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Standards: Designing For the Future

August 27, 2003

Second Voice Icon: StandardsIan Lloyd is a member of the Web Standards Project and runs a site about web accessibility called Accessify. His full-time role is senior web designer/developer with Nationwide Building Society, a UK-based financial services organisation which, despite the protests below, doesn’t do a bad job of making its web pages accessible and standards-compliant.

Designing for the Future, and the Training Gap

How do you encourage unenthusiastic developers/mark-up authors to adopt forward-thinking web development methods?

How do you engage people who consider their work on the web as just that: ‘only work’, something that pays the bills but doesn’t exactly leave them beside themselves with excitement?

I am but one individual in a team of many (in my place of full-time employment) and I am from a strange breed - I have a passion for the web! What happens when you are part of a team that is not as uniformly enthusiastic to learn?

This is a problem that faces many IT managers and standards advocates working in the corporate sector. Though we’re doing good things in adopting accessibility practices and optimising our code, it’s still very difficult to get a site to conform to all the major standards in the real world. Why is this the case?

Learn from Textbook Cases

Andy King’s book Speed Up Your Site includes numerous tricks and tips for committed web developers. Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards is a tome of practical, well-thought-out techniques. Both not only explain how to improve the way we develop sites for maximum efficiency and future-proofing, but they also clearly detail why the problems exist in the first place.

These are just two books among many that have made me think and re-think about how I build personal sites and company projects. I devour the content of these books and regurgitate it - metaphorically speaking - wherever I can. Sometimes these tips and tricks find their way on to the corporate work, but invariably they’re resigned only to my personal work.

Most of my learning happens on the toilet. Sorry! As unappealing as that is, that’s where I pick up most snippets of information (they say that the seat of learning is Oxford but I beg to differ - it’s the downstairs loo). Because I have a passion for what I do, I’ve made it my business (no pun intended) to learn how to construct table-free page layouts, make pages accessible for keyboard-only users, provide different views of a page through alternative style sheets, and more. I don’t have to. But I want to make things work better, faster and cleverer. But we’re not all like this. Most people would rather read a newspaper on the toilet. Or maybe nothing at all. But that’s quite enough of our potty habits for now. Shall we move along?

Individuals Lead the Way

It’s true that most corporate sites fall way behind the personal web sites of mark-up and standards gods and goddesses (e.g. the aforementioned Zeldman, Owen Briggs, Ben Henick, Simon Willison, Dan ‘Waferbaby’ Bogan, Jeremy Keith to name but a few personal favourites among many).

This is because it’s far easier for an individual to introduce a novel or clever way of doing things - there are no committee decisions (and therefore no split decisions or arguments). As well, no matter how progressive and forward-thinking the company you work for (and I believe Nationwide qualifies here), there will always be an issue with introducing ‘new’ methods. Let’s just overlook the fact that many of the methods that I’ve alluded to are actually a number of years old (CSS2, hello?) - it’s all about perception. If other people, and by that I mean ‘corporates’, are not doing it, then it must be new, right?

Look at just a handful of the things happening on these forward-thinking personal web sites:

Totally CSS-based page layouts
Gone are the tables that were never intended for layout purposes (tables are for data, folks - layout grids are an abuse of the mark-up, an abuse that we’ve come to live with and accept a bit like an irritable auntie with an equally irritable terrier that visits every weekend). Now we can view such sites on a PC, a handheld device, using a screen reader and more, and we get the added bonus of quicker-loading pages.
More usable forms
The <label>, <fieldset> and <legend> elements are supported by most modern browsers, and in the right hands they can make a form far more usable and accessible. And they’re definitely semantically sound.
Data tables that work
Using elements like <caption>, <thead>, <tbody> and <tfoot>, and attributes such as summary, scope, ids and headers, data tables become meaningful to blind users accessing the content with a screen reader (rather than a jumbled mush of words and numbers).
Training is the Weakness

Let’s assume, for example, that browser support is not the issue, that you’ve taken a stance and agreed to support browsers that support web standards (while not completely turning your back on the older browsers). Let’s assume you’ve already said that your company is going to focus on getting things right for IE5+, Netscape 6+ (or Mozilla/Gecko derivatives) and Safari. Now inadequate browser support is no longer an issue. You should be able to do things right, right? The browsers you’ve settled on are up to the job so what’s stopping your company from moving forward? One word - training.

You may have a few individuals in a department that have a passion for doing things according to the relevant standards and as efficient as possible; but you are equally as likely to have a whole group of people - probably a much greater percentage - who do not share that passion. They may have learned HTML five or more years ago and are still using the same methods (tag soup) that they always have. Every team is different, but here are some that you may identify with:

  • Fear of change - they know where they are with the ‘old school’ methods
  • They believe that the new methods are more complicated
  • They don’t understand semantic mark-up (in fact they have never even heard the word ‘semantic’ before)
  • Their job is just a job and learning new things is either a bore or an intrusion into their personal free time (they just don’t get that whole toilet-seat-learning thing).
  • They see themselves as ‘back-end’ people who would rather spend their energies optimising a SQL query than worrying about how the results might be rendered on screen, since “that’s for the UI guys to take care of…”

But perhaps the biggest reason is:

  • No-one’s told them or shown them how.

And if we are indeed talking about people who otherwise won’t actively go out and learn for themselves, not only can you discount the likelihood that they’ll take a book home, you can also rule out them picking up new techniques from reading the weblog of an influential and knowledgeable individual. Perhaps you even know people who have been working on the web in one way or another for a number of years who would respond with: “What on earth is a weblog?”

When Simple Mark-up Causes Maintenance Woes

When I look at the mark-up on a well-conceived site, I understand the structure intuitively - “Ah, I know what that <h1> means… Ah, so that nested <ul> is the sub navigation” and so on. Editing such pages is - or at least should be - much easier than hacking away at one that relies heavily on the placement of <td>s for layout. Although the page may be 50% smaller than its old-school counterpart, and it may be simpler to edit, what happens when someone else wants to maintain the page that has been so carefully crafted?

Here’s where I begin to fly in the face of common consensus - it being that if you code to web standards, it makes for easier maintenance of your site to those joining a project later. My experience has, thus far, shown the opposite to be true. It pains me to admit this.

No matter how simple the mark-up is, cleverly crafted pages can leave some people struggling. “Er, what are all these <div> thingies? I don’t get it … why can’t we use a table like everyone understands?”. And just wait until they get a load of the Box Model Hack in your CSS file (or any other CSS hack, for that matter)! It’s not unknown for sites/web pages to go far forward in terms of standards compliance, only to be brought back down a level because the new, simpler methods are not properly understood by those who may need to maintain these pages.

Change Come from Within

From my experience though, once people do finally ‘get it’, they wonder why they didn’t do things more simply before. There is a definite ‘Eureka!’ moment, but if the person or persons concerned do not want to learn, you may never reach it. So they have to be told, enlightened - it needs a push on your part rather than a pull on theirs. But that’s not easy either.

Enforced training is not always gratefully accepted though (unless it involves a trip abroad and a nice expense tab, of course) and often the training is hideously outdated. The techniques described in Zeldman’s, King’s and other people’s books are not taught in any residential training that I have ever seen. The latter are still stuck in the old school “Let’s give ‘em <font> tags and nested <table>s” approaches.

Bottom line is - there are still too many people who only understand the old school methods of web design, and only when these people can get enthusiastic about adopting new methods will we be delivered to the promised land of perfect mark-up.

No Easy Solution

"So train them yourself!" I hear you screaming at the page. Perhaps it should be up to individuals to lead the way after all, but this may not be possible for a number of reasons:

  • no time to train (everyone’s busy)
  • no skill in training (it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are if you bore everyone to death)
  • someone more senior than you doesn’t want to hear it from an ‘underling’
  • it’s just not a sexy and exciting topic for a lot of people!

Perhaps we need to send uninitiated developers to a ‘Designing with Web Standards’ boot camp (are you listening Jeffrey?) and leave them in the hands of a capable trainer who can be trusted to enthuse and inspire others to greatness. Any training course today is liable to be of the “Here’s a <font> tag, use it to make nice red text” variety - and that doesn’t help anyone.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t come with the answer, only my very evident frustrations.

One comment I received prior to publication was that “it has to come from the top down”. If management says this is how it should be done, and there are financial gains for doing so (a higher annual pay raise, for example) then you’ve got one big incentive right there.

The dream of writing mark-up based on standards is not a pipe dream, but it can be a nightmare getting other people to follow suit. I just hope that venting these frustrations might spark conversation among passionate people on the web about what can be done. In the meantime, if anyone can prove me wrong about the standard of training available (particularly in the UK) then I’d love to hear from you! I could fill a room with developers who are not yet up to speed on these new techniques - just don’t bore them to death in the process, yeah?

The text of this article ©Copyright 2003, Ian Lloyd, all rights reserved. Everything else falls under this site’s standard license.

Reader Comments

Dave S. says:
August 27, 03h

What has your own personal experience been encouraging the use of web standards in your work environment? Comments are open, feel free to share.

Keith says:
August 27, 04h

This is a terrific piece Ian! Wow, your experience echos mine in so many ways. The question of how to bring people up to speed with Web standards is a sticky one that I thinking about all the time.

I mean, who am I to push my passion for the Web on others? Some people like to go home and spend time with their families, or might just be do busy getting their day-to-day tasks done to pick up new skills quickly.

I’m not sure what the answers are either, but asking the questions is a big step in the right direction.

I’ve often noticed that quite a bit of the general “Web standard talk” goes right over many people’s heads. It’s nice to have an article like this to bring us back down to earth and remind us that the vast majority of those who build the Web are still, for many reasons, a few steps behind when it comes to standards.

Great work.

MikeyC says:
August 27, 05h

“What has your own personal experience been encouraging the use of web standards in your work environment?”

It’s nearly impossible to break people out of the “pixel-perfect/graphic design” mindset. Sometimes I’ll get a document in Word or PDF format and must manually copy it over and mark-it-up as HTML. Anyways, I often get feedback like: “that word should be at the end of the first line and not wrap to the beginning of the second as it differs from what I have on this piece of paper in front of me” and then I have to explain concepts like ‘varying screen-resolutions’ and that you can’t control layout to such a degree that what you see on screen will exactly mirror what you have on paper or in a PDF file (nor should you control it to that degree).

So, suffice it to say, talk of “web standards” would simply elicit a blank expression and then the expected: It must appear identical in Browsers X,Y and Z. Period. No Ifs… Ands… or Buts.

“simpler methods are not properly understood by those who may need to maintain these pages.”

Exactly. I’d love to strip away every freakin’ font tag on the site but when you work in a group everyone has to understand the coding, and when members don’t even know the most basic CSS and are unwilling to learn then you are stuck with tables and font tags.

Joining an informal web standards group (one like ) is a good way to meet like-minded people who know exactly what you’re facing with regards to web standards adoptance in the workplace and you soon realize you’re not the only one who “gets” it.

Sunny says:
August 27, 07h

Well I can say I have succeeded in converting two of my friends, although they were a bit skeptical at first. But once they realized the simplicity of standards and what it is for, they were more responsive. One has started on his efforts to create a site with XHTML/CSS, and the other has promised a redesign in the future.

It is important to note that I didnt force feed the standards mantra. I showed them the possibilities, pushed them towards resources that would make the transition easier. Also they saw my site as an inspiration.

But this is on a personal level. Convincing a client who has no idea abt web design (or doesn’t care enough) will not be a easy proposition at all. Your strategy has to be different with different individuals. My friends were resposnive because they ‘trust’ me. To them it was worth checking out. But this strategy will not work for everyone, everywhere.

David Marsh says:
August 27, 07h

This article raises many questions that management put forth to me when I try to enlighten them about the need for standards and semantic mark-up.

Why should they care about how I accomplish my task? As long as I produce a visual design that mirrors what the art design people create, their happy.

Whether you implement a tag and a tag or use style sheets, it matters little to them.

There are no code reviews by informed people so the issues are never addressed.

Worse, is that all the backend developers I work with are not aware of standards, care little for semantic mark-up and are aware that no one is going to wrap them over the knuckles for their code as it gets the job done.

It then becomes my concern to re-work their code to make it compliant and semantically correct.

They use tools like VS.NET and drag-n-drop database connections and server controls with little thought to the mark-up being produced.

One solution I have used in the past is to let my actions speak for themselves.

After some developers had created a design for a client using tables and spacer gifs and font tags I spent one day redesigning the page with semantic mark-up and style sheets.

I showed management the two pages without mentioning that the code behind the two was different.

I then did some research into the cost per megabyte that the client was currently paying for bandwidth and the number of hits the page was currently receiving per month.

I then announced to management that due to the 65% reduction in page size on the new semantic, css based design I had created I could save the client $3,500 a month on bandwidth charges. A very heavily trafficked website by the way.

Nothing speaks to management and clients more then cost savings. I find this is the most effective way to deal with clients and management alike.

Not a total solution but it works sometimes.

August 28, 01h

I can see a little bit of myself here in this great article.
It was not long ago, my employer said to me:
“No, just don’t use CSS. Nobody else is able to maintain your pages, and they are a mess in Dreamweaver….”

However, fortunately I decided to remain “on track” and continued using standards.

About learning:
I can recommend the Online-Courses from IWA/HWG. I have been taking some for myself including the CSS-Workshop, and the CSS level 2 course, held by Eric Meyer (yes, that Eric Meyer). The Intermediate XHTML course there doesn’t allow you table layouts and encourages you to produce valid XHTML 1.0 Strict and XHTML 1.1 documents.
Well enough of that (don’t wanted to do an advertise here), it is just a recommendation.

Owen says:
August 28, 02h

Before I started my current job two years ago, no-one in the company had any notion of Web standards. Judging from the markup produced by my predecessor, not even he was bothered. So I blazed a trail (ahem). I’ve done what I can, but still encounter two issues.

First, I’m the only person who is writing valid, structural markup coupled with style sheets. My Web developer (who should know better) and IT colleagues (bless ‘em) just don’t get it, despite numerous attempts to explain how it works. I’m still amazed sometimes that people who can actually read screen after screen of complex programming and scripting as though it were a magazine article can’t grasp why or where or how to use a paragraph tag.

Second, there’s an assumption that Web standards are no more than a kind of professional approach to Web design, as though our markup wears a tie and shakes hands with a browser. Explaining the nature, deployment and benefits of using Web standards is not something that comes terribly easily to me, particularly on the business side, so I rarely attempt it. [Note to self: must try harder.]

I am making progress, however, in the area of standards and accessibility. I’ve begun to specialize in this field, even running Web accessibility training events in conjunction with the local RNIB office and a local higher education institute. We concentrate on the practical, HTML-intensive side and we’ve had positive feedback. The next event in September is all booked up, too.

Training and awareness are key, as Ian rightly points out. Perhaps more significant is education. As more and more people emerge from colleges with media design-type qualifications, the more important it is that Web standards form part of the curriculum. I fear it will always be the case that Dreamweaver will win out over HTML basics, though, let alone standards…

Lea says:
August 28, 02h

In my experience, it’s been a lot harder convincing other designers (*cough* my boyfriend *cough*) that Standards is something worth investing into. He tries to humour me because we geekily get into arguments about it and I end up getting pissed off at him, and he is none the wiser. ;) I’ve talked at length about it, but he zones out, gets bored, and uses the age-old design excuse: “I’m not a coder, I’m a designer.” The truth, however, is if you are designing for the WEB, it’s hardly a proper excuse anymore. I pretty much forced him to borrow my copy of Zeldman’s DWWS in hopes that his intelligent (and calm! lol) will be able to sway him. I think he has yet to crack open the book. But I hope… I hope…

Meanwhile, at work, my bosses pretty much agree with me or don’t care so they let me do whatever. LOL. The best thing is when you point out their competition has their entire website in XHTML and is standards-compliant; it gets the business people more competitive and more willing to try it out.

August 28, 03h

Turned out well Ian, nice one mate :)

August 28, 04h

I’ve informally promoted coding towards web standards since 1999 and it is an uphill struggle trying to get some people to understand the concept. Though in general it has become easier over the last two years and I’ve lost count of the number people I’ve converted.

One of the best training methods I found was to talk with individuals at their own level and create working demonstrations or solutions to mark-up or style sheet issues.

In general the solutions one provides would be markedly superior in quality and easier to maintain than proprietary constructs that were already in place, thus helping dispel various myths by comparing and contrasting the final results with the previous state of affairs.

François says:
August 28, 04h

I’m reading my life, thanks for this great piece on corporate realities.

David M. > Nothing speaks to management and clients more then cost savings. I find this is the most effective way to deal with clients and management alike.

Yes. Unfortunately 12 x $3,500 may be well under the cost of a corporate redesign, and when a company is struggling with costs reduction, it rarely starts spending money unless it has an immediate or very short term benefit. Provided you even get attention from management regarding “the web” at those times.

Kris says:
August 28, 05h

My colleagues are catching up; a good thing, since it was already decided this will be the way to go for the company and I am not going to be there forever. I am not sure if I always did the right thing in educating/enlighting them. I have often been critisized a militant, a religious zealot.

The cooperation every of us on the Cinnamon site however, took away my doubt. This is the right way and this is my future.

It is mentioned that would we all code tables and fonts, it would be so much easier to cooperate with oldskool colleagues. I disagree though; I remember when I was in that phase, all of us still cherished our own methods and every time that updates were necessary, each would spend time on analyzing what the other had done ‘this time’. At least, we recognized tables and font though, so there is a common ground.

August 28, 06h

I’m making some progress. Unfortantley, the manager of our web tea and our “lead developer” are still living in 1994, and they appear to be fairly hopeless. I have converted a couple of the other minions. I guess I’m going for an “inmates running the assylum” approach.

What do you guys do if you feel that it’s a hopeless effort? I’m so fed up with situation here. I have a strong skill set in advanced web development and graphic design, but they continue to let someone with a basic grasp of HTML 3.0 and no design skills lead our team, while I’m relagated to crap work. It’s very frustrated, and I’m tempted to up and quit – if they don’t need me, I don’t need them.

How do you guys handle the frustration of working with people who don’t know, don’t care, aren’t willing to learn, and won’t allow you to step on their toes in an way?

Ian says:
August 28, 07h

Spotted today on uk-usability list

- Hi folks

- I know this is not usability and is quite a different
- subject area in some respects, but I was wondering
- if anyone had some good links to accessibility
- courses available in London with a specific focus
- on the coding and implementation side of things.

And what was the response? Well, this [with my annotations in {brackets}]:

- Are you sure you really need to do a course on this?
- There’s a lot of information (all you need really) on
- the website {Way to put off a beginner, eh?}
- and if you use a tool like Macromedia Dreamweaver MX you
- can set the code checking facility on to only allow wai
- accessible code {No, you can set it to prompt for specific
- accessibility attributes, but it doesn’t guarantee it,
- and in the wrong hands, Dreamweaver can have a negative effect}.
- At the end of the day though I guess it boils down to how you
- learn something, but I know that all our producers are self
- taught {exactly - because they want to}. The RNIB
- ( website also gives you loads
- of information and guidelines to help {if you want to design
- only for the blind audience}. The bottom line is I
- guess that if you use correctly formatted XHTML code in
- your pages you are pretty much there - not counting
- multimedia aspects.{right, so you have a valid XHTML page -
- but that does *not* stop it being inaccessible or unusable}

So, other people are asking for hands-on training and being given information like this in return. The respondent was at least trying to help, I guess

Jai says:
August 28, 08h

Ian- I hope you responded to the person asking the question with a much more viable answer than the ones you listed! And by the way, great article. I never read an article with the word “loo” in it before. That made my day.

Jeff- If you quit, I’ll gladly take your job. I’d rather be frustrated and paid than blissfully coding personal sites and unemployeed. Web design/development jobs are few and far between in 2003 (at least over here in Jersey), and if you have one, keep it and keep mentioning standards. You’ll get the cold shoulder enough times, but if you keep “being annoying” (or enlightening, depending on perspective) you’ll either be told to shut up or you’ll force someone to eventually read about your point so that the next time you say something, they’ll not have to say “shut up”… boy that was an awfully formatted sentence… sorry.

Jim says:
August 28, 09h

There is definitely a ‘eureka moment’ when changing to xhtml/css design. It really is so much more efficient. The seperation of style and content is such a straight forward concept that I can hardly believe we are only just now realising the full potential of using the most modern mark-up. I have discovered that the best way to sell the idea of a web-standards re-design to non web savvy individuals is to say ‘hey, using xhtml and css will undoubtedly improve your search listing’. People are still fixated on SEO even though it’s one part educated guesswork and two parts myth.

August 28, 09h

I’ve been singing the praises of CSS-based layout to my clients for a few years now, but the biggest hurdle I’ve encountered is the sad state of browser compliance. Inevitably, one member of the team will still be using the outdated browser that came pre-installed on his/her computer years ago. The result is always an insistance that the site must work for “everybody” (in spite of the fact that the browser in question may garner a mere percentage or two of the entire market). Most casual web users asusme that their computer setup is typical, and fret about the “average” web surfer not being able to view the layout correctly. Supporting these obsolete browsers requires that table-basedHTML or JavaScript fixes be incorporated into the project.

The solution? Browser manufacturers are close to achieving a standards-compliant environment, but they need to improve their marketing to convince the public that it’s worth upgrading their browser. Netscape is notorious for this; even after t he relase of Netscape 7, they still offered 4.8 as a download.

DHTML based madness -

August 28, 10h

Ian wrote: “No-one’s told them or shown them how.”

You are right. It takes time, and training to show people. They need to see it in seminars, in presentations and – perhaps most importantly – in hands-on courses.

Five years ago, you would not find mention of accessibility, or standards in the most fundamental of HTML courses. Development techniques have changed, as have best practices, but courses can’t always keep up. It takes time and money to rewrite, or rework courses to teach new techniques in web development.

The change that is required in my mind mirrors the changes we’ve seen in development contracts etc over the past while.

BEFORE: Companies/Govt Departments etc, used to call us at the end of projects “We’d like you to come in and do some accessibility testing of the site we’re going to put into production in two weeks”. We’d go in, analyze, write our report (almost always recommending education be part of their long-terms solution to their problems).

NOW: more and more companies/Govt Departments are calling us at the beginning of projects, during, and at the end. They are starting to see it less as a “plug-in”, and more of an integrated part of development. We do some training with their developers if needed, at the outset of a project, work with them during, and help with QA before promotion.

In my mind, TRAINING needs the same approach. A single course in Accessibility, or a single course in XHTML or CSS, or Standards-Based Web design isn’t going to cut it. These ideas NEED to be integrated into ALL courses…

This is what will take time… We’re trying it ( ) and its being well received. However, old habits die hard, and it will take a lot of time before we can expect the training standards to change, just as it has to see the changes in best practices and development standards.

I’m just glad that there are more sites that are working towards standards based design – it makes it a lot easier to teach courses when you can point at big name examples that have bought into the philosophy…

August 28, 10h

One solution that may work… Personally, I’ve learned everything I know about web design in the past year. I haven’t had to unlearn the old methods because I didn’t know them to begin with. I’ve never gone to design school or taken any sort of class, but I’ve learned all I know by surfing the web and finding articles like this one.

Jeremy says:
August 28, 12h

I may not be working in a professional automosphere, but trying to explain web standards to friends of mine who doodle in web design is a real tough sell. I know they would be more interested, if I could show them that changing their way of thinking will benefit them for months / years to come.

August 29, 03h

I have been for a while in the standards world, i just keep asking me, the solution for this problem:

What should i do to a data grid with 10 lines and 10 columns, should i use a tabless design width 10 div’s for eache line, or should i ignore the tabless design and use a table ?

Alex says:
August 29, 05h

An interesting and informed article, but while I couldn’t agree more that outdated coding methods must be consigned to history in favour of forward-thinking design - how ever difficult it is to get reluctant and uninterested developers to lose their bad habits - a word of warning to all interface designers: don’t forget about design itself.

It is easy to get carried away with self-righteous standards-compliance and forget that for many sites design is what sells. Cast your eyes around at the majority of current standards-compliant sites and you will see many uniform-looking, virtually text-only sites. I can’t imagine anything worse than having a plethora logo/single image and all their content sitting within rectangular boxes surrounded by dashed, grey lines.

MikeyC says:
August 29, 05h

Jose: “should i ignore the tabless design and use a table”

If you are trying to present tabular data you should definitely use a table. That’s what tables are for. Using tags for their intended purpose is how you go about building a structurally-sound website.

I certainly hope that people aren’t getting the impression that the TABLE tag is in the same category as purley presentational tags like FONT. Tables *can* be used for presentational purposes but remember that they still have a structural purpose.

August 29, 09h

At my previous place of employement (a Web development company), the problem was exactly this: “someone more senior than you doesn’t want to hear it from an ‘underling.’” (Pardon my use of the American style of punctuation within quotation marks.)

At my current place of employment, a hosting company, I can generally get away with making accessible, standards-compliant sites. (It’s sad that I have to use the phrase “get away with.”)

Still, there are barriers. I told my boss: “When dealing with the Web, you have to accept that no page will look identical in every browser on every platform under all circumstances.”

Her response: “It would if all content were within an image.”

My response: “Some people browse with images turned off. And let’s not forget text browsers and screen readers.”

Her reponse: “Let’s be realistic.”

In her reality, screen readers don’t exist.

Jules says:
August 29, 10h

My own situation is somewhat different than the one echoed in the original post. I was hired by Publication Services Section, a subdivision of Information and Marketing Services but our webmaster works for Communications which is a subdivision of IT so we are in two different areas (corporately). My manager hired me because (1) to cover the position of someone else on a secondment and (2) our website had to be made accessible by law (I work for the gov’t) and my manager knew of my experience and knowledge of HTML, CSS and Accessibility (much more was learned during my term). However, the webmaster readily admitted not knowing CSS, ASP, has several times misinterpretted HTML (eg. “alt is a tag not an attbibute”) and made serious errors in the interpretation of WCAG 1.0, level AA (eg, “JavaScript is forbidden” and “all images require alt text”). As a result of reviewing WCAG and our website, I wrote a comprehensive document describing what we need to look at to fix and what we can avoid (i.e., we don’t use frames or Java or multimedia or server side image maps, etc.). In a meeting with the webmaster, his boss and various other people who contribute to the website, I outlined what we have to do to make our website meet AA-level and how to do it (refinements also came later). The webmaster’s boss was impressed with my knowledge and understanding and ability to explain and put me in charge of training the junior web staff - quite a coup for me. However, it more than ticked off the webmaster and every request or suggestion I make of him, he barely complies if at all. I am now developing an ASP/SQL application to display the records of a database and am being held back by the webmaster’s reluctance to support our database although he supports his.

My rant is related to the original post in that I have tried to implement various changes to the code but the webmaster’s weakness in knowledge has been an impediment to implementing the change. He now has students redeveloping the intranet for him but, at his instructions, they are developing a complex table-based layout despite the fact that one of the students seems to be qualified to create a table-free/CSS-based layout.

End of my rant,


Alex says:
August 29, 12h

I read the article, and the comments beneath. I must say that the article interests me. I like designing websites. I’m still a student in college but I could see myself doing this as a job and still loving it. I haven’t been doing this for a long time but I started before there were clear enough standards and even to this day I am not quite positive as to what these standards are.

I ask you though, where would be a good place to go (preferrably online) where I could look up how to begin learning this “new” method. How does this method hold up for sites with lots of graphical content, or sites where the “look” is made up not of straight boxlike divisions but of images with curves and designs and what not. How does server-side code fit in with all of this. All these are questions i have. How about cross browser compatibility? (Assuming modern browsers) I have issues getting IE and NS (and its variants) to interpret doctypes the same way.

Where do I go for answers?

Dave S. says:
August 29, 12h

Alex - you need a book. The book.

Spend the money. Trust me on this.

(To answer but one of your questions: the ‘standards’ everyone refers to are those recommended by the W3C - - and refer mostly to client-side code. HTML, XHTML, CSS, and the DOM are the most frequently references ones)

Michael Landis says:
August 30, 01h

A common objection raised by the marketing-sensitive folks is the requirement for pixel perfection across all browsers. Typically my answer is:

“How many people do you know outside of the web design community who use more than one browser on their computers? How much time and money is wasted on making something look the same across every browser, when the only groups that has multiple browsers — web developers and designers — understand that it is an unacheivable goal?”

Maybe I would be not quite as confrontational depending on the audience, but the points remain:

• Only the design/development/net geek community uses more than one browser. Everyone else is blind to the differences.

• For every method a designer tries to force design control on a web site, at least one way exists — in every browser ever made — to break that method.

• Flexible designs are no more or less complex than rigid designs. They simply require an acceptance that your customer should come first. They should be able to choose how they view your site, at the screen dimensions they prefer, the font sizes they prefer, etc. I find it strange that companies feel that denying their customers’ preferences is a good business strategy….

My two bits.

August 30, 03h

This is a really good article. Reading first the article and then the comments made me feel less lonely ;) I too have been fighting for standards for years. Sometimes it’s a complete waste of time, but I have been able to open the eyes of several people. And it’s a nice feeling when someone comes back and thanks you for pushing them towards standards.

Adrian says:
August 30, 05h

As much as getting existing web developers/designers to convert to the ‘newer’, better ways of coding, we also need to try and stop new people leanring the old ways, only to then find out they got it wrong, and have to get the motivation to unlearn a lot of what they’ve done, to then learn divs and navigation in lists etc… all over again….

There are plenty of ‘How to make your first web site’ tutorials about, using that old, out dated style of font tags and tables.

If we got some new style ‘newbie’ tutorials, starting people off on the right foot from the word go, you bring forward a load of new people coding effectively and efficiently.

Now it maybe isn’t especially quick, to start training beginners in the ways of effective coding in order to improve the situation, but if you start teaching them, they start designing better sites than some of the current ‘professionals’, and hopefully those uninspired designers will see that they might lose their job to someone who does it better……

I’d love to write an XHTML/CSS friendly ‘introduction to web design’ type tutorial, unfortunately, I don’t think I could do it justice though :S I plan on giving some of it a go sometime though ;)

Josh says:
August 30, 09h

I don’t have time to read through all of these comments but i just wanted to mention that Zeldman briefly talks about how to get clients to use standards in his book “Designing with Web Standards”. Basically what it comes down to is that the client doesn’t need to know the methods being used to reach all of the websites users. They just need to know that it WILL reach those users. Clients usually want security. Therefore that’s what we need to give them.

August 31, 05h

Changing the office culture. I have quickly learned that making small changes in the way co-workers think and do things can have some excellent long term effects.

I recently started work on the Web of a large university. Getting the group to think about standards and semantic markup though was rather easy, as my predecessor had become something of an evangelist for accessibility. It was almost perceived as an extension to accessibility (I also created a small CMS that established the document type as XHTML, blundering special characters and forcing change). I found however that our office was suffering immensley from a poor reputation for creativity (my predecessor treated 508 as an end all, refusing to make content that could not be digested by blind person – all flash, attractive images, and much more).

My greatest battles have been with the administrators and managers of the graphic-design-philes out there. The types that are out for exact rendering as available in print. Changing the culture seems nearly impossible when you are trying to do it up the ladder.

mandy says:
August 31, 12h

Hello Dave,

Really interesting article. Thank you. Personally I do my reading/learning in the bath, guess I just eat too much fibre and wouldn’t get the time to use your method.

But seriously, about your question re training in the UK. I have just finished the first module (TT280) in the OU’s new Certificate in Web Applications Development and it might be worth checking out:
a) stresses standards compliance (continuously :))
b) stresses accessibility

With this proviso: I decided to do my final project totally in CSS (see effort it at url given), which meant I had about two weeks to teach myself everything I could to learn how (thanks AListApart and Sitepoint et al)- the course only covered it briefly but it seemed the answer to my html prayers. But when I asked on the class forum wether I would get any extra (or lose!?!) marks for using CSS I was told not to bother because of browser compliance problems. Well I ignored that advice because I thought it was out of date and contradicted the overall ethos of the course and carried on nevertheless (stressful though it was). I am so pleased that I did this, because now, with that very steep learning curve behind me, I can go forward and create the kind of code that I can be proud of.

Andrew Otwell says:
September 01, 03h

i’ve also started to try to convince people at my new job of the value of standards, CSS, etc. We’ve just rebuilt the company’s site with XHTML and CSS. It went reasonably well, with the usual few days of hair pulling and debugging, but somehow the perception was that “if we’d used tables, we could have done this faster.” Also, “we had to use all these ugly hacks in CSS! I thought this was standards!”

To me, the development was acceptably fast, and I don’t see the problem with using hacks in my CSS or my markup, as long as both are readable, compliant, and as tight as I can make them.

Oddly enough, I think that many developers have stopped seeing all the hacks in table based layouts. They don’t see spacer.gifs as ugly, and they don’t notice all the time spent examining old HTML to try to make sense out of a colspan=”9” that they wrote six months ago. That stuff’s just business as usual.

Luckily almost all the work we do has to be demonstrably accessible and section 508 compliant, so my argument for standards-compliance is much easier.

Conan says:
September 01, 03h

I think Mark Pilgrim said it best in his recent blog post, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the gerbils?’:

“But it sucks, because table-based layouts and FONT tags and spacer GIFs are an *ongoing* nightmare, while CSS is only an *up-front* nightmare.”

ChrisS says:
September 04, 07h

I have been slowly pushing CSS and standards on my co-workers, and they are gradually warming up to the benefits. Great sites like the Zen Garden have really opened some eyes as our workload increases, but our time to complete projects has not.

My frustration lies with the universities and colleges that claim to offer state-of-the-art education, but don’t offer state-of-the-art information. One year ago, the head of the Comp Sci department at the college where I am taking classes told the class “Don’t use style sheets because browsers don’t support them.” I nearly walked out of the class. With each of the classes I take there, I do more teaching of html and styles than the instructor.

If the schools would actually teach standards, acceptance of them would grow exponentially.

September 06, 05h

A fantastic thing has happened to me as the only web-nutter… I mean evangelist in the company.

Our *clients* are demanding accesible websites. Most are UK government orgs and they can no longer allow table layouts, their sites will not be allowed to go live if they miss the boat on standards.

So now the guys around me are going “Paul, hows that DIV thingy work again?”

A small tip I can recommend though; Show a table-jock what a table site looks like in a handheld browser or through screen-reader software. Then show them a CSS site. Even just showing them a CSS site with CSS turned off and it is all still readable is a powerful statement.

MikeyC says:
September 06, 08h

Paul: “they can no longer allow table layouts…Show a table-jock what a table site looks like in a handheld browser…”

As handhelds become more popular in the coming years we won’t be able to just “shrug-off” accessible web design as “something that only benefits the disabled”. In the meantime, unfortunately, the threat of lawsuits seems to be the most effective solution.

Trent Lucier says:
January 14, 05h

I got a co-worker interested in CSS, although it wasn’t very hard because he’s the type of guy who wants to learn new things. I brought in some CSS books (2 Eric Meyers books), and he read one pretty thoroughly. I think that is the best way to get people interested: bring in your own books to work and show people that you have made a commitment to learn the stuff. Anyone can talk about the glories of CSS and send some URL’s in an email, but bringing in a book is a much more powerful statement.

Larry Winfrey says:
May 20, 06h

Read the article and I must say it is right on point. I am a recent convert to Web Standard design and I can personally testify that Web Standard design ROCKS! The time saved in coding a page makes it worth it, not to mention the fact that it saves money as well. Thanks for the article. Also if anyone has some good resources for a newbie I would greatly appreciate it. I just bought Zeldman’s book Designing with Web Standards and I have been checking this site out, but I would like to know about others. Thanks.