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This chapter is from the book

Compliance Is a Dirty Word

The other obstacle to widespread acceptance of web standards is the mistaken belief that standards will somehow diminish creativity, tie the developer’s hands, or result in lessened user experiences vis-á-vis old-school, proprietary methods. Where does this mistaken notion come from?

It might come from developers who tried using web standards in 4.0 and older browsers and were rightfully displeased with the results. But the days of poor standards compliance are gone.

The Power of Language to Shape Perceptions

The phrase “web standards” might be at fault. The Web Standards Project coined the phrase as an act of propaganda. We sought a set of words that would convey to browser makers exactly what was at stake—a set of words whose underlying ethical imperative would remind browser makers of their commitment to technologies they had helped to create and pledged to support. We needed a phrase that would convey to developers, clients, and tech journalists the urgent importance of reliable, consistently implemented, industry-wide technologies. “Recommendations” didn’t cut it. “Standards,” we felt, did.

We had no budget and few hopes, yet somehow we succeeded. Today, companies like Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and Opera strive for standards compliance and brag of it as an expected and desired feature—like four-wheel drive. But although those companies “get it,” many in the design community do not. Some mistake “web standards” for an imposed and arbitrary set of design rules (just as some think of usability that way). It should be explained to these designers that web standards have nothing to do with external aesthetic guidelines or commandments.

If not the phrase, “web standards,” perhaps the word “compliance” might be at fault. Designers want to comply with their creative visions, not with a complex set of technological rules. They should be told that those rules have nothing to do with the look and feel of any site; they merely enable browsers to deliver what the designer has created. Likewise, clients want to comply with corporate or institution-driven site goals based on marketing requirements and user analysis. Again, web standards can only help by ensuring that sites work for more people on more platforms.

The Inspiration Problem

Designers and clients might be turned off by the lack of visual inspiration (sometimes bordering on hostility to design and branding) found on some sites that discuss web standards or brag about their compliance with one or more W3C specifications. We’ll encounter the same problem when we discuss accessibility. (Some accessibility sites are downright ugly, but the problem lies with those sites’ designers, not with accessibility, which carries no visual penalty. The same is true for web standards, even if the look and feel of the W3C website or of Ecma is unlikely to motivate designers to get busy learning about XML and CSS2.)

The Wthremix contest [3.17], launched in December of 2002, sought to generate some of that missing aesthetic interest. The founders explained their goals this way:

The W3C creates powerful standards and guidelines that make web development more rational and enhance user experience. Technologies like XML, CSS, XHTML, the DOM, and guidelines like the Web Accessibility Initiative can help us create more powerful sites that work better for all. But the W3C is composed of super-geeks, not consumer-oriented designers, developers, writers, and information specialists. As a result, the W3C’s powerful technologies and guidelines are trapped in a sprawling site that is less attractive and less usable than it might be. We wondered if the W3C’s website could be transformed into one that is better looking, better organized, better branded, and much easier to use and understand. Hence this contest.

The Contest

Wthremix is a design challenge for coders and a coding challenge for designers. Here’s the idea: Create a redesign of the W3C home page. Design an intuitive layout and navigation, organize the content with the user in mind, and create an aesthetic that reflects the importance and influence of the institution. Show us what you think the W3C home page should look like, how it should communicate to its users and, to make your point, use valid tableless XHTML and CSS, and meet WAI accessibility level 1.

Other Problems

Some might mistrust web standards because of bad experiences with buggy early versions of Gecko-powered browsers like Netscape 6 or because of bugs still unfixed in IE6 after five long years.

Others, intrigued by the promise of standards, might have converted a site from HTML to XHTML, only to discover that their layouts suddenly looked different in standards-compliant browsers. (That’s right: merely by switching from HTML to XHTML, making no other changes, your site might look different.) In Chapter 11 I’ll explain why that happens and the simple, quick fixes that can get your site back on course. But if you don’t know about those simple, quick fixes, you might be mistrustful of standards and might want to bury your head in the sand and persevere in the obsolete, nonstandard methods that used to work so well in yesterday’s browsers.

Don’t give in to the dark side. Although ignorance and prejudice are as rampant in web design as in any other human endeavor, web standards are here to stay—and this book is here to help.

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