There was a time when there were no smartphones and computers.

Now terms like "Tap", "Swipe" or "Double-click" are common for most people in the world.

How do some interactions turn into common knowledge?

For example, even with rules of the road. There are learned rules and there are unspoken rules like this one: Someone flashes their lights at you because your high beams are on. You just know.

There are lots of times when I'm designing something and I try to lean towards established norms because I assume that's usually the path of least resistance. But how do these things get established to begin with?

More specifically: What is the process to reduce learning curve and create convention?

Note: i've read this other post ( Is it ever acceptable to break extremely common interaction functions? ) but it doesn't answer the question of how these commonly accepted interactions become convention in the first place.

  • @CodeMaverick: Convention is what we compare our interaction designs against to ensure something works. The question is pretty clear. How does something become convention? For example, it's no longer best practice to ask the user to "Click here". It's now just something they know to do. How is this common knowledge?
    – Pdxd
    Apr 8, 2014 at 19:45
  • I thought the answer to this question would have been common knowledge by now... Apr 11, 2014 at 9:47

3 Answers 3


You are blending two distinct concepts here: The development of ideas and the propagation of ideas.

The examples you have listed were all developed through a great deal of user research over many decades of interaction design. "Swipe" and "double click" did not emerge out of the ether, they were developed by industry leaders through an iterative process of observing and developing. This is the scientific research field of human-computer interaction, and there are a huge number of research papers on the physiological, psychological, technological and sociological drivers for interface design.

Those ideas were then propagated through widespread dissemination and imitation of both the the final products and the supporting research literature. This process is the research field of socio-cultural evolution and memetics. There are a similarly large number of papers on the driving factors behind technological adoption patterns.

The interaction of these two concepts is what you are describing as "becoming common knowledge". Hopefully I have given you enough to continue your own research.

  • Thanks - this is what I was wondering about. How ideas get propagated and becomes mainstream.
    – Pdxd
    Apr 9, 2014 at 18:32

Before one can understand the why or how, they need to understand the what.

To understand the what, people really need to understand the differences between:

  • Convention
  • Best Practice
  • Standard

Based on this article, here are the differences:



an agreement, implicit or explicit, among a group. My practice is mine alone, but if all or most of us do it that way (good or bad), it's a convention, a "coming together" in agreement on this one practice.

Best Practice

specifies what we ought to do without regard to whether we do it.


what we have agreed we will in fact do, to some specified level of detail.



By convention street signs in the U.S. are placed at street corners, we expect to find them by looking up, not down, and we expect them to be horizontal, not vertical. The benefits of this convention are:

  • We can locate street signs quickly, with a minimum of effort.
  • Their appearance makes it easy to distinguish them from everything else

By convention books have a table of contents that occur somewhere in the first few pages, page numbers are somewhere in the margins and they will look like a table of contents and page numbers.

By convention XML tags are indented to reveal their nesting structure.

Best Practice

It is best practice when creating XHTML documents to wrap all abbreviations within an element, e.g.

<abbr title="Extensible Markup Language">XML</abbr>

The benefit of this best practice is this: people with visual disabilities use a screen reader to read Web pages. Screen readers often mispronounce abbreviations. By providing the full text version of an abbreviation, a screen reader tool can better assist the user.


The XML specification is a standard. It requires, for example, every XML document to have a root element.

Another example of a standard is the meter.



  • Oftentimes a convention is localized. In the U.S. the convention is to put street signs on street corners. In the U.K. the convention is to put street signs along the road.
  • Conventions evolve over time. In the print industry the convention of what goes into a Table of Contents and where the TOC should appear have changed over time.
  • Conventions oftentimes become part of the background and we don't think about or notice them. We only notice them when they are not followed. For example, when an XML document is not indented we become acutely aware of the indentation convention.

Best Practice

  • Informal adoption.
  • Explicit documentation.


  • Formal adoption.
  • Authority.
  • Formalized agreement.
  • Explicit documentation.

Reduces Cognitive Load

Conventions and standards help reduce cognitive load.

The convention of putting the main header of a story in big, bold font and subheaders in smaller font instantly gives the reader some understanding of the general organization of a document. The user doesn't have to spend the mental effort to figure out the organization and main points.

The XML standard gives us a syntax for formatting data — wrap data within tags. Thus, the standard enables us to focus on the data rather than spending the mental effort of devising a data format syntax.


Reduce learning curve by [carefully] appropriating things your audience already understands. It's not easy and it's best done with a dedicated investment in understanding your audience. Skeuomorphism is just one example.

Creating convention doesn't always require a reduced learning curve. But, it is rarely achieved without a hefty investment of time, money, or both. And luck. Many people set out to create conventions but few are rewarded by the fickle nature of posterity.

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