emerging. But should we always follow the crowd?

Let me start by making it clear I believe in conforming to web conventions. I have come across too many sites that are overly confusing because the designer wanted to "do something different".

People have developed certain expectations of a website. From placing search at the top right to ensuring links have underlines, it is wise to observe the emerging trends.

However a bigger crime than ignoring web conventions is to follow them blindly. Take time to consider each convention before you apply it and ask if your circumstances or audience should make you reconsider.

Take for example the commenting system on GetSignOff. A very definite convention exists when it comes to commenting, but should we follow that convention at all cost?


The norm for commenting is to place the post/content at the head of the page, followed by the comments (oldest first) and end with a box where people can add new comments. The new comment appears directly above the comment box at the bottom of the comments list. This is so common that we don’t question it. After all, it is found on…

  • Every blog
  • All forums
  • Photo sharing sites like flickr
  • Sites like basecamp.

With so many examples of it working, it would be easy to just accept it as best practice. However, lets take a step back and ask why it is done that way.

The common approach to commenting

The traditional layout for commenting makes a lot of sense. For a start it is chronological. The post/content is the original item and therefore the oldest. As comments are added they are placed below the post in chronological order until you reach the most recent item at the bottom.

It is also an approach that encourages users to view previous comments before placing a comment themselves. This is particularly important in a forum where you can easily find repetition.

But does that mean commenting should always be done this way? Not necessarily and in the case of GetSignOff we have decided not.

An alternative approach


The traditional approach to commenting works on the assumption that the commenter has not read each comment as it was posted and hasn’t been following the conversation in detail. However, that is not true in every situation. For example, in the case of GetSignOff the comments are a conversation happening between two or more parties. It is not a series of individual comments but a dialogue in which all the participants are fully invested. That is why we felt it was unnecessary to force the user to scroll past every comment before being able to post a comment themselves.

In the approach we have taken the comment box has been moved to directly below the concept and then comment appear below that in reverse chronological order (newest at the top). This makes it easier to add new comments and to view the most recent additions. It also places the concept and comment box on the same screen, allowing users to see the concept they are commenting on.

The moral of the story

Why then do I raise this subject (other than to shamelessly plug GetSignOff yet again)? It is simply to stress that although conventions are good we need to be careful that we do not blindly follow them without considering our exact circumstances. We need to avoid designing on auto-pilot.