Thursday 12 August 2004

keep asking the same questions

AS CONTEMPORARY WEB professionals, I believe we have a duty to re-hash standards arguments. Revisiting these issues might seem overkill or inappropriate, but each time we do it, we enlighten a new audience.

Zeldman writes:

I’ve seen people debate whether “leading” web designers are all using the h1 header element exactly the same way on their personal sites. The question isn’t meaningless but it feels small and slightly beside the point. Likewise, the same ancient arguments about XHTML keep slopping to the surface. Don’t we have bigger water animals to sauté?

In his post, Zeldman discusses the fact that he’s focused away from speaking and writing to design these days, and points out how standards is an aspect of design rather than the whole potato, which is a point I heartily agree with.

However, there is grave danger in stopping these conversations. Those of us “leading” the industry and standards argument are decidedly elitist. We think that because we get it, everyone does. Well, the reality is that it’s not top-tier, well-known designers who have already been exposed to these concepts doing the majority of the work on the Web these days.

Did you know that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has 600 people associated with its Web workgroup? At a keynote I did for their conference this week, the vast majority of the 150 or so representatives from that group had never seen or heard of pure CSS design. This, despite the fact that they are hard-working, knowledgeable folks who have to pay attention to Section 508 concerns.

Word to my sometimes isolated colleagues: The people doing the mass document management at this time need to see these discussions, read these concerns, and be exposed to standards because for many of them, it’s the first time.

I say keep asking the same questions. This of course does not preclude the asking of new ones. But to name these issues “noise” insults the hard work of the masses who are building the Web now and simply strokes the privileged few who have the knowledge and experience to consider these questions old and in the way.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 15:45 | Comments (12)

Comments (12)

  1. Pingback: » and what of the consumer?

  2. …It’s kinda like, these arguments have been going on in an echo chamber for a long time. So what’s it going to take to bring them to the broader audience?

    I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of folks out there who can be bothered to break out of the WYSIWYG- and inertia-made shells within which they’ve worked for a long time, only to discover that the sort of techniques you’re pointing to are absurdly easy.

    But… how?

    (Yes, I know. It’s not all going to happen at once.)

  3. Molly, where do we draw the line between nitpicking and “questions”, though? I feel like some online discussions turn into bona fide quibbles that scare newcomers.

  4. He does have a point. Not that I am willing to stop the discussions on my weblog about things like the TITLE attribute, but it would be better if standards themselves were more promoted and discussions reached more people than just the ones reading /. and some other high profile weblogs. (The people who read this weblog already know the basics and therefore most weblogs are starting to talk about details, like hierarchy, why XHTML failed, et cetera.)

    I guess the only way people of larger companies hear from them is through conferences, not from the web. (Like you illustrated.)

  5. Heh. Tell me about it; I’m doing a css/ xhtml redesign for accessibility purposes, and my boss and his “technical god” both have “reservations” because “web sites are always laid out in tables”.

    Even though the site is huge, but pretty simple to restructure (2 days’ work to get a working prototype), they’ve not heard of any of the standards debate …

  6. Ben: It’s called “education”.

    Milan: I think so long as it doesn’t become personal people should nitpick as much as they want to. The minutia sometimes matters. I do agree that there will always be conversations that degrade to quibbles, it’s a side effect of human nature, and there’s just no stopping that :)

    Anne: The web sites do help in my experience, but I’m beginning to agree with what you’re touching on here – that it’s the F2F interaction that is most essential in terms of addressing newcomers to the world of web standards.

    One thing that keeps popping up in discussions is the idea that people get intimidated and overwhelmed by these debates. I can understand the concern there – it’s a fair one, but I also think it insults the intelligence of a lot of people. Bottom line? Web design is a competitive industry. To stay competitive, knowledge is paramount, and pursuit of that knowledge must be relentless on all of our parts. If we let such discussions get the better of us, how will we advance?

    Bruce: Yeah, I had someone write to me recently “is there some reason you don’t use tables on your site? Seems to work for everyone else” I was like HUH? There are some people who just won’t get it for whatever reason.

  7. I recently had a run-in with an employee of one of my clients. She came into the office where the company owner and I were discussing the current project (at his behest), and proceeded to tell me that I didn’t need to be using CSS for this Website – or for that matter PHP. The owner waited for a respons.

    I politely asked “Why not?” She explained that it was unnecessary, according to a guy she knows who knows a lot about stuff, and that it was causing problems printing the pages of the site for review.

    At this point, I talked enough about the process to educate the owner on the finer points of “What is CSS and why do I need it.” The young lady, meanwhile, was not convinced, and flounced out of the office.

    I guess my point is, if you take the time to teach someone, those who want to get it will, those who don’t won’t. And that’s the way it’s always been in any subject.

  8. I’ve been tracking the CSS argument on this site fow a while now.
    I have, for the past 6 years, been using FrontPage to develop my site. I’ve had the site up since 1993 and hand coded up until I started using FrontPage. Frankly, I’ve loved FrontPage. The code may be a bit bloated, but I got pages up fast and they look pretty good to me. I’ve always been focused on content over style anyway, so the look wasn’t my primary concern.
    Now that I’ve been reading Molly’s site for a few months, I have spent more and more time looking at CSS solutions. With Molly’s new book, I’ve been exploring that further. So, to put it simply, the fact that she is contantly bringing up CSS and standards does have an influence on some of us who read this site. While it may be some time before I move away from FrontPage back to a more code-centric application and a CSS backbone, if I do, it will be because of this site.

  9. I understand your point Molly, but I think you kind of missed his. Noise is not talking about standards. If it were, he’d be deriding his book and much of his work. His point is about the elitism you cite turning into extremism and fruitless battle’s of “right” versus “wrong”.

    The catch there, though, is that there are in fact ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ solutions at any given point in time. I think people have a hard time distinguishing between that perspective and the similar one that instead holds ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to be absolute rather than localized and temporary.

  10. I try to visit as many of the design and coding oriented sites Molly has listed down the right of her page here every day as I can. I’ve seen the kind of discussions Zeldman mentions and they can be annoyingly nit-picky at times and can and do often diverge from the original intent of the post or article, but I’m a grown-up and I think I can pick out the signal from the noise pretty well for myself. I’ve learned a great deal from some of these back and forth discussions too.

    As a Web Coder for a state government agency, I fall into exactly the category of Web professional Molly describes above. We coders here don’t have the advantage of working in dynamic design agencies on the front lines of the technology and market place. Most of us have learned to code on our own or were thrust into it by our jobs. Our management is by in large ignorant of the issues of standards/CSS, etc., and so we have to do our best to work within the narrow bureaucratic constraints of our jobs and the sometimes substandard and obsolete tools we’re given. As I learn more about these issues and techniques, thanks to books and Websites like Molly, Eric, Zeldman, Dan Cedarholm, et al, I’m trying to incorporate as much of this stuff as I can as I work each day. I’m slowly trying to educate my management as well.

    These Websites and the discussions on them are an incredible additional resource of knowledge for me that helps fill in some blanks spots or embellish on the techniques I learn from the books. Plus they often can be amusing, entertaining and lead me to new places and ways to think about things. But mostly I go for the knowledge that I am so greatful they give away free.

    So to Zeldman and the rest: I appreciate your efforts! And although I can understand your frustration at the situation sometimes, what you do is an INCREDABLE, AMAZING service to us and the cause. If it wasn’t for you all I’d never have learned about how to use CSS effectively and why standards are important. Please keep up the effort, my horizon as a coder is so much broader now because of it!


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