When "Standard" Shouldn't Mean One-size-fits-all

Cameron DeOrdio

16 December 2022

Standards – like emissions standards for automobiles or building standards for construction best practices – are, at the end of the day, agreed-upon measures for putting principles into practice. If organizations, products, and spaces want to show that they embody the values a particular standard represents, then they aim to meet or exceed the benchmarks that standard sets. Ultimately, a standard is a measuring tool. It establishes metrics and thresholds that speak to success in that embodiment.


This is an important distinction. The point of a standard is not to proclaim values; it is to enact them. With that simple clarification established, standards should be designed and presented with their use in mind. 


For a long time, there was very little attention paid to the user experience when it came to actually using these standards. Typically, standard setting bodies would create a one-size-fits-all PDF, and users trying to apply the standard would have to manually find what’s relevant, convert regional units, and wade through technical jargon that was often unfamiliar to them.


Enter the Digital Standard.


A digital standard is much more than just a digital copy of a paper standard. In fact, a thoughtfully crafted digital standard experience, designed from a place of comprehending how the standard is used and how different aspects apply to different types of users, can create a streamlined, tailored experience. It creates a more accessible guide for success, both more able to get its message out and better suited for its actual, core purpose: putting principles into practice.


But what does that look like? We sat down with Function’s own Shekhar Chikara, one of the driving forces behind the digital incarnation of the WELL Building Standard, to discuss.

Setting the standard for digital standards

What makes a place “people-first”? How do you measure environmental impact, and how do you draw a line between those impacts and measurable phenomena?


These were the questions driving the initial creation of the WELL Building Standard. These are also questions that Shekhar knew he and his team had to understand WELL’s answers to, because they speak to what the standard is trying to do, and what it is trying to say. When thought of as a vehicle for effecting change and communicating values, it just doesn’t make sense to forgo the diverse tools digital interfaces offer.


“The problem with any standard based out of static PDFs is that one size doesn’t fit all,” Shekhar says. “With WELL, you could be applying the standard to a commercial kitchen, an office, a stadium, an airport. The requirements for those different spaces can vary significantly. But when you’re looking at a PDF standard, it’s the same PDF for all of the different types of projects. There’s no way to customize the standard to help project teams quickly understand what’s relevant to them.”


Based on things like user location and registered users’ provided project information, the digital WELL Building Standard automatically adapts. Users see imperial or metric measurements based on their region. Project information entered at registration goes through an automated process of identifying the relevant aspects of the Standard and creating a project-specific checklist for achieving certification. Particularly “inside baseball” jargon can be moused over for a simplified, accessible definition. 


“It makes the Standard so much more accessible, both as a source of information and as a working document,” says Shekhar. “If you’re assessing how to go forward, and you see 300 requirements in a section, you may not be sure where to start; you may get discouraged. But if only 11 of those actually apply to your project, the digital standard will show that. You’ll know what’s relevant to you, and you’ll have a much better sense of what goes into your certification.”


The shift also made it significantly easier to keep the standard up to date and continuously improve it from the back end.


“Digitization isn’t just a switch you flip,” says Shekhar. “By working closely with stakeholders at IWBI, we were able to make their editing process so much more collaborative and intuitive, so they could edit and add to an internal-only version of the standard as needed, as well as managing reviews and publication. Similarly, if we or IWBI or end users identify new features to make the digital standard even more effective and accessible, we’re able to incorporate that and roll out those helpful features.”


The team’s ability to tailor the digital WELL Building Standard so well stems from a deep understanding of how it is used, borne out of the team’s close work with IWBI and their prior expertise.


“A lot of us come from a sustainability background,” says Shekhar. “We’ve worked with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in the past, including work on their LEED Certification program, which is similar to the WELL Building Standard, but with a totally different selling point.”


While that past experience has proven invaluable, the level of understanding necessary to craft a truly effective digital standard can be gained through interviews with subject matter experts. Which is good news, because digitization could help improve the way we use standards in a variety of industries.


“Ironically enough, there isn’t a lot of standardization when it comes to how standards are laid out, not within the sustainability space and not more broadly, either,” says Shekhar. “Everyone has different ways of presenting the rules and guidelines and processes, so even experienced users may struggle with typical, static PDF standard documents. We try to create a user experience with as little manual sifting as possible. You know how doing your taxes manually, long form requires flipping through page after page, filling out worksheets, cross-referencing numbered boxes, and on and on? But add the right technology, input your information, and suddenly it’s much simpler. 


“Right now, the way a lot of standards work is like doing your taxes on your own. We want the experience to be more like TurboTax: accessible, intuitive, easy.”


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Cameron DeOrdio

Cameron DeOrdio forges and strengthens communities through the power of storytelling and narrative, whether it’s talking with neighbors about building a better, more equitable future; running Dungeons & Dragons games for his friends; or connecting clients with audiences. He is an experienced, versatile writer, having written for B2B tech clients’ content marketing and public relations needs, journalism, short horror fiction, and comic books, including Archie Comics’ 2016 reboot of Josie and the Pussycats.

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