Permanent Tourist

A personal website by Mark Howells-Mead

There is no perfect dropdown

Andy Budd made a very important point during episode 93 of The Web Ahead podcast. He’s answering a question raised about where a less-experienced web designer can find resources to see what the current “best practices” are for designing particular site elements.

(The short answer: there are good design patterns for elements, but there is no “right” solution. The right solution for the project is depends upon the project.)

Cargo cults were amazing. Basically, during WWII, all of these American troops came to the Pacific islands with the islanders, these tribal people. With the Americans came great wealth: jeans, stereos, cigarettes, chocolate. The islanders thought this was almost magic. They couldn’t imagine that these people come from anywhere; they came from the skies like the gods. When the war finished, all the planes and boats disappeared. The islanders thought, “How can we bring these planes and boats back?” They would dress up in these uniforms that they saw the soldiers wearing. They’d make wooden things that looked like guns but were just made of bamboo, and they’d march up and down, hoping that suddenly all of this wealth could come back. It didn’t work. Then they went out and cleared huge runways in the forest. They built bamboo control towers and bamboo planes because they thought, “If we do these things, the planes will come.”

This is a cargo cult. It’s magical thinking. It’s thinking there’s a magical incantation or perfect way of doing it. If I do this, the solution will come. It’s a misattribution error. These tribal people were misunderstanding the nature of the problem, they were attributing the solution to one thing, when actually it was a much more complicated problem.

I use the term “cargo cult” a lot. I think the question you’re asking, actually, is a really good question. But it’s sort of magical thinking. There is no one UI component to rule them all.

There’s a classic example of this. A number of years ago — I think it was Target, I might be wrong, I’m terrible with names, but I think it was Target. They looked at the Amazon website and said, “Look, these guys have nailed it. They have nailed e-commerce. We cannot get better than the Amazon platform. We will pay Amazon a shitload of money to license their software, to use their software on our website.”

But one of the key things was, “We want people to comment as much as they do on Amazon.” They looked at Amazon and they were like, “Man, you go to these product pages and there’s reviews and ratings and it’s vibrant.” Obviously, because Amazon has tested the hell out of it, this must be the perfect combination. They’ve hit on this magical combination of text and images and features. This is it. This is the mother lode.

They spent millions and millions of dollars on this platform. Did people come and comment on the products that Target had? Of course they didn’t. Because you don’t go to Target to comment on products. You go to Amazon.

Again, it’s going back to context. There is no right solution. There is no perfect button. There is no perfect dropdown. There is no perfect sidebar. Every single client, every single business, every single problem is unique to that problem.

The reason that Amazon was successful wasn’t necessarily because of the usability. It was the brand, the marketing, the first-move advantage.