Friday 11 June 2004

standards backlash

Readers with an interest in web standards are by now aware of some of the frustrations being expressed by a variety of standards evangelists who are just fed up with fighting the fight. There’s also significant backlash within the designer and developer community, but to me it appears that this is a result of sheer frustration rather than logic.

Disgusted with poor browser support for what should be easy breezy in CSS-based, standardized designs, many folks are saying screw it and backing off the issue. It’s long been my contention that this is a bad move. Just because Internet Exploiter 6.0 has mucked up the landscape for progress doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plow through the muck toward progress anyway!

If anything, we should view this as an opportunity for getting a leg up on Microsoft. If major sites such as AOL and Yahoo! continue their goals to aggressively implement standards in their products, what’s going to happen when Microsoft releases Yet Another Broken User Agent? Millions of people will be affected, and that’s got to be more significant than not. I say let’s exploit the exploiter and get a jump on things, not draw back. I believe if we do draw back now, we’re going to see more painful results than positive.

Another topic expressed in recent discussions is the issue that standards evangelists appear to be elitist. One reason for this may well be that The Web Standards Project (WaSP) has long been viewed as a group of guru-level practitioners such as Zeldman and Dave Shea and Doug Bowman. How can the rest of us live up to design like that? I sure can’t, but I can appreciate the complexities of the design goals and technologies required and so can you.

As a driving force within WaSP, I want to express my own thoughts about the elitist concern:

  1. People view WaSP as elitist because it’s currently a one-way organization. As if we were Moses on the Mountain, we advocate without a feedback mechanism. In my opinion, this is a piss-poor way to go about evangelizing. After all, any true evangelist wants the flock to sing along with the choir, not just sit there mute. I promise you that many of us within the organization are well aware of this and are advocating change. Which, in any grass roots organization, is bound to happen slowly.
  2. WaSP members are not even remotely as snobbish as one might think. In fact, the majority of high-profile WaSPs are the ones who are the most concerned about not just the web, but helping all designers and developers create great web sites, period. Consider the time that goes into a full day’s work, plus evangelical activities, plus dealing with the internal workings of an organization that’s in a complete state of flux as we try to figure out how on earth to address the multitude of concerns all of us are facing. We’re not slackers here, we’re just in a state of transition and I think your patience with us will ultimately be rewarded.
  3. WaSP may appear to be backing off important issues, which does seem out of character. How do we address Microsoft’s lack of consideration regarding standards implementation within its products? What stand do we take regarding the volatile issues of Atom and RSS syndication standardization? The answer is: Who knows? Nevertheless, I assure you our silence or seeming reticence has far less to do with not caring about these issues than it does with being just as confused as the rest of the world as to how to address them.

I think now is a good time for everyone to take a deep breath and consider the higher goal: Creating web sites that look great, work well, serve the audience, are manageable, accessible, and useful. Standards really help us achieve all those things, and there’s just no arguing that.

Unlike D. Keith Robinson, I’m not sick of writing and evangelizing standards. I realize that I am one of the lucky few who, as a teacher and writer, gets to actually see people really achieve great things in the process of learning about standards and how to apply them realistically.

Like Simon Willison, I’m all about advocating standards with a sexy new wrapper. While we can all agree that the term best practices sounds like something to sell to The Suits, it really boils down to that. Standards evangelism can’t go away, but it does need to change its approach to a more comprehensive method.

The dialog has to continue, and so must the cause for standards. But obviously we need to reassess how we’re doing it, and I believe that it couldn’t be a better time to do just that.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   site admin | 12:52 | Comments (28)

Comments (28)

  1. Here here! Thanks for the thoughtful, clear-headed response Molly! Sometimes it’s just what us hot-heads need to settle us down a bit. Thanks again.

  2. Molly

    Back in the mid-nineties when the first professional digital cameras were introduced (they cost $50,000 and you didn’t even get a lens!), here in the UK everybody said “They will never catch on!”

    Photographers didn’t want to adopt digital (because they didn’t want to invest in the equipment), design studios, repro-houses and printers didn’t want to adopt digital because they feared the loss of their scanning and colour-correction business. But less than a few years later, digital is the standard in many areas of pro-photography from catalogue to high-end advertising.

    The change came in the UK when large clients realised that digital would save them large amounts of money, would make their time to press shorter and would make their images more ‘re-purposable’.

    There is a real parallel to the adoption of web-standards and I think that whilst the work of WaSP in getting browser makers and designers to adopt standards has been powerful, as advocates we should shift our emphasis to promoting standards to the industry companies.

    Too many times to I hear, “The client doesn’t even know that their site is accessible or built to web-standards”. Clients drive our industry and making ‘them’ aware of web-standards is a key part of moving forward.

    (Forgive the ramble ;))

  3. The battles worth fighting — of any sort — tend to be long, dominated more by frustrations and complications than breakthroughs.

    I like your steadfastness, Molly.

  4. This thought has been on my mind for some time – advocating web standards is an important issue, but I think there are just as many other deserving issues to advocate (including the importance of the Web as a whole). I hope that this post and Simon’s recent one mean that the WaSP will be broadening its horizons and looking at issues beyond simple web standards; either way, I’m glad the WaSP is around and that there are dedicated individuals pushing the standards envelope!

  5. The heart of standards based design is that it benefits everyone – designers, developers, hosts, businesses, and users. If all the talk is correct we have a couple of years to perfect methods of standardized design in basically two browsers IE and the rest. That makes this clearly the time to set a path for the future and to press on. Microsoft embraced standards when it suited their needs and they will continue to do so if it continues to serve them. We are the only ones that can give them a reason. We just have to be persistent in our efforts, stick together, and grow. I can understand the frustrations of some, but I would encourage them to continue the push. We need to sell the benefits and not get so caught up in the rightousness of standards that we cut off our nose to spite our face. Ignore the bad apples that hold us back. Those that have championed the cause need to be encouraged to continue as it starts to take hold.

  6. Web standards are a good thing. The way some people have gone about advocating standards has been a immense turn off. This is mostly do to many self appointed disciples of the cause. Many of these people lurk on discussion list waiting to pummel anyone who has a simple question about standards. There are a couple of WaSP member that are no different, they go about standards with brute force. Luckily for WaSP there are only a couple.

    Another problem is the shear frustration of dealing with IE. Many of todays designer seem to think you can make pixel perfect cross browser web sites. Those of us that have been around for a long time, know better. These designers still try using every hack imaginable, and when they fail, many blame it on standards for not being able to achieve this pixel perfect pipe dream.

    Yet another problem, the misconception that standards equals css, xhtml, and square boxy design. This is far from the truth, but alot of this can blamed on present day gurus. Who’s web sites looks like boxes stuck in the middle of a page. It is easier to design that way, you do not have to deal with the deficiencies of IE.

    A new way does need to be found to get the message out.

  7. Molly, I don’t know how much I like “best practices” as a term for it, but I agree wholeheartedly with both you and Simon that discussion of Web design needs to broaden to more than just specifications and validation. Adherence to standards is an important part of good design and deserving of a lot of attention, but there’s more to life than the validator.

    Gary, if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then I agree. I’ve been following the sites of a lot of “gurus” for a while now, trying to learn what I can from them, and I find that I gravitate more toward those who follow the (alleged) advice of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” That’s one reason why I like the CSS Zen Garden so much… it’s a beautiful example of good evangelism.

  8. I’ve learned virtually all I know about web standards by reading your books Molly. I’m not a ‘web professional’ by any means, in fact I’ve only just designed my first paid website, but you’ve convinced me wholeheartedly that standards are worth it. They make sense to me, and have so from day one.

    I try my best to implement them as strictly as I can in all my designs (though I have been guilty of using table layouts, I’m slowly transitioning to pure CSS ones) and I talk about standards to other people and encourage them to learn more about it.

    My first proof that CSS and web standards are worth it was when one client viewed the site I designed using their dial-up connection and were amazed by how fast it loaded and how good everything looked. Their old site had no design or layout to be seen, everything was centered down the middle with a miss-match of fonts and random images and no consistency of design or navigation from page to page. It loaded very slowly, and they had paid thousands of dollars to a ‘professional’ company for it! This convinced me that standards were the way to go, for amateurs and professionals alike.

    I say, don’t give up the fight! Rage against the dying of the light 😉

  9. Hang in there and keep punchin’ guys, if it were easy it wouldn’t be worth doing.

  10. I recently completed this survey: , I hope they care, I’m pretty sure they do :)

  11. For every burned out evangelist, there are 10 new appreciaters. I can’t imagine ever going back to any other way of building websites. I love making sure it validates 100%, learning new accessibility trick, and making sure everyone can view my designs properly, just because it gives me the peace of mind knowing that I’m contributing to the best invention of mankind – the web.

  12. not much to contribute to this already good discussion, other than saying that i’ve used the idea of selling the “best practices” concept for the last year or so, with good results. suits don’t care about xhtml/css/whatever (just the same way i wouldn’t listen to a building contractor going on about which type of nails he’s going to use to build me a patio). all they need to hear is “conforms to best practice standards”.

  13. Interesting post, Molly. The WaSP has done a great job, and I owe the last 3 years of my career to them. The reason that I’m leaving the industry and hanging up my evangelist hat is because I feel that the 80/20 rule has come into play. 80% of the people who will ever get it already do; and convincing the other 20% is more trouble than is necessary – they are the designers who, in five years time, will find it difficult to find work.

    Sure, hobbyists making geocities sites don’t get it, but that doesn’t matter; making a site to show your kids/ kittens off to other members of your family doesn’t need to validate and to be accessible, and current browsers in quirks mode continue to render those sites, which is great. I’d hate to see publishing on the web being the sole preserve of those with advanced css and xhtml skills.

  14. Yes. Matt Burris. Exactly.

    Web standards awareness *is* moving forward. Every new crop of people that come through my Building Websites course. Every new career changer that has to take it as part of their track. All of them leave coding in XHTML 1.0 Strict and CSS (with plenty of deprecation data for use in the projects that might require it). I’ve also found, as an educator, that standards-based coding is easier for new developers to learn. The rules are always consistent.

    It’s definitely growing. I meet more and more developers coming around to web standards each month. I run across very few that are ready to chuck ’em.

  15. You know what frustrates me about standards evangelism? It’s the blank looks I get where I work when I try to converse with some of the people of “higher technical intelligence” in Web and IT matters than I about adopting standards based design and coding. Obviously, a lot has to do with the fact that I work for a state government agency, but just the same, these folks seem to be extremely knowledgeable, and I would think they see the logic of the concept.

    Yet standards are the life blood of any bureaucratic government entity and either none of my superiors have read Molly or Jeffery or Eric or Dave or Doug or don’t take the standards they espouse seriously. But I think it’s the former and not the later. At least I hope so. The only way to make sure is continue to preach and teach for standards adoption.

    So Knowledge is not Wisdom, and IE is not Mozilla or Safari or Opera, but I can deal with that. And without someone and everyone out there “evangelizing” for standards or “Best Practice” for Web design and coding, then I’m going to be stuck with the frustrations of blank stares or “why do we need that?” from my boss and other superior intellects, which really is the big roadblock in my world.

    I’ll do my best here. You do yours out there. Deal?

    P.S. Without coming off as a apple-polishing sycophant, I’m with Jason above. If it wasn’t for some of the “evangelizing” Molly’s done over the years, I would not be doing what I’m doing today, and I wouldn’t have been introduced to some of the great techniques and information from the rest of the folks mentioned above.
    Thanks again!

  16. I’m not a web design profession but I’ve worked with quite a few – some who understand standards and others who think HTML has been replaced by Flash.

    I work in public relations so I often see clients grappling with their Web sites – how to move forward with basic design and implementation issues. True story – a company I work with has a site that was designed by the CEO’s wife on whatever the current M$-consumer-build your own Web site software is because that’s exactly how important they think having a compelling Web site that talks their customers is. And trust me, it looks as awful as you think. And believe me, they did meet with several design firms that tried to sell them on Standards Compliant Web Design….

    I think that moving towards a Best Practices model is not only a good idea, it’s the only thing that’s going to move standards forward. Best practices are clearly understood in the business world. Web design standards aren’t.

    If you are going to ‘evangelize,’ you need to speak their language. And make them understand it from a business perspective, not from some design point of view.

    Just my two cents and I hope it all makes sense.

  17. Bravo! Well said, Ms. Molly. You always have a way with words and getting the point across in a meaningful way. Thanks for mentioning the whole Atom / RSS deal as we know there has been plenty of talk and no decision as to what to do about it.

    Elitist, my foot. I think we have become diverse. Last I checked, I didn’t have elite tattooed on my rear. :)

  18. Possibly WaSP (unfortunate connotations in that name) is targeting the wrong group.
    Perhaps they should be targeting potential clients to raise awareness about how web standards can benefit their company.
    Perhaps they should be targeting W3C to make sure the standards are implementable and that a reference implementation and a validation suite is available for every tag before it is included in any standard. Let them get CSS1 working seamlessly before heading off into the aether.
    As a configuration manager I have wanted HTML for process documenation for a couple of decades now. When I first saw the HTML 4.0 specification I felt that is was the biggest backward step ever. Not because it used CSS to replace formatting tags but because it did so incompletely and inconsistantly. Okay I dont really care much about glossy brochure pages I just want documents to render cleanly and reliably and an editor that doesn’t require a programmer to drive the code.
    Give me content support, any content support, … please.

  19. Good post Molly. Although I have been a vocal critic of some of the wacko evangelists out there, I certainly don’t view WaSP itself as an elitist organization. I may view certain people within it as elitist, overbearing, and downright arrogant (clearly none of the names you mentioned above, nor yourself), but that doesn’t change my opinion that the organization is a good thing.

    The problem as I see it is not that there is a backlash against standards. It is that there is a backlash against some of the ways people try to evangelize. Zeldman is a perfect example of a good evangelist. He is even-handed in his critiques. He recognizes the good and the bad and knows what weighting to give to each. He won’t point a gun to your head because you don’t have the power to encode your ampersands. Instead, he, along with Doug, Dave and others, focus on the bigger pictures issues, namely: Is this site usable, is it attractive, and does it follow best practices as closely as possible when it comes to code.

    THAT is a rational way to evangelize. Recognize the good for what it is, and address the ways to eliminate the bad. There is no backlash against this sort of sentiment. There is only backlash against people who choose not to see the bigger picture.

  20. Of course the fight is worth it but for now I cannot be bothered to labour over semantically correct websites which need hours of hacks to look any good in the major browsers, JUST so I can say they are compliant.

    My clients don’t give a damn, they want good looking websites that display fast and work well. They don’t know if I use div’s or tables

  21. the problem is that my clients think they *know* about good websites. they want the same techniques the are already familiar with.

    in this economy, when it’s simple to send the entire project to india in a heartbeat, if you don’t give the client what they want at the price they want 2 weeks early, then frankly, it’s going to bangalore.

    if you try to suggest standards, they’re mostly turned off. many are still stuck in the “web marketing” seminars they took in 1998; they just want more of the same for less and less money.

    if you say, look built with standards means they can see your website on a text browser on their cell phones, they reply: “nobody among my audience browses the web on their cell yet.”

    if you say, look built with standards mean you can easily update and maintain content, they say, “we already signed a maintenance contract and actually i want you to provide the same services but lower that cost by 20%.”

    if you say, look built with standards means accessible, they say “my audience isn’t blind. in fact, i’d like more flash but i won’t pay more than US$15 a hour for the programming.”

    with all due respect, many of the web superstars — not you molly — who advocate standards are the rare few who can charge what they want and do what they want.

    most of us have watched after the bubble burst as appreciation for our skills basically collapsed. frankly i think most designers and info architects are treated little better than secretaries nowadays.

    and finally, among designers, i have to say that unfortunately some of the wasp types do have an unbearable attitude.

    i once dared to ask a question of a promeninent wasp guy a couple of years ago about the challenges of implementing standards and was told that it was the negative attitudes and hack work of losers like myself who were to blame for all the problems on the web.

    i support web standards and have never understood the angry, blame-your-stupid-colleague attitude of some wasp members.

    i miss the old days when we were really a community that always shared techniques and felt and obligation to “give back.”

    i know you do too, molly. you’ve always operated that way in your teaching. . .

  22. I didn’t have time to read all the comments so if someone said this already, I apologize. You mention that if sites like yahoo and google break when/if MS releases a new browser, people will be very angry and this will push MS toward standards. While this may very well be true, what is stopping sites like yahoo and google to say to hell with web standards, they just alienated 90% of our customers? Evangelism becomes obvious at this point b/c without allowing normal folks to see the struggle of web developers it will just appear as though we are all incompetant.

    I think the path the w3c is taking with regard pushing for a more specific method of making websites (something closer to programming) is a good thing. We all can write xhtml just fine it is the fact that we don’t have to that makes things rough. Just my two cents. Good post.

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