Standardization in a cross-border world

Do we really standardize?

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Along with globalization/globalisation, we increasingly see folks insist on standards (or more often beat each other over the head with standards). But have we actually “standardized” what we mean when we talk about “standardization”, “rules”, and “best practice”?

Gosh, we can’t even agree how to spell “standardization”! The Daily Telegraph, the conservative London newspaper insists on “standardisation”. The Times of London, the Observer, and the Oxford English Dictionary use a “zed” as the Brits say.

So, let’s take a look at how these terms affect our work and our lives.

Defining the damned thing

At a recent business meeting, someone asked, “What are standards?” Almost immediately, some irritating iPhonista came up with this quote from the IEEE website:

“A standard is a published document that sets out specifications and procedures designed to ensure that a material, product, method, or service meets its purpose and consistently performs to its intended use.”

Pretty awful, if you ask me.

The discussion rapidly deteriorated as the historical and semantic implications of “specifications” and “norms” were pondered. Then someone asked the key question, “Why are standards important?”

And I had an epiphany: “A standard is any device that creates comfort through mutual understanding. Standards make you feel secure, safe. They give you direction and confidence when you’re faced with an unfamiliar situation.”

Eric’s comprehensive guide to standards, rules, and best practices

Standards are guidelines. They have no obligation to provide a best way of doing things, only an agreed-upon way of doing things (we’ve agreed to drive on the right in Denmark, on the left in the Botswana).

Rules come about because someone has abused a privilege and taken advantage of an undocumented situation (Speed limits are the result of this).

Best practices are simply good advice (Don’t tweet and drive). Their goal is to provide qualitative improvements. (But we’ll discuss this in a moment)

So, if standards aren’t necessarily improving quality, why bother with them? Well, consider this: when you get in a car, isn’t it nice that the opposing traffic stays on their side of the road? “Comfort through mutual understanding.” And that’s the essence of my definition.

Where do standards come from?

Get behind the wheel of an antique Ford and the chances are you’ll have problems. The Model T resembles nothing else I’ve ever driven (check out this YouTube instructional video). The 1916 Cadillac was the first car to provide basic controls and shift patterns we’d recognise today.

So what brought about standardization? The car rental industry back in the early 1920s. Can’t rent a car if folks can’t drive it, right? And who has time to teach them?

Why are shoe sizes standardized (at least within national boundaries)? To meet the needs of the mail-order industry.

Why do clocks run clockwise? Because that’s the way a sundial moves. So we draw on past experience to make new experiences easier to understand.

Standards reduce stress in unfamiliar situations

Personally, I like most standards. They guide social convention and help prevent you from making a total fool of yourself in polite company. For example, in Lithuania, napkins are kept on the table, not in your lap. In Croatia, the napkin is unfolded and placed in your lap. In Chile, paper napkins stay on the table; cloth napkins go in the lap. At McDonalds, napkins are optional no matter where you are.

But diversity of this kind is both fascinating and troublesome.

Why is airport security so different from airport to airport? “Take your shoes off” “Don’t take your shoes off.” Why are duty-free articles bought and sealed at an EU airport not allowed to pass through Switzerland? (“It’s the Americans. They make the rules.”) Is Indian “paneer” a liquid? Depends on who you ask at the Delhi airport. (Actually, it’s a kind of cheese.)

These “security concerns” are unnecessarily stressful events because of the arbitrary nature of the decisions made by front-line personnel. There is no “comfort” because we’re not experiencing standards, but merely a vague collection of rules.

Of course, once you get past check-in and security, the airports are pretty good about providing consistency. Gates are called “gates” (although they’re called “stands” if you’re a pilot). Gates are numbered with Latin numbers. Transit halls and baggage claim are generally easy to find.

So, like rental cars, we don’t need to learn how to use an airport each time we’re plunked down in one.

Not so with railway stations.

Now departing from Track 9 ¾

Don’t count on train stations to agree on much when it comes to wayfinding. For most people, the only trains they ever see take them from the airport to the center of town. But even in homogeneous Scandinavia, there’s no agreement on what the main station is called:

Oslo S (Oslo Sentralstasjon)
Stockholm C (Stockholms Centralstation)
København H (Københavns Hovedbanegården)

Even if you can navigate the Scandinavian capitols, this won’t help you anywhere else. Heaven forbid you end up in Geneva, where the central station is called “Cornavin”. London has no central station so you need to decide if Waterloo, Paddington, or Liverpool Street will bring you closest to your destination. Even Glenn Miller’s famous “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” left from New York’s Pennsylvania Station, not Grand Central.

No mention of "tracks" at the Zürich Hauptbahnhof

Standardization is a means to an end, nothing more

The rather brilliant Jared Spool and the equally brilliant Don Norman have explained that simplicity in itself should not be a goal. All of this ease-of-use crap we talk about doesn’t always hold water. Jared rightly explains that our job as user-experience designers is to keep the distance between what we need to know in order to accomplish our task, and what we already know as short as possible. I urge you to travel thousands of miles to see Jared explain this simple concept. It’s worth every cent.

Standardization helps shorten this “need-to-know”-to-“know” process. And that’s why standardization plays such an important part in our work.

The “best practice” trap

I said earlier that “best practices” represent good advice that helps bring about qualitative improvements. But there’s a key caveat: Just as you can reduce things to the lowest common denominator, best practice merely brings things up to the highest common denominator. Best practice defines the very box we want to think outside of!

Eric Reiss' innovation lifecycle model

My innovation lifecycle model

Best practice is the outcome following a period of innovation. Unlike invention, innovation is always planned and always solves a problem. And new periods of innovation build on the best practices that resulted from an earlier cycle.

Our challenge

How can we prevent standards from deteriorating into silly sets of rules? How can we prevent best practice from inspiring pseudo-standards that don’t actually provide comfort through mutual understanding? How can we use all of these tools to facilitate change and growth across national and cultural borders?

The discussion starts right here.

Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss is one of the pioneers of information architecture, having written the second book on the subject. He is a two-term President of the Information Architecture Institute, and Chair of the EuroIA Summit. Eric is Associate Professor of Usability and Design at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and CEO of the FatDUX Group, a Copenhagen-based user-experience consultancy with offices and representatives throughout Europe and North America.

5 comments on this article

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  3. Standards give people comfort but based on whose standards?

    Also are some standards becoming more global due to the sameness of products being purchased around the globe? For example, Wii, iPhone, Nokia etc When does moving away from a standard make sense towards a specific design nuance?

    Your example of airport security is spot on, leaving the world traveler feeling both miffed and not secure.

  4. Hi Dano!

    Well, standards tend to be pretty local. Which side of the road one drives on. Or napkin usage. Of course, if you don’t understand the local standards, they don’t provide comfort. So cross-cultural understanding is part of what makes the world more livable.

    The standardization across borders is certainly something we’re seeing more of. I don’t know that Nokia has yet to define as much as they could, but Wii, the iPhone, and Microsoft have certainly dictated a lot of stuff – from design to gestural movements, to functionality (Microsoft has pretty much become the default model for desktop app help).

    Moving away from a standard makes sense when you see a clear path to innovation (i.e. solving a problem). But this only applies when the “standard” is closely related to a “best practice”. Which side of the road we drive on is not something likely to change in the near future. But in the world of computing, we’ve seen many changes the past 30 years. For about 13 years, DOS was a standard for PCs. But it was supplanted by Windows. And Windows will eventually be supplanted, too.

    Finally, as we both log a helluva lot of air miles each year, what can we (as UX designers) do to help make travel more secure?

    Cheers,
    Eric

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