Web standards War – Watch our language

Paul Boag

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.