Paul Boag

@Media 2005 was the first Web standards and accessibility conference here in the UK and only the second worldwide. The conference demonstrated a growing commitment to building accessible and standards friendly web sites.
So what came out of the conference and why will it affect the way we all build web sites.

I was fortunate enough to attend this two day conference and had the opportunity to listen to some of the leading figures in web design. They spoke about how the way we build web sites will change and how it will benefit us all, both users and site owners alike.

I have to confess I was totally inspired by the conference and so here are just some of my initial thoughts:

Taking standards based design the next step

I probably haven’t spoken about standards based design enough on this site before, but what I have written has hopefully explained that web standards are about separating content from design. This has a whole range of benefits including, but not limited to;

  • faster download time,
  • sites being easier to maintain or redesign,
  • greater accessibility,
  • available to a greater range of browsers and devices,
  • better print capability.

However what really inspired me was a talk by Jeremy Keith who took the idea one step further and suggested we also separated out behaviour from content.

If you have read my blog before you will know that I try and avoid technical jargon because there are enough people out there providing the technical detail. With that in mind I am not going to get into the specifics of DOM and Javascript and exactly what I mean by behaviour. However what I will say is that by separating out interactive / functional elements from your web site you gain a number of advantages. These include:

  • the ability to manage all of your functionality (such as popup windows etc.) from one central source,
  • a cleaner, more accessible web site that will still work even for people without the software to view the extra functionality,
  • the ability to add new functionality site wide without editing each page that the functionality needs to appear in.

The beauty of Design

Douglas Bowman gave two very inspiring sessions that raised a number of interesting points. One of the issues he touched on is something that is particularly close to my heart and something which I believe is fundamentally important to good web design. He spoke about our tenancy as designers to be constrained by the practicalities of web page construction and that this often stifles our creativity.

So many web sites look the same, not because they are trying to conform to design standards (which is something I whole heartedly support) but because the designers have an inability to think outside of the constraints of the medium. Douglas encouraged innovation where we design first and work out how to build it later. Only by taking this approach can we ensure not only the best design for the job but also that we are constantly pushing back the technical boundaries of web design.

The real face of accessibility

For a long time now I have accepted that we have a responsibility as web designers and indeed web site owners to ensure that our web sites are accessible to the widest possible audience. Indeed I routinely check my sites against web accessibility guidelines and fix individual little problems so they work better with speech browsers. However it wasn’t until a presentation by Robin Christopherson from Ability Net that I fully began to realise how impossible it is to browse the web as a blind user. Robin himself is blind and demonstrated some of the problems faced by blind users. He did a particularly compelling demonstration by attempting to navigate the Amazon.co.uk web site using a standard speech browser. Although I have tested pages before in speech browsers I don’t think I have ever attempted to achieve anything other than basic tasks. Robin’s demonstration was a real eye opener and has galvanised my commitment to creating truly accessible design.

Praise and criticism

For me this conference was a real turning point. I have to be honest that over the last few months I have become disillusioned with web design. As somebody that has been involved in the web since the early days I missed the challenge and excitement of those chaotic times. Somehow things had become very stale and sensible. However @media 2005 has made me realise that I have a real opportunity to shape the way the web develops in the future and make it a much more usable place for everybody.

I have read some comments that have critised the conference and in particular the speakers for being to insular. Some have expressed a sense that those speaking and running the conference were elitist in some way. Certainly they all seemed to be good friends but I would argue that their closeness is one of the reasons they have achieved so much. I have to confess I had a pang of envy that I was not one of the elite who inspired web designers worldwide and is forging the future of the web. However I quickly realised that it is down to people like me and you to implement these new methodologies on a daily basis if we are really going to achieve a more accessible web. You can have all the evangelists in the world but unless they win converts and those converts act on their new found convictions it means nothing. They have certainly made a convert out of me and I thank them for their inspiration and hard work.