If you’re riding through the suburbs in a train, you might recognize that houses usually come in two flavors. For one, there are the townhouses: Tightly packed, not too large, repeatable, convenient. And then there are the individual single-family homes which come in all forms and sizes, small or large, each one unique.
Both types of houses have their advantages. If you are looking for the safe bet and don’t want to spend too much, the proven and reliable concept of a townhouse can reduce much of the risk involved with buying or building a home. Of course, you trade convenience for a more tailored solution. With townhouses, changes to the ground plan are less easy and especially on the outside, you will have to content yourself with something more ordinary. Individual single-family houses, on the other hand, offer much more flexibility and room for realizing your dreams. You are still restricted by the qualities of the building materials as well as things like architectural statics and, not to forget, the environmental context like ground conditions, groundwater level, binding site plans, et cetera. But other than that, you can realize a solution that perfectly fits your individual ideas and unique demands. Yet, this flexibility also comes at a cost: An individual solution like this will most likely be more expensive than a townhouse, it might take longer to build, and, depending on who you hire to do the job, you can’t be sure about the outcome in terms of build quality and timely completion.
This question – do we need a convenient or unique solution? – is also vitally important when designing a product or any kind of system for the Web. If someone approaches you with a specific problem to solve, whether it's a corporate website or a single component, it is important to consider which solution works best in the given situation. Does the budget allow for building something unique or are you better off with a convenient solution? Are you ready to take some risks – also the risk that your solution might be so unique that it doesn’t work – or should you go for the tried and tested pattern first?
As with so many things, the right answer depends on many factors that have to be assessed anew for each project or task at hand.
What I often see though is agencies or designers promising – or also clients demanding – something unique without checking first if this is really what they need. More than often, they would be better advised to consider the convenient solution. Because being unique is really hard and getting the convenient right can be hard enough. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about setting goals that are too low or not ambitious enough. I’m talking about unrealistic expectations and the danger of investing time and energy into the wrong things. Because if you promise something unique but don’t realistically acknowledge what it means to walk that road, the result won’t be satisfactory. Even worse, you might find yourself in a situation where the unique solution falls short in terms of accessibility or performance and you’re already running out of budget to fix all of this.
Going for the convenient solution is often much more valid because it ensures an experience that gets the job done. Sometimes it’s also a start on which you can further improve upon, but still far better than pointless innovation for its own sake.
But how do you decide which solution is the best? Well, it depends. It depends on your budget, of course, but that should never be an excuse for building something that doesn’t cut the mustard. Above all, it depends on the purpose of what you are building and who you are building it for. Because the primary goal is to build something that works for the people who are using your product or service. What is the core of what they need and are you providing that in a respectful, appropriate, accessible, and useful way? Finding an answer to this question will most likely also answer the question if the convenient is the right solution or if it is worth going the extra mile for something truly unique.
And how do you know what your users want? By doing your homework: Research, prototyping, user testing. All of which are still neglected far too often. It’s up to us to change that.