Web standards War – Watch our language

The war is over! …… Or is it?

The thing that disturbed me most at this year’s @media conference was the final panel in which it was announced that the “web standards war was won”. I remember saying at the time that this was far from my experience and so was particularly encouraged to read a recent Think Vitamin post.

If we want to seriously increase the take up of standards based design we need to simplify our language and make sure the underlying concepts are accessible to all.

One of my unofficial aims for this podcast and blog has always been to explain the benefits of standards based design. I passionately believe that using CSS for layout, semantic XHTML for content and Javascript for behaviour benefits everybody. Website owners have a site that is easier to update, can adapt to multiple devices and is more search engine friendly. Designers and developers find maintenance a much more pleasurable experience, changes less painful and large builds much quicker.

The idea that web standards were now the norm really shocked me. Certainly, that has not been my experience and I still receive regular emails explaining how my podcast is encouraging people to adopt standards. How could that be the case if everybody is already using them? Here is just one example of an email I have received this week:

I know CSS has been around for quite a few years already – but the whole "web standards" bit is new to a lot of people. My point is basically that you and your podcasts are helping to educate the public and web designers about the importance of web standards in web design.

I think the comment at @media demonstrated an underlying problem. The web design community has fractured. I believe there are two tiers; the “elite” that read the right blogs, attend the right conferences and own the right books. Then there are the rest, those that don’t have the time or money to keep on top of every new trend. So often, the former look down on the latter (something I have written about before) and condemn them for bad practice. However, in many cases they are just struggling to get by and need our encouragement not condemnation. As long as clients are willing to pay for old table based sites, then these designers don’t have the business justification for getting their skills up to speed.

I guess that leads nicely on to the other group that still needs a lot of convincing… the clients. To say the web standards debate has been won among this group is absurd. Most are totally unaware of good practice in development. As long as the site looks okay in their browser then they are happy. We need to continually educate our clients (and prospects) of the need to build, standards based sites.

Spread the word

The think Vitamin article encourages us to spread the word and makes a few suggestions about how we can do that. However, I believe the primary method was missing; we need to change our language. I have been interviewing a number of people recently for the show and have noticed one reoccurring problem; they cannot help but use jargon. In many cases the people I interviewed were unable to get through a conversation without talking about “web standards”, “web 2.0”, “progressive enhancement”, “web services”, “frameworks”… the list could go on. Even though I always explain that my podcast is aimed at a mass audience, they cannot help themselves. We need to learn to stop talking techie! For the majority of web designers out there, these phrases mean nothing. If designers and developers don’t understand them, then how are clients ever going to grasp the concept.

The boagworld.com podcast is often criticised for its lack of technical detail and for “dumming down”. I am often forced to over simplify a concept in order to make it accessible to the audience I am trying to reach. Now although this sometimes makes me less than accurate I believe that this is preferable to using jargon that nobody is going to understand.

If we want to seriously increase the take up of standards based design we need to simplify our language and make sure the underlying concepts are accessible to all.

  • Philip Wright

    Hi Paul, I would tend to agree with you on more than a few points. I can honestly say that I appreciate the nature of your podcast. I do understand the techie terms at least in theory, but the up front way you put it makes sense in a practical way. I myself am struggling to stay standards based, but you know… “Just one table… I can quit anytime I want” :) It is getting easier but until I am a CSS master sometimes it is just quicker.. LOL
    I also agree with the elite part. Designers tend to be snobby anyway, but throw in buzz-words and oh my god…
    Web Standards are NOT the norm. I frequently check on my competition and the VAST majority of designers sites I check are table based. And in surfing, if I find ANY site that is standards based I am surprised.
    Thanks for what you do!
    ~Phil

  • http://www.castus.co.uk Gary Hides

    Not very scannable this Paul. Come on, pick up the game!
    :o)
    It’s a tough sell sometimes on standards. I sometimes wonder if clients think we are feeding them a load of BS when talking about standards.

  • john

    Hi Paul,
    Fact is that to a client time = money the faster they can get the final product the happier they are and if you have to hand code the positions rather then just dump an element into a table then it can take a bit longer for those not used to the correct code who can type it from memory and not worry bout if it will work or not as they know it will. Also clients like to work on a basis of they want it brilliant, done cheap and ont really care about web standards as long as there site works.
    Most clients dont care that it takes time to code the more complex pages and to tweak that main element for them so it is exactly like they want it.
    They just want it done yesterday as soon as they tell you what they want.
    And as for the elite and the others (non elite) your right it is about where and how they learn their skills but some just dont care about stuff like standards and just want the cash from the sites and these are the types who have given us professional designers a bad rep.

  • http://www.macharbor.com Rob Shepard

    I have to say that I am very happy with the way you (Paul) and Marcus handle the amount of technical vs simplified terminology. That is one of the main reasons I got into the Boagworld podcast, because to me it’s not really about the technical aspects of web development, it is the theory behind it.
    Web Standards is very much a world of theory. Figuring out what looks right and what looks… not wrong, but more what looks unacceptable for the design.
    When I was working on my website’s design (http://www.macharbor.com), I went thru many different revisions before I got my final design. Some technical, some visual. Now I have a design that I like, it looks nice. There are a few things that I can do to fix it up a bit, making it display correctly in IE6 for example. Changing the way the links are handled would also help matters. Again, all theory vs technical.
    Learning new ways to do things in web design, I admit, I steal code. Like the new boagworld website. I am very impressed with the technical side of the design that I in effect copied the code and am making a mock-up of a new website design for by business using boagworld.com as a template. Will that new design ever go live? No, because it wasn’t my code or design originally; however, there are so many different things Paul did to get his site look the way it does. Techniques that I had no clue could even be done. Off of his work I can also learn those methods and apply them to my current design, going the evolution route. I learn off of the copied design/code, and then create my new website based off of the new techniques I learned.
    Now if I could just get some of those Web2.0 wavy gradients to look right.

  • http://www.mokre.lapy.pl Szymon

    I think there is still too many “old-way” html guides/tutorials. Many people still learn from them. The first step in web standarts advocacy should be to delete those sites. The bad things will stop spreading and the war will be over.

  • [MC]

    I have a feeling that all IT industries have this problem to some extent, and although there is a need for somewhere that people can go when they start on the web standards road, the fact is we still have to call it something to differentiate from the “old way”. We all got interested in WS without having it dumbed down; we’re intelligent folk who now evangelise.
    I wholeheartedly agree that the “war” is not won (perhaps “revival” is a better term given the evangelism thing) – not even close. The number of developers I work with who’ve never heard of Web Standards outnumber a good few dozen small web agencies.
    Front-end web designers who are focussed on HTML/CSS/DOM may slowly be getting the message, but uber techies who think “real men use Python” (seriously, someone said that to me the other day) don’t even get to hear about web standards.

  • http://www.spectrum8.net Shawn Gillick

    I’m glad I’m not the only web designer in the world who feels a bit overwhelmed by all the new trends coming along at a neck-breaking pace.
    It has taken me a while to fully adopt web standards. It hasn’t been easy letting go of “old tables” for design.
    Sometimes – using tables does seem quicker, easier and better than using CSS for layout – but I must remind myself that I can’t control the future of the web.
    The web is moving on and I must keep up and learn at least some of the latest techniques and trends in web design. The Internet is a beast that is growing in leaps and bounds!
    -Shawn
    http://www.spectrum8.net

  • http://www.castus.co.uk Gary Hides

    Sometimes – using tables does seem quicker, easier and better than using CSS for layout – but I must remind myself that I can’t control the future of the web.
    This is certainly not the case. It’s not that it’s particularly the future of the web that should make you want to learn – it’s all of the other benefits, that make the controlling of your site’s look and layout very easy indeed, as well as making web pages that only have content on them, making them smaller and much easier for alternate browsers to read i.e. separating content and layout.
    When I was learning, my main source of inspiration was http://www.csszengarden.com – this is great as the HTML is the same on every design, only the CSS changes, and this shows you how powerful and easy it is to change the look and the layout of a site only using CSS.
    So let’s say you had just implemented a large web site for one of your clients or a friend, and they come back to you 6 months later wanting to move an element of the site or something similar. This could well be a nightmare to acheive using tables, but could be quite easily managed with CSS (as long as the mark up of the HTML was decent).
    I definitely find it much easier and faster to produce sites in XHTML/CSS than I ever did using tables. I suppose you just have to get used to it. Especially the bugs :(

  • http://22dollars.com Chad Lapa

    Very well put Gary. I agree with you totally and feel that as time progresses and universities begin to teach web design using XHTML and CSS we will see more and more sites being developed this way. Keep in mind that right now its hard to teach an old dog new tricks and many web developers who were not educated on CSS/XHTML will not be ambisious enough to learn the new web technologies out there.

  • http://www.carolinecourtney.com Caroline

    Good point, and ‘the war is won’ is a pretty outrageous statement (esp. in the Midwest USA).
    I find it difficult sometimes to write/talk/explain things in a non-technical fashion, with an intended audience of potential clients, AND without sounding like a hard-sell, blatently going on about precisely why I’m better than everyone else because I use ‘standards’ . j/k :P
    That’s I’ve been trying on my website lately, since there seems to be a lack of discussion on these issues and on educating clients. Aside from part of the pro web community here, people are ignorant of these issues. Meh.

  • http://www.amorphicmedia.com rich

    Web Standards aren’t just a ‘new’ way of doing things, but a better way. While some have recognized the fact that CSS has been around for a long time (1996, if memory serves) browser support has been slow, and THAT’s the real issue.
    On my latest assignment, I have been redesigning an Intranet site for a major New York hospital and was specifically brought in to use Web Standards. It was difficult being the newest and only member of the Web Dev team who truly understands Web Standards, but once I finished designing the templates (in XHTML 1.1) and the Stylesheets (CSS 2), the team realized how simple maintenance and updating will be from now on.
    To post updates and new information, instead of wrestling with tables, all they have to do is wrap headers in header tags, paragraphs in s, etc… the CSS takes care of the rest. And it even works with the old CMS that the hospital has been using for five years, AND in IE6 (as long as the correct is used)!
    Now the Web Dev team has been relieved of much of the work of creating new pages and posting updates for the hospital’s departments. We are now able to let people in each department update and maintain their pages and sites themselves without worry about things looking consistent or breaking.
    A dose of reality: the road to Web Standards is not an easy one. Simple design is easily accomplished with a basic knowledge of CSS, but more complex layouts (especially 2-3 column layouts, fludi layouts, etc..) require a MUCH deeper understanding. They are also much easier to create if you have a good layout plan ahead of time.
    A quick look through my site’s portfolio reveals that I have not been using Web Standards for a very long time; even MY site’s interior pages (which were created 2 years ago) still use tables for layout. That is something I will fix in time… for now, I am making a good living applying Web Standards to my clients’ projects.
    The difficult part of ‘selling’ Web Standards to clients becomes much easier if the designer truly understands what they are using Web Standards for and why. Ultimately it’s true that most clients are ignorant of the advantages of using Web Standards, but that’s fine. It’s OUR job as designers to know the reasons and to use them appropriately. All the client needs to know is that their site will be accessible, contain concise code for quick downloading, easy to maintain, will look great and function properly across browsers and platforms, and is future compatible with mobile and alternative browsing devices suc as cell phones, PDAs, and other devices with small diplays and limited graphics support.
    The best way of selling Web Standards is the same as selling the old way: with a great protfolio. The fact that you’ve used Web Standards should be transparent to the client.
    If the designer knows what s/he is doing, then Web Standards shouldn’t be a difficult sell at all.

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