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Design Standards: A Baseline, Framework, or Ideal?

"Standards are like toothbrushes. Everyone agrees you should have one, but no one wants to use yours." - Joe Croser, architect

Every design course I have taken has at some point discussed 'usability standards', 'accessibility standards', or just general 'design standards'. I have always found this terminology confusing; the word 'standards' seemed to refer to three very different things in these instances.

'Usability standards' was often used to describe a set of ideals, frequently referring to Norman's 10 Usability Heuristics, which should be used comparatively to assess the quality of a user experience. Certain aspects can be ignored or reprioritized according to their relevance.

'Accessibility standards' referred to a baseline that every user experience must meet in order to be accessible to users with varying levels of ability. This baseline includes aesthetic rules, such as applying proper contrast and colour schemes to accommodate colour blind users, and back-end requirements such as proper XML structure to accommodate screen reading software. These standards serve as a minimum that must be met.

Contrastingly, 'design standards' was used to reference a framework -- as in: 'we need to make sure we are implementing proper mobile/ web design standards'. These standards are more of an underlying structure, a way to implement consistency, rather than a minimum to meet or an ideal to aspire to.

It wasn't until I actually looked up the definition fo the term 'standard' according to the Oxford dictionary:

Standard: a level of quality or attainment; something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations.

So, a standard really can be all three: baseline, framework, and ideal. In my experience an effective design process needs all three: a framework to be implemented, a baseline used for analysis, and an ideal to aspire to. But, referring to all three as 'standards' causes confusion surrounding which set of ideas/rules serves which role. If one team member is using Android design standards as a framework, and one is using it as an ideal, there are going to be discrepancies in how certain features are prioritized throughout the design process.

While I agree that every design project should have and use standards, a discussion of not only which should be used but how they will be used is absolutely critical to prevent misunderstandings and ensure continuity of mission.