Web standards aren’t just about HTML and CSS

Paul Boag

The web standards movement has taught us that having best practices and standards in place makes your site more effective. This doesn’t just apply to HTML and CSS, but all kinds of other areas.

Last week I wrote a post as part of my web governance series looking at policies and procedures. The thrust of the post focused on why policies are important, before going on to give a brief overview of the kinds of policies you should be looking at.

One aspect of policies that I didn’t cover is their role in providing standards for the organisation.

If you have worked on the web for any length of time you will have heard of web standards. Web standards are a set of best practice for building the web and they attempt to establish a common approach for all those developing websites.

In this post I want to look at the kind of areas that require standards and give some specific examples of what you should put in place.

The four areas I want to address are:

Design standards

Many organisations already have standards in place for brand identity. Typically organisations have style guides that outline how logo, typography, imagery and colour should be used across marketing material.

Unfortunately most of these documents are created with print in mind and do not adequately address the web. It is therefore necessary to produce a digital style guide.

Kew Style Guide
Like many others, the style guide for Kew Gardens is primarily aimed at print rather than the web.

This document would address the same kinds of areas as a print style guideline, but with special attention given to:

  • Layout – What grid system does the site work on? What templates exist for design elements? How does layout adapt for different devices?
  • Typography – It is not always wise to simply use the same typefaces that are used in the print style guide. Fonts can be slow to download and not all fonts work well on the web.
  • Colour – Corporate colour palettes often need tweaking so that they work on screen. Colours appear differently online than they do in print.
  • Logo usage – The way print style guides suggest you use logos is not always applicable online. For example some logos break up when displayed at the lower resolution of most computers. Adjustments have to be made.
BBC Global Experience Language
The BBC have create a web based style guide for their online presence.

However, the most attention (from a design perspective) needs to be given to imagery.

Policy on the use of imagery

Although the advice given in print style guides about imagery are often applicable to the web, there are additional factors to consider.

For a start, not all imagery that looks great in print will work on the web. As with logos, complex and detailed imagery can look pixelated at screen resolutions.

Secondly the dimensions of imagery used online may be different to that used in print. With factors like responsive design to consider, there maybe specific constraints on the size and composition of imagery.

Most crucially, there will need to be specific guidelines about how images are saved, compressed and added to the site. Too often the performance of a website can be crippled by content providers uploading bloated and poorly formatted images.

Finally, additional direction needs to be given to content providers on ensuring imagery is accessible to screen readers and search engines.

When considering the impact that content providers can have on the visual appearance (and performance) of your site with their selection of imagery, we come to the bigger issue of who is responsible for design.

Who does design?

Left unchecked the design of a website can quickly deteriorate. Individual departments may decide they want their own design for certain sub sites or sections. External agencies may decide they want to stamp their own feel on the site and individual content providers may apply their own design styling to content.

In order to prevent this kind of damage, set standards about who can change the design and to what extent.

For example, beyond adding images you may wish to limit what design changes a content provider can make. Best practice is to restrict them to entering content. The site should automatically style that content.

You may also decide that only one agency can be used to work on the design of the site and associated sub sites. You might also specify that all online collateral has to be approved by the web team before it is produced.

The exact nature of your policies is up to you, but know that the less stringent your rules the more diversity you will see in your online branding.

Of course, when it comes to the web the way your site is built is just as important as how it looks. That brings us on to build standards.

Build Standards

Something I have long encourage on this blog is that your website continually evolves rather than goes through periodic redesigns every few years.

The downside of this approach is that the site is constantly being updated with new features, functionality and code.

In the midst of these changes, inconsistencies in build can creep in. At best these will effect performance and accessibility, at worse they could break parts of the site entirely. It is therefore important that a set of solid build standards are in place.

Typically your build standards will cover elements such as:

  • Browser support – To ensure that your site performs consistently, define a list of browsers to test on. You may wish to consider defining what level of support you will offer different browsers. An approach similar to that used by Yahoo! maybe appropriate.
  • Device support – You will also need to decide what devices to test with. Also how will testing happen? Will you have a suite of devices that people can test on or use an online testing tool?
  • Accessibility – There are broader support issues to consider such as how you will support users with some form of accessibility need. Your accessibility policy needs to be more than a checklist. It needs to cover how you will test accessibility and what steps you need content providers to take in order to keep your site accessible over the long term.
  • Libraries and frameworks – It is necessary to consider how the site itself is built. Take for example the issue of libraries and frameworks. You should avoid your site loading multiple and potentially conflicting Javascript libraries. Your policy need to define what libraries and frameworks should be consistently used.
  • Third party tools – It is important to ensure you have policies surrounding third party tools, so that multiple tools are not used for the same job. For example, what is your video playback tool of choice? Do you use Youtube or Vimeo? Which has the best functionality and terms for your organisation? What impact do these third party tools have on performance and what happens if the service goes down?

Ultimately all of this comes down to documenting the way your site is built. This is particularly important when you have multiple developers working on the site. As staff and outside contractors come and go, it is important that the build standard is maintained.

Although build standards are important, they fade into insignificance in the face of content standards.

Content standards

Most organisations these days make use of content management systems and some form of distributed content creation.

Although content management systems have solved a lot of the bottlenecks that used to exist around content, they have created their own set of challenges. The greatest of these is that more content providers increases the risk of poorer, more inconsistent content.

The only way this risk can be mitigated is by have an enforceable policy for managing content.

This policy has to begin by deciding who can create content.

Content creators

The more people who can add content to the site, the more likely issues will occur. A balance has to be struck between maintaining control and allowing the site to be easily updated.

You need a policy for deciding who has access and who does not. You may wish to insist that before somebody can add content to the site they have to undergo training in how to write well for the web. You may also insist that their role as content creator is written into their job description so they can be assessed on their performance.

Content workflow

One way of maintaining editorial control of your site is to insist that content has to be approved before being placed online. Having a clearly defined content workflow will help with that.

You need to decide whether an approval process is required, who makes the decision and how the process will work.

Finally, you need a way to decide whether content is approved or rejected.

Content approval criteria

Probably the most important criteria is whether the content helps or hinders business objectives. It is not enough to say that somebody might find a piece of content useful and so it should be put online. If that piece of content is only going to be useful to a handful of people, it will make it harder for everybody else to find truly useful content.

I recommend that content providers must answer the following questions before content is put online:

  • Who is the target audience for this content?
  • Why would the target audience be interested in this piece of content?
  • What task is the target audience trying to complete that would lead them to this piece of content?
  • What business objective does this piece of content help meet?
  • What is the main thing that the reader should take away from reading this content?
  • What is the call to action for this piece of content?

If a content provider can answer all of these questions clearly then the chances are the content belongs on the site.

However, you might also wish to set other criteria that have to be met before content is approved.

Content style

Many websites also provide style guides for content as well as design. This contains certain criteria about how content needs to be written. Until these criteria are met the content will not be published.

There are lots of great examples of this kind of style guide online. However, there are no right and wrong approaches.

Mailchimp tone of voice guide
Mailchimp.com have an excellent interactive guide to help their content providers produce content with the right tone of voice.

Personally, I recommend your content style guide covers things like:

  • Grammar.
  • Use of numbers (e.g. Numeric or written).
  • The way brand names are written (e.g. Boagworld or BoagWorld).
  • Headings (e.g. capitalisation, length).
  • Formatting (e.g. use of lists, pull out quotes).
  • Content structure (e.g. front loading, scannable, short sentences).
  • Banned terminology (e.g. marketing speak or jargon).
  • Tone of voice (e.g. friendly vs. formal).

The list could go on, but I imagine you get the idea by now!

The aim of the style guide and approval process is to ensure the quality of content. However, even good content can age badly or become out of date entirely. It is therefore important to have a policy for how content is removed.

Content removal

Outside of homepage and main navigation, the removal of content can be one of the most internally sensitive issues. Nobody likes being told their content has to be removed and people can become defensive over their part of the site.

The best way to solve this problem is to have a policy for removing content. That way you don’t need to fight over every piece of content. Instead you simply implement the policy.

What your policy is will depend on many factors specific to you. However, there are a couple of things you should consider.

First, what are your criteria for flagging content as a candidate for removal? You could base this on the amount of traffic a page receives or when a page hits a certain age. Once the criteria are met you can then review whether it is still relevant.

Second, what does removal actually mean? Obviously the most extreme definition is that the page is completely taken down. However, this is not your only option. You could leave the page online, but remove it from search results, navigation or both. This de-clutters your site, while at the same time making the content accessible for those who need it via a direct URL.

If you are concerned about leaving misleading or out of date content online, then consider a banner saying the content maybe inaccurate. This is an approach the BBC used effectively for a long time. The content is still available, but the reader is under no illusions about its relevance.

Not that content is limited to your site or CMS. There is also social media to consider.

Social Media Standards

Because of the relative immaturity of social networks, few organisations have a solid social media policy. This is unfortunate because there is a lot to consider in this area and many potential dangers.

There are no shortage of horror stories about employees writing libellous things relating to their company or flamewars springing up on social media platforms. It is important you set some standards about behaviour in this area.

Things to consider include:

  • Personal accounts – What expectations do you have of employee behaviour on their personal social media accounts? Are they allowed to discuss their job or employer? Do you require them to have a disclaimer in their profile explaining that opinions expressed are their own? Answering these questions is not only vital to your organisation it also provides some security to employees.
  • Different networks – Decisions need to be made about what networks the company is going to participate in and what the role of each network is. For example are you going to use both Twitter and Facebook? If so, how are they going to be used differently? Should you have pages on Flickr, Youtube, Pinterest and more. There are a lot of networks out there and you need to consider who is going to monitor and maintain them.
  • Dealing with conflict – It is inevitable that sooner or later you will encounter an unhappy customer online. What is your policy on dealing with them? Do you deal with them in a public forum or privately? What if they start posting inaccurate or untrue comments about you?

To be honest this is just the tip of the iceberg. Dealing with people online is fraught with dangers, but if you get it right and have solid processes in place it is immensely rewarding.

Wrapping up

This is now without a doubt the longest blog post I have ever published. However, I hope you can see the value in setting some standards about how your organisation operates. I realise all of this can feel like a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, but done right it can ensure the quality of your web presence.

Download this post as a printable PDF and share it with your boss!