Not the Standard Approach

January 1st, 2007 Design Features, DG, Tech

What are web standards are why should you care? Even more importantly, how will they affect the way you design for online content delivery now and in the future? Drew Turney speaks to standards guru John Allsop to find out.

The New Standard Bearer

John Allsop knows what he’s talking about when it comes to web standards. He’s one of the founders and operators of WestCiv — one of the oldest web styles education and training businesses on the Internet. He’s also one of the organisers of the renowned Web Essentials and Web Directions conference series, which has hosted the most influential names in the Internet field like Molly Holzschlag, Eric Meyer and Tantek Celik.

Often consulted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) not only because of his knowledge but his passionate advocacy of web standards, John is an infectious talker, firing ideas and beliefs in rapid fire from a position of considerable knowledge and prodigious philosophical belief. He explains in a way only he can what web standards means.

"Imagine you buy a CD," the 39-year-old explains from his home in Sydney. "How many CD players have you got? There are literally seven or eight in an average household. Imagine if every time you bought a CD you had to read the instructions on the CD to make sure it was compatible with each player. Of course that hasn’t happened and we’re all very grateful for it. Why that hasn’t happened is because there are standards in producing CDs."

It’s no different designing for the web. Whereas manufacturers had to come together to agree on a standard for encoding music CDs (so they could all be read by any player), a specific group frames, consults and issues edicts on the parameters for programming websites. That group is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and Allsop explains the issues it addresses by issuing standards to the development community.

"Standards are developed by the W3C to address issues like interoperability, device independence and accessibility," he says. "Standards have backwards, forwards and cross-platform compatibility built into them. If you use standards you don’t have to worry about — for example — whether it’s going to be accessible to people with visual disabilities.

"HTML, CSS and other standards are built to take those issues into account at a fundamental level of the technology so we don’t have to worry about the lowest level implementation issues. As designers and developers we can focus on the more creative part of the web."

There didn’t use to be a need for standards. In the early days a web page consisted of black text on a grey or white background. HTML 1.0 — the original language read by early browsers – allowed for little more than a few different sizes and base fonts.

While still manacled to one or two browsers on desktop PCs during the 1990s, standards-unfriendly technologies like the tag, table-based layouts and framesets exploded in popularity.

But even while Microsoft’s Internet Explorer attained levels of market penetration even Netscape had only dreamed of, the web was bursting free of desktop PCs and today it’s found on far more delivery platforms than ever before.

The Gift of Giving

So is it really that important? You design and program a website, you check it on IE for Windows, maybe Firefox for Windows and Mac. Safari has less than 5% of the market and nobody really uses a mobile for web surfing yet — surely standards just complicate the issue?

Your website might look perfect for 80-90% of users, but to Allsop there’s a fundamentally more important reason than that to use standards. It has a lot more to do with altruism than technology, and it’s part of a kind of agreement — one you might not even know you’ve made.

"When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, he wasn’t just talking geographically, he was talking in terms of language, people with disabilities, equity issues. The World Wide Web was built on principals of openness and generosity both in a technical and a philosophical sense. It’s changed the way we communicate, it’s changed the way we do business, and all of that was given away by one guy.

"It’s also a set of low-level and quite simple technologies unencumbered by patents or trademarks. Standards are a big part of that. If you develop for the web, you’re taking part in sort of a contract. The people who drive the web, like the W3C, have given it to us to use. The reciprocal part of the contract is; let’s honour the spirit of the World Wide Web, lets pay back some of that generosity by making sure our stuff is accessible by all, not just the people using Internet Explorer and a fast modem."

But let’s assume you’re a committed capitalist (or your employer is) and catching 95% of users is good enough for the marketing director. Giving back to the community is good PR, but is it the only reason you have to worry about web standards?

Unfortunately no. After the release of IE7 (the default browser in Microsoft’s upcoming Vista operating system) a staggering proportion of sites on the web won’t work according to the full uses programmed into them.

What’s more, Allsop gives a prophetic warning that relates quite personally to many of the people who drove early web development — many of them not kids any more. "The fastest growing group of users on the web are people over the age of 65," he warns. "They’re by far the biggest group of people with disabilities or poor eyesight. So one of the fastest growing groups of your potential customers are people who are going to have trouble seeing your site if you don’t address issues of visual accessibility."

And while you’re thinking about potential users/customers, don’t forget the web won’t be bound to desktop computers forever. In the next few years you’ll have to program a website for everything from a 200×200 mobile phone screen to a 70 inch TV, and standards will become one of the most important parts of your web development toolkit.

Stifling Your Creativity

So yes, designing for the web comes with inbuilt constraints. The trick is to see them as opportunities instead of limits, according to Allsop. "Any time you design something there are constraints," he reminds us. "The client might only have enough money to do a job in two colour or whatever it is. When you design for the web, web standards are a set of constraints, and your first reaction might be that constraints are bad.

"But if I utter a string of gibberish because I’m not using the constraints of the English language, it doesn’t make any creative sense," he says. "Constraints aren’t there to make your life difficult, they’re are about the benefits they’re trying to enable."

As designers, Allsop thinks we ‘come from so much more a visual perspective so when we talk about a site being great, we’re largely focusing on what it looks like.’

During a recent talk to a group of industry professionals sponsored by web industry association Port 80, Allsop spoke about websites (among them del.icio.us) that showed little creative flair but huge popularity among users following the so-called Web 2.0 model of consumer-as-producer.

What all the talk about standards amounts to is your job description as a web designer. If you’ve seen heaps of cool sites and you’d love to design sites that look just as good, you might be missing the point. Just like in magazine or advertising design, your peers might be impressed with your creativity, but the only thing consumers of your work are interested in is digesting the information easily.

Your approach to web design should be the same. It’s not your job to design the best looking site around, it’s to make sure everybody accessing the world wide web in all its forms — both now and in the future — can use it properly.

If you haven’t given much thought to it, you’d better start now. As Allsop says; "It’s not really a debate anymore. These are accepted best practices within the broader profession. If you have problems with standards, sooner or later you’ll have to break them."