Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Best Practices

"The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful." --Henry David Thoreau

You're doing account signup forms wrong.

Okay, I should say "If you're doing account signup forms, you're doing them wrong." and while logically (if not grammatically) more accurate, I thought it made less of an impact as an opening statement.

The problems with most signup forms are myriad. Why do sites force you to enter your email address twice? Mobile platforms have figured out that masked password input boxes aren't always necessary, and give you either an option to turn it off or give limited clear-text viewing of your input. Websites haven't gotten the memo. And if I see one more site serving up a picture of what can only be described as a dust storm and telling me to type in the letters in the box to prove that I'm human, I'm going to flip and write a blog post about it. Just. Stop. It.

Now, as I hope I've made clear in my writing, I don't care about forms, CAPTCHA, or even UX issues. Or rather, I care about them only in the context of the thought process that went into them, and that's where account signup (and often account management) process fall flat. It's due to a very insidious concept known as "Best Practices".

I hate best practices. As soon as that phrase is first used in a requirements gathering meeting, I step on it like I would a roach. "Best Practices" used to refer to process that the industry had adopted, formally or not, as the best way known at the time to approach a problem. That, I have no problem with. What I have a problem with is the fact that "Best Practices" doesn't mean that anymore in software development. Anymore, it means "What is everyone else doing?" Which leads to lazy planning. Which leads to bad results. And I really hate bad results.

"Best Practices" are insidious. Because it's assumed that these practices are used because they're the best way of approaching a problem, people stop thinking about solutions as they apply to their specific needs. Any time you start implementing solutions without considering whether or not that solution is actually a solution to a problem you have, you have at best added unnecessary complexity to your project. At worst, you end up implementing code that hurts you in the long run.

Worse, though, is that no one ever advances that body of knowledge when "best practices" are applied blindly. Since everyone is using the same solutions as everyone else, no one thinks up new ways of solving problems. In the UX arena, this results in carbon-copy sites that don't stand out and present all the same inconveniences that the other sites present. In the web security arena, it's even worse because you are implementing that worst kind of security. The kind that makes you feel secure without necessarily offering any concrete benefits. Since the "security" principles that are labeled "Best Practices" are applied blindly, you don't know if the implemented solution solves the problem at hand, much less whether or not the problem at hand is one that needs solving in your context.

As an example, let's take password masking. Many mobile devices briefly show in clear text the latest character typed into a password box. This is not new. In fact, I've read people claim that Apple innovated that idea for the iPhone, but my Palm 600 did that. This idea is ten years old and the web world still hasn't caught on. It's become an expected inconvenience because everyone is looking at everyone else's paired "Enter Password/Reenter Password" boxes. Even worse, this is billed as a security measure without asking whether or not this is a *necessary* security measure. Does it really hurt anything if a site offered a way of viewing your password in clear text, thus avoiding the usual paired password box routine?

Am I saying that these measure are all unnecessary? Absolutely not. Except when they are. And if requirements are being gathered in the context of your needs and your solution, then it becomes obvious what you do and don't need. The problem is that "Best Practices" are applied backwards. The solution is selected and the problem lays unexamined. Software development is merely implemented problem solving. You can't solve a problem you have not examined.