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Conventions are your friends

At some point in our youth, without ever being taught, we all learned to read a newspaper. Not the words, but the conventions.

We learned, for instance, that a phrase in very large type is usually a headline that summarizes the story underneath it, and that text underneath a picture is either a caption that tells me what it's a picture of, or—if it's in very small type—a photo credit that tells me who took the picture.

We learned that knowing the various conventions of page layout and formatting made it easier and faster to scan a newspaper and find the stories we were interested in. And when we started traveling to other cities, we learned that all newspapers used the same conventions (with slight variations), so knowing the conventions made it easy to read any newspaper.

Every publishing medium develops conventions and continues to refine them and develop new ones over time.1 The Web already has a lot of them, mostly derived from newspaper and magazine conventions, and new ones will continue to appear.

All conventions start life as somebody's bright idea. If the idea works well enough, other sites imitate it and eventually enough people have seen it in enough places that it needs no explanation. This adoption process takes time, but it happens pretty quickly on the Internet, like everything else. For instance, enough people are now familiar with the convention of using a metaphorical shopping cart on e-commerce sites that it's safe for designers to use a shopping cart icon without labeling it "Shopping cart."

There are two important things to know about Web conventions:

  • They're very useful. As a rule, conventions only become conventions if they work. Well-applied conventions make it easier for users to go from site to site without expending a lot of effort figuring out how things work.

    There's a reassuring sense of familiarity, for instance, in seeing a list of links to the sections of a site on a colored background down the left side of the page, even if it's sometimes accompanied by a tedious sense of déjà vu.

  • Figure 6. Conventions enable users to figure out a lot about a Web page, even if they can't understand a word of it.

  • Designers are often reluctant to take advantage of them. Faced with the prospect of using a convention, there's a great temptation for designers to reinvent the wheel instead, largely because they feel (not incorrectly) that they've been hired to do something new and different, and not the same old thing. (Not to mention the fact that praise from peers, awards, and high-profile job offers are rarely based on criteria like "best use of conventions.")

    Sometimes time spent reinventing the wheel results in a revolutionary new rolling device. But sometimes it just amounts to time spent reinventing the wheel. (Figure 7)

    If you're not going to use an existing Web convention, you need to be sure that what you're replacing it with is either (a) so clear and self-explanatory that there's no learning curve—so it's as good as a convention, or (b) adds so much value that it's worth a small learning curve. If you're going to innovate, you have to understand the value of what you're replacing, and many designers tend to underestimate just how much value conventions provide.

My recommendation: Innovate when you know you have a better idea (and everyone you show it to says "Wow!"), but take advantage of conventions when you don't.

    1. Consider the small semi-transparent logos that began appearing in the corner of your TV screen a few years ago to tell you which network you're watching. They're everywhere now, but TV had been around for 50 years before they appeared at all.
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