Motto: “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do.”
Type: A pattern of dynamics between Design Situations and Design Resources
Definition: To minimize risks in a new design situation, designers use popular and proven resources with established best practices. Such conformity may be driven by positive experiences of others in similar situations, mere popularity of design resources, or mandatory requirements. The usage of a design resource further contributes to establishment and reputation of the resource and its usage in new design situations.
Topics: popularity, compliance, communities, fashion, peer pressure, legal requirements, education
Desirable: When conformity is mandatory, or when designers can benefit from joining a broader community.
Undesirable: In new domains where there are no established best practices, or in areas where capitalization on new opportunities is crucial.
In the conformity pattern, designers select popular and proven resources with established best practices. In this pattern, external factors, such as experiences of others, popularity, or regulations, are primary drivers for the selection of design resources.
The primary driver behind conforming to established resources and best practices is the wish to minimize risks. Established and popular design resources and reference projects provide some evidence that the design resources are suitable for particular situations. Consequently, a common strategy to select design resources is to look at successful design projects addressing similar conditions and to use the same resources.
Conformity has practical advantages for designers. Well-known tools usually have active communities of practitioners and plenty of learning resources, enabling a designer to more efficiently and predictably master the resource usage. Conformity also has advantages for organizations, as it is easier to find new employees for mainstream tools.
The mere popularity of some design tool or methodology is often the main reason for its usage. For instance, while there are hundreds of libraries and frameworks for the development of web user interfaces, most new web user interfaces are build using few most popular frameworks: React, Angular and Bootstrap. In the domain of graphic design, similarly there are hundreds of available tools, but most designers use Adobe tools (e.g., Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign) by far the most popular graphic design tools, often described as de facto industry standard for graphics editing.
The most popular design resources are often introduced at schools and universities, further contributing to the popularity and widespread use of these resources. Adobe, for example, offers educational resources and discounts on their products for teachers and students. In software engineering schools, Java, one of the most popular programming languages, has often been used as the first programming languages that students learn (Hadjerrouit 1998). Before that, the popularity of C++ in the industry has led to its use for teaching as well (Kölling (1999)).
Usage of some resources also influences the future development of that resource. By using and buying a particular resource, designers increase the popularity of the resource and the profit of the producer, which can further stimulate the use of the tool. Successful projects are excellent references for resources used in them and may be the main reason why others will select these resources for new projects.
Conformity may also be a result of legal and other regulations. Physical materials, for instance, need to satisfy rules about safety and environmental impact and there is often a limited list of “certified” or recommended materials. Here conformity is more than a question of style. Failure to use recommended materials may have severe consequences and put lives of people in danger, as in the case of fire safety standards. In software design, companies often also have a list of approved resources, tools or libraries. Security concerns are often the driver of these limitations. For instance, in 2017 the US Government banned Kaspersky Security software, limiting designers of network and application security to other options. A similar situation happened in 2019 when the U.S. banned its companies from using foreign telecoms providers, in particular the Huawei equipment in 5G mobile networks.
Designers may conform to the usage of some resources due to fear of legal and other consequences. Harrison (2004) for instance, argued that if a software system fails and customers sue, it may be viewed as negligence if the designer’s organization did not follow best practices. For this argument, Harrison draws a parallel between software design and criminal trial. In a criminal trial (at least in the US), the failure to follow an established best practice could result in an acquittal.
The conformity pattern is particularly useful in standard, well-known domains. As discussed in the co-evolution of problem-solution pattern, designing custom solutions may lead to “reinventing-the-wheel” and “not-invented-here” anti-patterns. In well-established domains, designers often can use standard solutions with minimal modifications.
Conformity also has its downsides. One negative issue is that by using established and proven resources, designers may not capitalize on some new emerging technology. As discussed in the design-by-buzzword pattern, projects that do not capitalize on new opportunities may find their products unable to compete. Another negative issue is the vendor lock-in, as designers and customers may become too dependent on a vendor for products and services, and are unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs. Popular tools may also constrain a designer as they need to stay relevant for many users and may decide to focus on developing only the most common features.
The conformity pattern is related to the commitment pattern, as successful usages of some new design resources require some level of commitment. Design organizations may also commit to using some standard or favorite resource. The conformity pattern is also related to the cherry picking pattern. A wish to avoid risks may lead design organizations to work only in situations where proven resources with established best practices can be applied.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do you use standard tools and methods with a significant user base?
- Are you an early adopter for some technologies and methods?
- Are you practices, tools, and methods similar to practices, tools, and methods of other companies or institutions?
- Do you have some unique practices, tools, and methods? Why?
- Do you regret conforming to some standard practices, tools, and methods, as they limit you?
- Are you dependent on a vendor for products and services, and are unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs?
- Have you ever needed to change your design due to government decisions?
Two examples of buildings in the Amsterdam School style, a style of architecture popular from 1910 through about 1930 in the Netherlands. Buildings of the Amsterdam School are characterized by brick construction with complicated masonry with a rounded or organic appearance, relatively traditional massing, and the integration of an elaborate scheme of building elements inside and out. Credit: Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA) / Wikimedia Commons.