Thursday, 10 July 2008

Standard Standards Rant, Redux: Why the World-Wide Web Isn't "World-Wide" Any More

The "World Wide Web", to the degree that it was ever truly universal, has broken down dramatically over the last couple of years, and it's our mission as Web development professionals to stand up to the idiots that think that's a Good Thing. If they're inside our organization, either as managers or as non-(Web-)technical people, we should patiently explain why semantic markup, clean design, accessibility and (supporting all of the above) standards compliance are Good for Business. (As the mantra says, "Google is your most important blind customer," because your prospective customers who know what they're looking for but don't yet know who they're buying it from find you that way.) Modern design patterns also encourage more efficient use of bandwidth (that you're probably paying for), since there's less non-visible, non-semantic data in a properly designed nest of divs than in an equivalent TABLE structure. Modern design also encourages consistent design among related pages (one set of stylesheets for your entire site, one for your online product-brochure pages, and so on). Pages that look like they're related and are actually related reassure the user that he hasn't gotten lost in the bowels of your site (or strayed off into your competitor's). It's easier to make and test changes that affect a specified area within your site (and don't affect others). It's easier to add usability improvements, such as letting users control text size), when you've separated content (XHTML) from presentation (CSS and, in a pinch, JavaScript). Easier-to-use Web sites make happier users, who visit your site more often and for longer periods, and buy more of your stuff.

Experienced Web developers know all this, especially if they've been keeping up with the better design sites and blogs such as A List Apart. But marketing folks, (real) engineers and sales people don't, usually, and can't really be expected to -- any more than a typical Web guy knows about internal rate of return or plastic injection molding in manufacturing. But you should be able to have intelligent conversations with them, and show them why 1997 Web design isn't usually such a good idea any more. (For a quick Google-eye demo, try lynx).  Management, on the other hand, in the absence of PHBs and management by magazine, should at least be open to an elevator pitch. Make it a good one; use business value (that you can defend as needed after the pitch).

That's all fine, for dealing with entrenched obsolescence within your own organization. What about chauvinism outside — from sites you depend on professionally, socially or in some combination? For years, marginalized customers have quietly gone elsewhere, with at most a plaintive appeal to the offenders, pointing out that a good chunk of Windows usees don't browse with Internet Explorer anymore (check out the linked article; a major business-tech Website from 2004(!!); the arguments are much stronger now). But some companies, particularly Microsoft-sensitive media sites like CNet and its subsidiary ZDNet, still don't work right when viewed with major non-Windows browsers (even when the same browser, such as Opera or Safari, works just fine with that site from Windows). And then there are the sites for whom their Web presence is the entire company, but they haven't yet invested the resources into competent design required to take their site construction from a point-and-drool interface virtually incapable of producing standards-compliant work, and instead present a site that a) actively checks for IE and snarls at you if you're using anything else, and b) has their design so badly broken and inaccessible that people stay away in droves. (Yes, I'm looking at you — every click opens a new window).

When we encounter Web poison like this, we should take the following actions:

  • Notify the site owner that we will use a better (compatible, accessible, etc.) site, with sufficient details that your problem can be reproduced (flamemail that just says "Teh site sux0rs, d00d!" is virtually guaranteed to be counterproductive);
  • When you find an acceptable substitute, let that site's owners know how they earned your patronage. Send a brief thank-you note to one or two of their large advertisers (if any), as well as to the advertisers on the site you've left (if you know any). Politely thank them for supporting good Web sites, or remind them why their advertising won't be reaching you anymore (as appropriate);
  • Finally, there really ought to be a site (if there isn't already) where people can leave categorized works/doesn't-work-for-me notes about sites they've visited. This sounds an awful lot like the original argument for Yahoo!; I can see where such a review site would either die of starvation or grow to consume massive resources. But praise and shame are powerful inducements in the offline world; it's long past time to wield them effectively online.
I'm sure that there are literally millions of sites with Web poison out there, and likely several "beware" sites as well. For the record, the two that wasted enough of my week this week to deserve special dishonor are ZDNet and JobStreet. Guys, even Microsoft doesn't lock people out and lock browsers up the way you do; I can browse MSDN and Hotmail just fine on my Mac, on an old PC with Linux, or on an Asus Eee. And if you need help, I and several thousand others like me are just an email away. :-)

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