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mass practice

Mass practice describes a way of doing something that has become a de facto standard.

Mass practice differs from best practice, as mass practice is a standard that has come about through familiarity/ubiquity rather than through a process of conscious evaluation. In contrast, best practice assumes that one method is more efficient and effective than any other, usually as agreed by practitioners.

When it comes to web design, there is often a gap between what web professionals consider best practice, and the knowledge that the general public – the ‘mass’ – has about ‘how the web works’, particularly at a technical level.

Where web mass practices come from

Web mass practices are often the result of tools and services that bridge the gap between the novice, and the professional web author.

For example, web design programmes such as FrontPage and Dreamweaver present the process of creating a webpage as being similar to word-processing. The author can set fonts, change colours and insert images the same way that they would do if they were using a program such as Microsoft Word. The web design program takes care of the technical detail: creating the necessary computer code (markup).

The use of free web services such as MySpace (personal homepages) and Blogger (blogs) also results in mass practice standards. The way that a webpage is built using one of these services becomes a standard through the sheer number of subscribers.

For example, the look of a MySpace page can only be changed using CSS, as the subscriber has little control over the HTML code. The only way to add CSS to a MySpace page is to ‘mix it in’ with the page content — a practice that would cause a web standards puritan to loose sleep.

‘Best’, according to …?

Managing the relationship between mass-, and best-practice is made more complex by the number of factors that impact upon setting a standard. These include:

Competitive edge often comes from being first to market, in such cases, technical accuracy may be sacrificed for speed.
The ‘best’ way of doing something may not be the most flexible.
The easier a web publishing system is to learn, the more likely it is to be used.
A standard set by a community may conflict with an internal standard. Depending on the values of an organisation, participation in the community may be more important than setting and maintaining internal standards.
limited language
The technical specification for HTML, the code that is used to create webpages, was not written with the modern-day web in mind. How a designer-developer may want a webpage to look or work, may only be possible through non-standard means.
legal/legislative requirements
For example New Zealand public sector websites are required to comply with the New Zealand Government Web Standards and Recommendations. These standards and recommendations mandate ways of building a website to make content and services available to the widest range of people, including those with disabilities and/or limited levels of technology (for example, those using a dial-up connection).

Mass practice and usability

Mass practice influences that expectations people have of how the web should work.

In the field of computer science, expectations that people have of ‘how the web should work’ are identified through the process of usability evaluation. The position adopted by usability professionals is typically ethnographic or observational: as such there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of using a system. For example, usability evaluation processes include setting a person tasks complete using a system in order to identify the methods of interaction that are familiar to the typical user.

Although there is a quantitative dimension to usability evaluation (‘four, out of five people could order a book… ’), the complex relationship between a person, the task they want to complete, and their knowledge of the systems available, make usability more of a social science. In other words, cultural factors have a significant impact on a person’s ability to complete a task.

If a person’s experience of the web has primarily been MySpace and YouTube, then their expectations of how the web should work are likely to be based on the ways that MySpace and YouTube work.

Design patterns

Ways of using the web that become sufficiently well-known are often described as design patterns: templates or building blocks for interaction and page design that can then be used as a starting point for creating a new product or service.

One aspect of web design where mass practice comes to the fore is in determining information architecture.

When it comes to creating a website, there is often a gap between the way that content authors believe content should be structured, and the way that people using a website think it should be structured. This has given rise to the practice of creating alternative, supplementary routes through a website that support how people actually use a website. This practice is often referred to as ‘paving the cow paths’.
(Note that this use of the idiom differs to common-usage, where ‘paving cow paths’ has a negative connotation: suggesting action that is unnecessary or over-engineered).

Related terms: (web) accessibility, content, folksonomy, design patterns, markup, mental model, template, Web 2.0, web standards, wysiwyg, usability.


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