Web standards at all costs?

So should you always build sites using web standards? Should tables really only be used for tabular data? Is it CSS at all costs?

I received an email today from a web designer called Keir with a question for the podcast. It is a question I have heard many times before, but because of work I am currently doing for Headscape, I have had to think twice about the answer.

Here is what Keir wrote:

Why would I want to design using CSS considering the amount of work that has to go into building a CSS site that is compatible with all major browsers, using hacks and work arounds when I could build one straight forward design through tables in a fraction of the time that would look practically identical in all browsers (aside from the ease of updating design?)

Actually taking time to think about the answer

Under normal circumstances, I would have just referred Keir to the article I wrote on the benefits of web standards, but today was different. Today I was building a disposable wireframe for usability testing, which for the sake of speed was being produced using tables for layout. Today, I have also been thinking about Headscape’s business strategy and the impact of web standards on some aspects of our productivity.

Not all approaches suit everybody

Sure, web standards have a huge list of benefits but is it always the right solution for every web design agency? Possibly not. Let’s live in the real world here, building table based sites is quicker for small, flat sites that rarely (if ever) change. Okay, you might have headaches later on but for some web design companies that is not an issue. Take for example a small web design company that is building cheap, flat sites for estate agents. Estate agents are not willing to pay more than a few hundred pounds for their site and care little about accessibility, or future proofing. All they care is whether it looks okay in Internet Explorer. Now, the web design company has a choice. They can do one of the following:

  • Explain to the client the benefits of web standards and why they should pay more for their site to be built properly
  • Take the risk of running at a loss and build the site with web standards anyway while still keeping the price low.
  • Churn the site out, tables and all, using a WYSIWYG like Dreamweaver

Commercial reality matters

I am sure some of the web standards evangelist would argue that the web design company should take the first option. I would suggest that in the real world of commercial design this would be a mistake. Not only would they probably loose the work but also even if they did win it I am not convinced that the estate agent would really feel the benefit. After all, will it help to sell more houses? Possibly, but I doubt it would generate a big enough return on investment to justify the extra expenditure.

So what am I saying?

I am not suggesting that if you are a small web design agency (or freelancer) who works on small websites, you should not bother with web standards. What I am saying is that you have to be pragmatic and that you can introduce some elements of web standards while leaving others aside. For example, probably the majority of delays with web standards come from positioning. Having to use floats and absolute/relative positioning can sometimes prove a lot trickier than simply adding the odd table.

Mix and match

Maybe for some it is simply easier to use tables for the basic layout and then use web standards for things like fonts, colours and design details. This does not have to be an either or decision. The transition from odd school design to web standards can be a gradual process and you can judge how far down the web standards root you go on a per project basis. Like all aspects of web design, the use of web standards has to be a compromise and it should be used as and when appropriate. However, remember, you cannot choose when you use web standards if you have never taken the time to learn it. Web standards should be another tool in your tool belt that you choose to use when appropriate.

For more on getting the balance right between business drivers and technical considerations read "the missing pillar of web design"

  • Carl Grint

    You forgot the 4th option the web company had with the Estate Agent:
    Point out to the client that there was a legal requirement to make a site accessible, and web standards provide a far better way to provide accessible sites, and in the long term require less investment when that client comes back and wants changes, as every client does, big or small…I have never known a client who takes what they are given and sticks with it for years.
    It is amazing web design does seem to be one of the few professions where peopel can ‘chose’ to use the standards set out for them.
    Of course you can use a table and quickly make up a page, I have done that myself…..but I have also found it much easier to edit a site using CSS or at least the bear min of a table, and use CSS to remove the need for tons of cells.
    Not wishing to be be blunt, but lazy developers don’t use standards…afterall the more you use them, the quicker it becomes to make a site using them…and in the long you will be thankful for them.
    I remember the days of Fonts and the time wasted when you had to change a simple font style throughout the site.
    Now I just update my CSS file and the entire site changes.
    Now I would not be a person who says CSS is perfect…although in CSS’s defence, its actually not the standard, but the Browsers, if they included all the standards and displayed them as they where meant to be, we would not have to use Hacks, Internet Explorer I am talking about you here.
    To question has to be, whilst designers/developers go on not bothering with standards, why would Microsoft bother..? If we built sites that use Standards and look bad in IE, the cry would grow enough to make Microsoft pull their finger out, even more then the standards included in IE 7.
    For now, I will continue mixing tables and CSS, that is only because I am not yet good enough to make every site a 100% CSS site which contains everything I need, but that is my short coming, not the standards.
    The day of computer based access devices as the only way to view sites are over, and we need to separate out the content from the design…Tables just don’t give you that…as a middle way, using a bear Table with CSS is a good way, ideally CSS will be supported correctly and we can all go about developing sites in glorious CSS, and have them display across a wide range of display devices with the minimum of effort.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Yep, I agree with everything you are saying with one exception… the forth option you propose is in fact not true, at least not here in the UK. In the UK this subject is covered by the Disability Discrimination act that does not specifically mention websites but does say that any “service” provided by a company has to be accessible to the disabled. The associated documentation that goes alongside the act does refer to a website selling airline tickets as an example of a service which should be accessible. However, there is yet to be a clear definition of what constitutes a “service” and what is considered “accessible”. Until that is tested in the British courts you are not correct in telling a client they are legally bound to make their site accessible.

  • Carl Grint

    The EU laws (very similar to the US 508 laws) can be used, and RNIB have taken a number of cases along with the Disability Rights Commision to court.
    I do agree that Part III of the DDA does only use the term Service, but as every website is providing a ‘service’ of some description, and as it is all in the interpretation, then it leaves a lot open for definition.
    Personally I would hope no one would have to be told they legally had to make a suit ‘usable’, but then I would have hoped that it would not take a law to enable wheelchair users access to a number of buildings, and in reality, that is what was required in this country.
    The great thing about the web is, its not just your country laws which can be applied, people from around the world can see it, so there is debate on how far a local law can be used against a website hosted in a foreign country, just as the US has problems with their population in one state where gambling is outlawed viewing/using gambling websites.

  • Carl Grint

    By the way, sorry that my comments are all bunched up, your Blog does not seem to take the break returns in Firefox.

  • Ed

    Well, there seems to be a sticking point with CSS – it can be used for style, such as the font-face and font-size, and positioning, such as left and right floating and so on. Now, it is a language that can be used for both, but it seems like the positioning aspects are the harder to cope with in the real world, due to all the rendering bugs etc in some web browsers.
    It is possible to make table based designs that are accessible//degrade gracefully, so maybe when a client wants something that is really too hard to “get right” in the majority of browsers, you could use CSS for the style, and tables for positioning, and if possible work on a CSS positioning based design later.
    For a site I worked on, I separated out the CSS style information from the CSS positioning information. This also leads to a site that can have multiple styles a lot more easily, as you can just change one line in a the file that merges the style and positioning rather than a whole lot of code.
    ….and talking of airline booking systems:
    A friend of mine booked a flight online.
    They put in their post code into the system. The second character in their post code is a O (the letter), but they put an 0 (the number) instead. This should have been spotted right there and then by the site, but instead the company later informed my friend that they were not able to book the flight (couldn’t confirm credit card details)! They cancelled the ticket because of one character!
    My friend had to pay about £100 extra for a later flight.

  • http://www.lucentminds.com/ Scott

    You mentioned quick tables to be one of the things that has an advantage over css. I have to agree on this one, because it’s difficult to make anything more than a two coumn display with css. I tried to do three coumns, the right and left having fixed widths, and the center being variabled to the width of the window. I was unsuccessful in getting the results I wanted, so resorted to using tables. There are so many settings to css, and I didn’t have the time to sit down and hash out a method of making it work.~~Scott

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    Actually it is more than possible to reproduce any layout in CSS. It just takes a bit longer and you need to know a new set of tricks. It really is worth sticking with it and working through the pain. The benefits are huge in the end.

  • http://re-run.com Bryan

    Paul, I was disappointed to hear you backpeddle on web standards at the beginning of Episode 9.
    Your point came across as if valid XHTML was useful mainly for ease of maintenance, ignoring the benefit of instantly reaching a much wider audience.
    Grab a non-standard browser (Blackberry, Palm PDA, cell phone, screen reader, etc.) and go to American Airlines’ site (www.aa.com). It doesn’t work. Now use the same browser to visit http://www.orbitz.com. Which one of these sites is going to make a better impression on your average Blackberry-carrying Marketing Director, or hiptop PDA-carrying college student, or vision-impaired person? Which one is going to sell more tickets?
    The truth of the matter is that valid, structural (content-only) HTML is what the web is meant to be made of. Positioning using tables and spacer .gifs is a hack. It’s what we were forced to do for years, and now we are liberated. More importantly, the users of the web are liberated from kludgy code, and can actually use the web again, wherever they are and no matter who they are.
    Web Standards is more than a set of coding practices. It’s an agreement that the coders make with the rest of the world to make the content available under all possible circumstances. If a person consciously decides to ignore this agreement, and uses tables for positioning, then it’s clear that that person does not care about the good of humanity, and should consider a different line of work.

  • http://www.boagworld.com Paul Boag

    I agree with every single word you said, but you have not taken in what I was getting at. My point is one of return on investment. Sure, of course, American Airlines should have a site built in web standards because the benefits to them would be huge. It will make their site available to a much bigger audience, solve a lot of their update problems and ensure a better degradation of their site on older browsers. It is a no brainer for them. My point was that this is not always the case for little sites like your local estate agent. They are spending a few hundred pounds on their site and for them the return on investment of an entirely web standards based site is not worth it. Tableless design is a tool like any other that needs to be used for the right job. I don’t care that building sites with a table is a hack, if it works and gives the best value for money for smaller companies then it shouldn’t be ruled out. I feel confident in saying this as this was the stance taken by Jeffrey Zeldman in his book “designing with web standards�. The reason I “back peddled� as you put it in my podcast is because Web Standard zealots are alienating a lot of people with their “tableless design or bust� approach. I would prefer to see people implementing some web standards than none at all because they think they have to do tableless design even if its not economic to do so.

  • Ed

    A little bit of css code: Global White Space Reset:* { margin:0; padding:0; } can help a lot with css designs, apparently.

  • http://www.richardquickdesign.com Richard Quick

    It takes me a fraction of the time it used to code an SME site now I use web standards.
    The first few sites took me longer – as I was learning – but once you know CSS well every site (at least SME site) is coded more or less the same – header at the top with nav – content on left – maybe a right hand column – and a footer.
    learning xhtml and css based layouts will take a while – it’s an investment – but once you know it well it will increase your productivity no end.
    I guess it’s like making the transition from paper based accounts to a computer accounting system like Sage. Yeah – there’s a learning curve – but in the long term the time savings are huge.
    All I ever do these days is tweak a few heights, widths and colours.
    And all that time I used to spend doing javascript rollovers – gone forever!!!
    I love CSS it’s saved me having to waist time coding when I could be off being creative.

  • WebTech

    In response to Mr. Grint: The RNIB (nor any other group) has not taken any company to court. To date no British company or individual has been prosecuted under DDA.