Building for the future

Paul Boag

Does building with web standards really provide a firm foundation for the future or will websites be forever stuck in a cycle of sporadic redesign?

This year at @Media I moderated a panel on communicating best practice. My fellow panellists were exceptional and nobody could dispute the excellent advice they gave. I on the other hand managed (as always) to court some controversy with my off hand remarks.

At one point in the presentation I endeavoured to argue that one advantage of applying best practices today (such as separating content from design) was that it broke the cycle of continual redesign.

A major grievances of management is that every few years the old website is thrown out and a new one is built. They are horrified by this for a number of reasons:

  • It means a massive outlay of cash every few years.
  • It involves completely writing off previous investment.
  • The site rapidly becomes out of date but they cannot justify another big rebuild.

I argued that a standards based website moves away from this model towards an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach.

Stuart Langridge who was also speaking at the conference, challenged this line of reasoning suggesting that over the next 5-10 years the web would change beyond recognition and that the speed of change would ensure the redesign cycle continued. He even suggested that we would all be building our sites in Silverlight by then. Fortunately he was only joking and this wasn’t some kind of prophetic vision.

Although I certainly understand Stuart’s position I have to say I think he is over estimating the speed of change. When looking at the future we all have a tendency to over estimate the speed of progress (I am still waiting for my hover board and cyborg eyes) and I believe Stuart is doing exactly that.

The web will certainly be a different place in 10 years, but it will not be so different as to undermine the benefits of standards in planning for the future. For example separating content from design is going to allow for a gradual transition of content from HTML to XML or whatever follows. It will also allow for easy design changes to keep in line with best practice or the latest design trends.

Am I saying that if your site is built with the standards now that you will have the same site in ten years? Well yes and no. Probably the entire site will have been replaced bit by bit. However, I don’t anticipate having to dump everything and start again every few years.

It reminds me of a scene with Trigger in Only Fools and Horses. Trigger was boasting to Del Boy and Rodney about his road sweeping broom. He proudly announced that he had had the same broom for over 20 years. The other two looked at his mint condition broom and appeared dubious. Trigger went on to say that he had cared for the broom lovingly, replacing the handle 14 times and the head 17 times.

Was it the same broom as he started with? Of course not. The handle and head had both been replaced. However, he had never had to throw out the whole broom and buy a new one. That is what it should be like with our websites. We should replace and upgrade parts of it on a regular basis rather than start again every few years. Standards and best practice make that possible.