inessential by Brent Simmons

Prior art

Dave Winer writes about prior art as a design method: “Anyone who has worked with me knows how much I value prior art.”

True! As a UserLand employee I was often looking at prior art.

Manila members join boxAn example (one of many possible) is the standard Members box on Manila sites. We wanted a way to give people three links: join a site, login to a site, or logout if they’re logged in. So we looked around at a bunch of popular sites that had membership to see how they were doing it.

Manila members signout boxThere was a common thread: lots of sites used a little box with two states. When a user isn’t a member or isn’t logged in, it has two links: join and login. When a user is a logged-in member it has just one link to logout.

There was no clear consensus on terminology, so we chose what we thought was best. (There’s even a little inconsistency—there’s a Login link, but instead of a Logout link it’s a Sign Out link. This was not a problem.)

The thing is, we didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. We took a look and discovered that the wheel is round, and also that it doesn’t matter what color you paint it, it still rolls.

Anyway... I bring this up because I was planning to write about this topic today, and it’s coincidence that Dave also wrote about it.

The pressures of conformity?

What brings this up for me was that I was emailing with a guy who runs a couple cool websites, but his background is not software development. He added a new feature to his site, but he did it in a way that’s very different from how other sites do the same (or very similar) thing.

I suggested he do it the same way as sites x, y, and z. His response—light-hearted though it was—surprised me: he agreed to “conform.” (As in the negative social sense rather than the neutral engineering sense.)

What? Conform? That response surprised me.

So here’s my advice to people building websites (or other software): look at prior art. Doing something the same way other sites or other software do it is a good thing. It’s not some kind of evil conformity.

There is still plenty of room for innovation and self-expression. In fact, looking at prior art allows you to quickly solve the problems that have already been solved—so you can concentrate on the new problems, the problems that are yours to solve, the stuff that makes your software cool.

Prior art is your friend.