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I am new to a UX team, and I am reading many web interface design books. Since the web is fast moving and evolving, some past best practices are now obsolete.

For example, clear button in forms. Now the clear button is recommended to avoid in form design on this site.

I know some best practices haven't changed. But, To avoid a hodgepodge of past obsolete bad practices, mixed with present best practices, how many years can one go back in books and avoid the mix of the two?

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It's outdated in approximately 0.25 years –  DA01 Jul 19 '12 at 18:25
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If they are talking about today, they are already outdated :) But seriously, good design lasts. However that doesn't stop the details, the context and our understanding from changing. This is a constant, never ending process. –  Jay Jul 20 '12 at 8:00
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You say "some past best practices are now obsolete". You are correct; how did you come to this conclusion? By comparing the texts to what you see work on the Web. Observation and professional Judgment step in when the texts let you down. –  msw Jul 20 '12 at 11:10
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...was the clear button ever recommended by designers? It used to be common, but I don't think it was ever recommended. A lot of people left it there because hey, HTML has a clear button! –  Ben Brocka Jul 20 '12 at 15:25
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Generally, these books have the shelf life of milk. The better books deal in principles rather than tactics. –  RobC Jul 20 '12 at 19:22
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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

As a rough rule: implementation stuff ages. Design doesn't.

The basic principles of human-computer interaction haven't changed an awful lot since the days of MITRE's famous 1979 report on the usability of jet fighter computer systems. People still need to be able to discover content, recognize keywords, spot visual hierarchies and use alignment and common movement to identify element groupings. These requirements are based on simple human psychology, and that's something that hasn't changed much in a good 500,000 years.

Not convinced? Consider Nielsen's advice in his 'Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design', written back in 1996:

  1. Don't use frames
  2. Don't use technology gratuitously
  3. Avoid animations
  4. Keep URLs readable
  5. Avoid orphaned pages
  6. Make sure users don't need to scroll to discover content
  7. Help users navigate your site
  8. Format hyperlinks consistently
  9. Keep content updated
  10. Be wary of page load times

Of these, only #4 and #6 have lost relevance (no-one hand-types URLs today, and 2012's users are much more scroll-happy - though they still need to know there's a value to staying on the page before they'll spend a long time scrolling).

What does age, though, is advice that talks about implementation constraints. A book that tells you to avoid special fonts because image replacement breaks accessibility, for example, isn't really that relevant in the era of @font-face. Still, basic advice about bandwidth limitations and graceful degradation will remain just as relevant today as it ever would in the palaeolithic web.

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Agreed. We take a lot of Graphic User Interface concepts as read, though somebody had to come up with the concept initially. Don Norman's The Psychology of Everyday Things was published back in 1988 - and is still perfectly valid as its about how people work, not about a set of technologies. –  PhillipW Jul 20 '12 at 19:25
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I don't think the number of years matter the most here. It is more the content of the books that need to be evaluated. What about conventions which usually last long? The concept of navigation bars haven't changed that much since internet exists. So, descriptions of good navigation systems would not be outdated.

Regarding using a "Reset" button or not in your forms, I would say it depends on how this will help the users. That's the best question I would ask myself. Here I recommend using common sense.

If you like to learn by reading books, I would suggest that you read readers comment and choose the books most readers recommend.

For someone who aims to be an UX expert, my best advice would be to build interfaces and ask people to test them. Users are the only ones who can reveal the flaw in an interface, they are the best teachers. So, one have to do in order to gain the reel experience and knowledge that never the theoretical information found in books will give.

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Yes, it is the content that matters. But, a beginner reading a UX book won't be able to distinguish between outdated practices, and the current best practices. –  webdesignux Jul 19 '12 at 17:07
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Or in other words: experience matters. If it didn't we wouldn't consider it valuable and you'd be out of a job replaced by some kid with a book. –  msw Jul 20 '12 at 11:11
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Think of the user as a cognitive hierarchy, going from:

  • basic psychology (memory constraints, interpretation of colour)
  • culture and language (important for internationalisation and interpretation of designs)
  • formal education (e.g. mathematicians versus accountants interpretations of the same concepts)
  • informal learning (how dropdown menus work).

You also have the UX issues associated with the system centric view: the physical device (PC/tablet/mobile) and the interface technology (Flash, HTML5/CSS3, etc.).

The human-centric stuff is more robust than the machine=-centred stuff: people evolve slowly, so knowing their basic constraints and capabilities stands you in good stead when you are dealing with technologies, which although vital as a designer, are more transient.

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