Session 19

Product Standardization, de jure and de facto


Environment, Technology, and Society

Exercise: Advantages and Disadvantages of Product Standardization


  1. To understand better how product standards help and hurt users.
  2. To understand better how product standards help and hurt designers.


Work in teams of three or four people based on the number in the upper right hand corner of this page.

Background: The terms de jure and de facto come to us from Latin, via the legal profession. We use the former to refer to something that is enforced by law or some other authority. We use the latter to refer to something that is true in reality, even in the absence of a controlling authority.

Sometimes, a product standard is result purely of cultural constraints. The standards that Norman talks about -- clock faces and water faucet handles and the like -- tend be this sort of de facto standard. Sometimes, de facto standards evolve through technology and then become cultural constraints. Other standards are enforced by law, presumably for the public good. Finally, some de jure standards have no legal force but seem as binding.

  1. We live in a world in which Microsoft Word is a de facto standard for word processors. For example, at UNI, most students learn Word, either here or before coming here; most faculty and administrators use Word to create -- and thus share -- documents.

    List at least three advantages of this standard. You can use Norman's ideas or your own. What are the disadvantages, if any?

  2. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration "is considering encouraging or even requiring restaurants to include labels on their menus specifying how many calories are in each item."

    First of all, do you think that having such labels is a good idea? If so, would you rather that the government encourage labeling as a de facto standard, the government legislate a de jure standards, or the restaurant industry come around to labeling its products through cultural pressure? Why?

  3. Back in the 1970s (I know -- the distant past!), the U.S. government made a strong educational effort to get Americans to use the metric system. You probably studied the metric system at some point in your schooling. However, unless you are a science student, you probably never use it, instead using the traditional measurement systems. Despite educational efforts and commercial labeling laws, the metric system hasn't caught on in the U.S.

    Why has metric system failed in the U.S.? Again, you can use both Norman's ideas and your own. With the acceptance of 2-liter bottles, and more recently 1- and half-liter bottles, do you think that the metric system could succeed in the future? If so, what will have to change in our culture to make that possible?

  4. All of these examples indicate the power of standards. Norman seems to think that in almost all cases having standard designs is a good idea.

    Do you think that a standard is sometimes a bad idea? Under what circumstances would not having a standard be better -- and for whom would it be better?

  5. Norman talks about standards that a primarily cultural constraints. Such standards are accepted by most everyone, and they tend to make our lives better. They need no coercive authority to make them work.

    Under what circumstances, if any, would you prefer a de jure standard to a de facto standard? Why do these circumstances call for an enforceable rules?

At the End

  1. You share your insights with the class.
  2. Your group submits its write-up.

Summary from Exercise

Some sources:

Coule we ever change how we tell time?

One advantage of standards, from Norman: constraints provide support to users.

One hint from Norman on when standards are good: standardize what is arbitrary. Let the non-arbitrary vary as we find better solutions and otherwise encourage novel or personalized look and feel.

Which standard is preferable, de jure and de facto? monopoly as standard

Given Microsoft's considerable influence in the marketplace, we might consider Word might be considered a de jure standard. (Near-)monopoly power >= government power. Do the benefits of a standard exceed the cost associated with such a near-monopoly? Can new ideas enter the marketplace?

This comes back to another of Norman's discussions (page 202), on the timing of standardization. Standardizing too early may mean being stuck with sub-optimal solutions driven by primitive technology.

The #1 cultural constraint in the software world? Perhaps the "desktop" metaphor for operating systems. This is an old idea that has seeped slowly into the culture: Xerox PARC in the '70s ... Apple in the '80s ... Microsoft in the '90s. (The Unix world has dealt in this metaphor since the 1980s, but its slow acceptance there reflects the cultural divide.) Is there something better? How will we know?

Students Summaries

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== November 13, 2003