Returning with a new site. Jeff Croft talks about his view on web standards and we discover why the personal website is dead.
News and events
Creating grid layouts
Last month I attended the Future of Web Design conference. The speakers were exceptional, however my favorite was a presentation by Jon Hicks on his web development process. The guys at Carsonified are slowly releasing the videos so it wonʼt be long before you get to watch it yourself.
I have since discovered there is a firefox extension called GridFox that does the same thing.
Flash goes open source
Of course, you might be wasting your time designing with CSS. According to Aral Balkan flash is soon going to be everywhere and is the platform we should now be developing on.
The reason for Aralʼs excitement is an announcement by Adobe that Flash is going open source. Not only will the swf format be open source, they are also relaxing the licensing on the flash player.
All of this is good for the flash platform. Although it is never going to replace HTML, it does undermine one of the main arguments used by its detractors.
Accessibility and AJAX
While Flash gets a shot in the arm its main competitor AJAX is under attack. Brothercake has written a passionate article for Operaʼs development site pleading with us to stop using AJAX.
His argument is that AJAX is immature and unnecessary in the majority of cases. He believes that the accessibility cost of using AJAX outweighs it benefits (many of which are oversold).
I cannot say I agree with everything he has written, but the article does make you pause and consider whether your implementation of AJAX has been entirely necessary. Coming within days of the WCAG 2.0 candidate release, I think this article puts accessibility firmly back on the agenda. It will be interesting to see what affect WCAG 2.0. has on the growth of AJAX and web 2.0.
Developing effective forum leadership
The article is aimed at those website owners who run larger communities and need to provide guidance to their community leaders. I have worked with so many large organisations who have tried and failed to effectively run communities. Their failure is often down to bad decisions concerning moderation and management.
This article helps to address those issues providing solid advice. If you are a community manager or have clients who run (or want to run) a forum then this is a must read.
Feature: The personal website is dead
Interview: Jeff Croft Talks About His View On Web Standards
Paul: OK. Joining me today is Jeff Croft, who no doubt you have heard of. Good to have you on the show Jeff
Jeff: Great to be here Paul, thanks for having me.
Paul: So you work for Blue Flavour, and I have to confess the reason why I wanted you on the show is because you do tend to court a little bit of controversy, shall we say, is that a fair comment?
Jeff: I suppose that’s a fair comment. I don’t necessarily do it on purpose, but it does seem to keep happening!
Paul: Well you say you don’t do it on purpose, but I’ve looked through your blog, and you have some excellent articles on there that are really good and really quite excited me. Not necessarily because I agreed with every word
Paul: But what I like about what you do, Jeff, is that you challenge kind of the standards, you know, you challenge the standard thinking and you kind of come at things from a different angle. So…
Paul: As a result of this, you seem to have antagonised a few people, especially in the standards community. Why is that? What have you done and why…why do people find you so annoying, Jeff?
Jeff: Well I was going to ask you that same thing Paul!
Paul: Ha ha ha
Jeff: No, seriously, it’s a good question. Like I said, I won’t ever set out to antagonise anyone. I think sometimes, you know, people take opposing viewpoints on these industry matters, a little personally, that’s, you know, my opinion. I know I write in kind of a pointed way that sometimes is blunt and I tend to be the type of person who doesn’t always have a filter when maybe I should. But, you know, I love everyone in this community, everyone I’ve ever met in this community’s been awesome so I’m not…it certainly isn’t ever personal, but I think, dealing specifically with web standards, it sort of feels a lot like religion to me. Like I sort of see myself as a Protestant of sorts, like I…you know I came up as a firm believer in the dogma of web standards, but more recently I’ve sort of split off from the Church on a few key points, but in the end, I mean Catholics and Protestants are both Christians, right? And we read the same Bible which is, I suppose, designing with web standards, and so you know, just there’s….I usually sort people there’s probably 5% of stuff that I differ on than kind of the purist viewpoints. So I’d see it as a purist versus pragmatist sort of thing
and I like to write about it and I like to write in a kind of a blunt way that I guess sometimes rubs people the wrong way.
Paul: So you’d like to call yourself a pragmatist. Tell us a little bit about where you, you know, what areas you think that other people are being too purist over when it comes to web standards. What are the areas that get under your skin?
Jeff: Well the main thing is just that I don’t really consider…I never think of web standards as the end goal. I think of web standards as a means to the end, and so, you know, when I’m building a website my priorities are, you know, to serve the needs of the client and to create a great user experience, more than my priorities are to validate or to, you know, use all the right ….most semantic elements all the time. I mean I do try to do that, but it’s…those are just in support of the greater goals that I have and I think…sometimes I feel like peoples’ priorities get a little out of whack there, and that’s kind of the purist mentality that I’m talking about.
Paul: I mean the trouble is with writing posts like this, and this is something I get accused of as well, that when you say something like, well web standards, you know, are not the goal, they’re merely a means to an end and all the rest of it
Paul: Aren’t you actually encouraging lazy coding?
Jeff: Well I don’t think so. I can see how it seems that way. I mean I definitely do believe that everyone should be writing valid markup and CSS and I just encourage people to remember that web standards are simply tools to advocate, you know, to help achieve the end goal, and you know, if you’re…I don’t know, I guess it’s kind of hard to explain, but if, like…let me use an example. If you’re building a house, I don’t think anybody would have their goal be…I need to use a hammer, and nails and bolts when I’m building this house. I don’t think that would be anybody’s end goal. Their goal would probably be like, I’m going to build a house that is structurally sound and has spaces that serve the needs of the residents and it’s comfortable and it’s aesthetically pleasing. They’d probably have goals like that. And you know, they probably would use a hammer, nails and bolts, but I don’t think they’d probably get so bent out of shape about, well in this house I used, you know, 3½ inch long nails instead of 3 inch nails, but those are the kind of like sort of semantic and pedantic debates that we get into in the industry a lot that irritate me a little bit because I feel like sometimes people just don’t pay attention to, you know, somebody can redesign a site that can be beautiful and amazing, and they make a blog post about it, and they say, you know, this is a new project I’ve done and it’s got all this new innovative stuff and the comments on it are, well you didn’t encode your ampersands and you know, you used too many divs and just to me I’m just like, man you totally missed the point, you totally missed all the great stuff that is there about my site.
Paul: But I mean using your house example that you just gave
Paul: I mean, within, you know, construction there are standards. There are, you know, rules that have to be followed and it may be the case that the person that’s getting their house built for them doesn’t…don’t particularly care about those things, you know, they care about the aesthetics, they care about the living space, they care about that kind of stuff, but somebody has to care about, you know, the fact that it’s built to Fire Regulations and things like that. Is that not our job as a Designer to worry about things like that?
Jeff: I think it’s completely our job, I just think that it is our job to …to do those things and to create great user experiences and have beautiful designs and…and it’s mostly just a priorities thing, like it’s just…I think all those things are important. Validating and creating, you know, writing semantic mark-up, all these things are important to me, they’re just… they’re just tools that I use to reach greater goals is all….and I think some people in our industry have turned that around to where they are more interested in writing valid code than they are in creating great experiences.
Paul: Mmm. So do you actually think that there are situations where the, you know, these different objectives come into conflict, because you know, I can’t say that in my experience there have been many situations where you know, I’ve gone, you know, oh I can’t do that because it’ll make the code invalid or whatever, you know, where…or where, you know, I’ve had to over-rule a client because I feel that it would compromise, the, you know, the semantics of the website. They don’t often seem to come into conflict, but I mean do you disagree?
Jeff: No,….no I agree, they’re very rarely in conflict if ever. It’s…you know, it’s more what irritates me and what I have talked about is more it has to do with the discussion and the kind of….community, you know, within the web standards community it’s not something that really affects client work too much or anything like that, it’s just I want to talk about some other stuff; I want to talk about design and I want to talk about users and I want to talk about community and networking and bringing people together and sometimes I feel like those conversations can’t be had because they’re…because as soon as somebody starts to talk about something a little bit more abstract and conceptual, people derail the conversation by saying, again, like your ampersands are unencoded, or you know, why did you use all these divs when you could’ve, you know, been more semantic, or you know, whatever. So….it’s more about the conversation…yes
Paul: I’ve got to say, I can associate with your point of view, I mean at the moment I’m re-building the Headscape website, our corporate website, and you know, although obviously I should primarily be thinking about the client all the time and potential customers that are coming along to the site, after all, that’s the target audience, but you can’t help but almost be a little bit afraid, you know, that …oh is this code of good enough standard, are people going to criticise this, that and the other, and really you shouldn’t have to live your life in fear of what your peers will say.
Jeff: Exactly, that’s exactly wha
t I think.
Paul: But I mean from the point of view of…we were talking about lazy coding weren’t we, and about, you know, does this encourage lazy coding. You guys have taken an interesting position at Blue Flavour, and I have to say this…this is something I think I probably disagree with, which is that you guys use Blueprint, which is the CSS library, actually in a production environment. That’s interesting that you take that point of view. Explain a little bit about how you came to that…that point, you know that position.
Jeff: Well…well first of all I was sort of involved in the creation of Blueprint. It was…I was accidentally involved; I didn’t mean to be, but at my previous job I had…I had created a sort of CSS framework for us to use internally, it was a media company, a newspaper company and we had several different newspaper sites. They were all similar and we had a team of designers and we wanted to just sort of standardise on some….some class names and just some ways of coding things across our sites and across our team, so that you know, we would all kind of be on the same page, and I wrote an article on a A List Apart about that process and somebody found…somebody went and found that code and wrote me an e-mail asking if they could use it, and I said sure, I can’t support it, but if you want to use it, go ahead, and thinking that they were probably going to use it on their personal site or whatever, and it turns out what they’re actually going to do is build Blueprint. So that’s kind of how the whole thing happened and…so that’s how I got involved in it and I gotta say before I go any further that since then, Blueprint is very different from what I wrote and there’s been a lot of changes, and a lot of them are good but a lot of them I don’t like too, so I don’t….at this point in time I’m not as sold on Blueprint as I was three or four months ago just because of some of the changes they’ve made. But I think the reason, I mean the justification to me for using Blueprint or any CSS framework like that is the same justification that you would have for any Open Source project. It’s really good CSS written by smart people that has been tested by the masses, it’s constantly being updated, having bug fixes applied, and you know I believe that most of the time the Open Source community is going to be able to write better code than you or me or any one individual person, so to me that’s the justification, it’s the same reason I would use Apache or Django or Rails or Linux or anything Open Source because it’s just been proven time and time again that….that Open Source methodology works for having good code.
Paul: I mean, I have to say, I had a look at it and played with it for a bit, and I’ve got to say that for some stuff it was very impressive, you know, if you’re putting together wireframes or, you know, doing initial production work then I can see a value in it, but I think what concerned me was some of the limitations surrounded the fact that, you know, it’s designed primarily for a fixed based site, but also…sorry, is that…am I wrong?
Jeff: No, no, you’re absolutely right, although I think adding liquid is on their ‘to do’ list, but yes,
Paul: OK. And then…I mean the other thing was that, you know, I’m trying to avoid using the word ‘semantic’ in order not to get in trouble with you, but I mean the thing that did strike me with it is that there were a lot of class names that you were having to put in, you know, which is fine, you know, I can accept that, you know, it’s not the end of the world if you do that, but you know, if it’s a site that’s going to be around over the long term, I just felt it was a little bit of a second-rate solution for probably the type of clients I do. Now I can understand that if you’re doing, you know, a lower…you know, lower end work, smaller websites, with less of a budget and you need to turn things around quickly then this is better than not using standards at all, but it just felt a little bit of a lightweight solution. Am I being unfair to it?
Jeff: Nope, I don’t think you’re being unfair at all. I think you’re absolutely right and I think, you know, I mean at Blue Flavour, we have used Blueprint before, we don’t use it all the time, and it is…we do tend to use it in those situations where we have a very tight timeframe or a very tight budget, and just need to get things done and get them out the door as quickly as possible. Because like you said, I mean we think it’s a good solution that is better than not using web standards at all, but it’s…it’s never going to be as good as hand-crafting every line of code for, you know, for the particular project. We recognise that, but it’s, you know, sometimes in the real world, when we have deadlines and clients and budgets, sometimes just getting things done on, you know, an efficient way trumps being absolutely perfect every time which is again that pragmatist versus purist sort of view.
Paul: So what you’re implying is that I’m a snob?
Jeff: Sort of!
Paul: Ha ha ha…..that’s fair enough, that’s OK. I don’t mind being a snob! So I’ve….so moving on from that then a little bit
Paul: Now I’ve read some stuff that you’ve written before critical of validators and you know, some of these automated validators that are out there. Maybe tell us a little bit about why you’re critical of them, why you feel so anti towards them?
Jeff: Well it’s not so much that I’m opposed to the validators, I mean on the contrary actually I use validators almost every single day. What I’m critical of is the way people use them sometimes. I think that, you know, validators are there for…as a tool to help you de-bug during the development process, you know, you have some problem on your page and why isn’t it working? When you validate you find the error and then that helps you move along to solving it. But what irritates me is the use of validators as sort of in unprovoked attacks on other peoples’ code, you know, where again, it’s kind of that same…that same mentality of somebody launches their new site and the first thing somebody does is view source and validate it, so that they can then make a comment that says, you know, this is crap, and that is…that is really irritating. I feel like there’s almost never any reason to validate someone else’s code, I mean unless they’ve asked you to, I can’t understand why….it’s just that mentality of the first thing you do when you get to a site is view source is a little baffling to me, because I’m…I’m more interested in the design and the functionality and what are they doing here that’s new and interesting.
Paul: I guess…but that depends…surely that depends on your priorities, I mean…you know, I find it quite interesting to look at other people’s code and how they’ve built the site. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to validate it.
Jeff: Right, and….no and I mean that’s fine, I do that at times as well and that’s certainly how I learned a lot of what I know, but I don’t do it with the intention of then picking apart every single error they made publicly, which is really the thing that bothers me.
Paul: I have to say the other thing that concerns me a little bit about this is I’m starting to see more clients going and viewing source and validating websites and you know, it’s quite difficult, because I mean obviously like yourselves, we kind of sell ourselves on, you know, being standard based designers and produce good quality code and all the rest of it; it’s part of our sales package. And you know, when a client goes along and validates one of our client sites and it’s invalid, you know, you feel like you have to defend yourself in some way, but, you know, there are good reasons why a site won’t validate sometimes, and…and certainly once a client starts using a content management system you can pretty much kiss goodbye to it can’t you really?
Jeff: In many of them, yeah.
Paul: OK. That’s…it’s interesting to hear a little bit about the way that you operate and the kind of priorities that you have at Blue Flavour. In some of the posts that you’ve put up, I mean you were kind enough to send through a big bunch of your more controversial posts to me which was good. And I was reading through some of them, really enjoying them by the way, but there seemed to be this kind of under-lying current that maybe standards and even the W3C to some extent, a kind of stifling innovation. Where does this kind of feeling come from, you know, is that something you really, really believe and what makes you believe it?
Jeff: I would say again it’s not so much that I think that the W3C themselves or the standards themselves are stifling innovation; it’s the culture of compliance that is around those standards and around the web standards community to where people are so obsessed with being valid and being compliant all the time that they…you know, they tend to…I think it even extends past actually writing mark-up or writing CSS to where people just keep doing things the same way that everybody else is doing them or the way that Jeffrey Zeldman told them is the way to do things, or whatever, and it just kind of….they just keep doing things the same way and not innovating as much as I would like to see. Now I say that, and I…but I know I probably do the same thing myself, like I don’t…I’m not always incredibly innovative either, so…so it’s kind of, you know, it’s a balance there. But I think….I think also, I mean…and this might be a little bit of difference in my viewpoint too, is when I really thing of web standards, the web standards movement, I think about the browsers. I think the…gold web standards movement was to get the browsers all rendering standards correctly and supporting standards, which for the most part has been done, I mean granted there are still little problems here and there, and IE isn’t totally there, but at least we know that they’re on board now. I don’t think of web standards movement so much as being a thing where we’re getting the developers all on board. I mean I guess that’s part of it too, but when I think about the web standards movement when I was, you know, when I was first involved in it four or five years ago or however long it was, to me it was all about the browsers, and so, you know, today I think there’s a sort of chicken and egg problem where…browser makers could be innovating and doing cool new things and the one that consistently has done cool new things is Webkit in Safari, I mean they’re adding the CSS3 properties and they’re adding, you know, they’re coming up with properties of their own and adding them and they’re…and they’re doing it, I mean today we have this name spacing, right, where they can say, you know, it’s going to be hyphen webkit hyphen border radius or whatever, so they can keep it out of the, you know, it’s got its own name spaces, kept out of the global area so it doesn’t conflict with anything else, and I would just like to see a lot more of that kind of innovation from browser makers where they’re trying these new things, they’re throwing them in, they’re letting developers play with them, and like I said, it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing I think where the browser makers would like to do this maybe, but they’re afraid of the backlash from the standards community. If they’re adding new properties that aren’t part of a spec, you know, the standards community is…has proven that it’s going to backlash against them and it’s going to say, ‘why did you add this, this isn’t in the spec’, and so then they don’t do things, but the developers and designers also would like to try new things but…so it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing there a little bit I think. So that’s the…that’s the main …the main plan I have on that, and the, you know, like there are examples, like X….sorry, XML HTTP request or Ajax, you know, was a pr
oprietary IE property that they just put in, and eventually got standardised, and that’s kind of the way that I would like to see it go more is where the browser makers are doing new things and then we’re trying to standardise them, which is the opposite I know if, you know, some really respectable people and friends of mine like Jina Bolton and Andy Clarke which see that it should go the other way, which is that specs are written and then browser makers standardise on them, so…
Paul: Yeah…I must admit, listening to you talk kind of fills me with a certain level of dread, to be honest, when you talk about browser manufacturers. You know, I studied…I studied designing websites back in ’95, and you know, and so I lived through this whole period of time where you have browser manufacturers, you know, introducing all kinds of bizarre tags and it was absolute chaos, you know, and you didn’t know what was happening on what browsers. What’s to stop that happening again, beyond the standards community growling in the corner aggressively?
Jeff: Yeah, well I mean that…I mean I was there for that too. I studied also in ’95 and yeah, it was pure chaos. But I think, you know, I mean first of all I think the standards community has made a lot of inroads to where these, you know, I don’t think it would be complete chaos simply because we understand the value of standards now. And there are some…there are some mechanisms in place like the name spacing I’m talking about, where they can do these things and keep them from conflicting with other…so when …when WebKit decides they’re going to add border radius property, they can do it under dash webkit dash border radius, so that if anybody is actually using the real border radius without a, you know, prefix, you know, there’s no conflict, so I think, you know I just feel like there’s some mechanisms in place that would keep it from being so chaotic and the value of standards we’ve learned through the web standards movement, you know, and the browser makers are now on board with the idea of inter-operability, I think would keep it from being so chaotic, but I guess I don’t know for sure. It is…it’s definitely…there’s definitely a balance there because I definitely feel like the browsers have not been doing as many new things as they did back in those days, but those new things did cause problems too, so it’s, you know, but as a Designer I sometimes get bored, I’m like, I’ve played with all that stuff; I’ve played with all the tools we have and I want to try something different, you know, I want something that will…I want advanced grid positioning and, you know, I want to be able to draw shapes and, you know, it’s not out there.
Paul: I mean that is the only trouble I guess with…you know, you were talking about innovation and we need to be innovating more as Designers as well as browser manufacturers. The trouble with innovation to some degree is that you’re always in danger of undermining users’ expectations. I mean this is something you hear someone like Nielsen go on about loads. How…where do you feel the balance is between kind of doing cool new stuff and…you know, not undermining users’ needs or expectations?
Jeff: Well you’ll probably remember from back in the late ‘90s and that sort of thing that there was….and another sort of interest of mine is the sort of demise of the personal website, but back in those days, there was just so many experimental kind of crazy out there personal projects that were happening, and I think that that is a great place to try those things, because they’re not…they’re not real users accessing them; people that are using them are, you know, expecting that, I mean that sort of thing’s a great place to try new things, is on personal projects. Now again, with the culture of compliance that we have, I don’t know how that would fly today. Like if somebody made some crazy experimental site, I think there’s a certain fear of doing that because of backlash again from the web standards community, like you know, it’s a thing where people aren’t seeing the…the meaning, you know, it’s…I’m putting this out there because I’m trying to do something new and difference and …and it’s almost not allowed by the web standards community. Well, you can’t do that, because it doesn’t validate, or you know, whatever. And again, like I said, that’s not always specifically about validation and mark-up. It goes onto the…to that …into usability and into layout and design where people say, don’t change that because it’s messing with users’ expectations, but I think there are places where you can try those things and personal projects to me are the big place where you can try that.
Paul: You’ve got a good point about personal website. It’s like everybody now …have…you know, it’s all about blogs isn’t it, it’s all about….there’s almost this kind of citizen journalism thing where, you know, we’re all actually trying to create a little audience for ourselves and so therefore we don’t want to do anything too dangerous with our…with our personal sites. I remember my….my first personal site was absolutely chaotic, you know, it had no proper navigation whatsoever, but it was fun, it was a place I could experiment, so yeah…
Jeff: Yeah, that’s a real kind of…pet annoyance of mine is that …the loss of that, and I do think, you know, it’s because everything’s a blog, and I love blogs, and you know I have a blog, but I still wish that there was just a little bit more of that crazy experimentation that we had going on back then.
Paul: Mmm. I mean it’s a good point as well. A question I often get asked by people is, you know, how do I promote myself online. They say, I don’t want to…I don’t want to run a blog because I don’t want to write. Well you know, a personal project in a way you’re trying out different things like a sandbox you can play in. It’s a good way of promoting yourself and showing what you’re capable of, and that you do innovate without having to write reams of stuff, because let’s face it, not all of us are big writers, so….yeah
Paul: Good to have your perspective on things. It’s really nice to have a kind of new perspective and you know, a different point of view, so great to have you on the show, and no doubt we will get you back in again in the future. Good to talk to you.
Jeff: Great. Thanks so much for having me.
Thanks to Anna Debenham for transcribing this interview.
Getting a site
off the ground
Shaun writes: Following the headscape redesign and promised boagworld redesign what tips can you give to getting a personal/own site off the drawing board/local machine and actually published.
The problem with internal projects is they lack motivation. They are never as important as client work because they donʼt directly generate income. The answer is to increase their perceived importance. I use a number of techniques:
- Document the benefits to your business or personal profile.
- Produce a statement of work just as you would an external client.
- Price the project so that you can set it against your targets as a marketing cost.
- Set a deadline and preferably announce that publicly so you are forced to meet it.
- Block out time for the project rather than attempting to “fit it around” client work.
Ultimately it comes down to determination. However, knowing the value of the project and treating it as any other project really helps.
Erich writes: Thanks so much for the show, all the work you guys put in really shows. It is great learning about aspects of the business that I donʼt get to deal with much.
I was just wondering if you guys had any kind of a testing station at Headscape. We are looking at putting something like that together at my work. Somewhere you can just go sit at and run through all the browsers, maybe even some with different versions of flash and such. Do you guys run anything like that?
Because our designers are based remotely it is not easy to have a central testing suite. We did try that at one stage but it did not work. Connecting remotely wasnʼt as smooth as it should have been and we found multiple designers often wanted access at the same time.
Currently, each designer runs a number of virtual PCs on their individual machines. Most have two versions of XP one running IE7 and one with IE6. We also run multiple version of Firefox and Opera. Most of our designers also own macs allowing them to test Safari. Those that donʼt connect to a mac in the office.
To be honest our testing environment is not the most sophisticated. Most clients do not want to pay for testing against minority browsers and when they do we setup something specific for their needs usefully using a virtual machine. If you are interested in setting up your own Virtual Machines then I recommend VMWare Fusion(7) for the mac and Virtual PC(8) under windows.