Sunday 13 August 2006

Are We Failing the Web?

I am an optimist. I know the web is worthy of more than my limitations. It’s worthy of more than your limitations.

Yet I fail the web daily.

Shake this down, my friends:

  • Education. Education for web professionals is a premium, not an expected expense. Yet, education is about resources. If we don’t empower educators, we are all doomed.
  • Tools. We have a growing selection of tools, but we have to learn to master them. No web design tool at this time is a fix-it-all solution for us as designers or developers. I know designers and developers who are optimistic regarding the next generation of tools, which will come to us via Adobe and Microsoft. What do you think? How can Adobe and Microsoft help you better?
  • CSS. You know what, CSS is really fucking hard. I wish I could say this more gently. I can’t. I understand a lot about CSS. Some of the most difficult concepts I can explain to you. I can teach you CSS ’til your eyes are a different color but here’s something I can’t do: I can’t teach you to make beautiful sites. As much as I know technically doesn’t make me a designer.
  • Workflow. I think our problems workflow-wise are better solved by looking at iterative cycles. We have to take a broader look. The economic, social, and technical realities come into play. I like the word iterative. I think of doing something wonderful and helpful again and again. Now that feels good!

Have I failed the web? Have you?

A bigger question for my tribe and then some: Are we failing the web? What do you think? About browsers? CSS? The W3C? Yourselves?

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 20:33 | Comments (32)

Comments (32)

  1. Not sure if I am part of your tribe or a “then some” 🙂

    I don’t think any individual can fail the web.

    What can fail the web is a large corporation/government agency/interest group that tries to redefine the web for its own business model/agenda.

    Other than that, the web is the sum of everyone’s limitations — and everyone’s accomplishments.

    Not sure what resources you are referring to here. There is no better resource than the web (though signal to noise is a problem). Do you mean physical resources (computers, access to the web)? Or people resources (people that give a @#$ about quality)?

    Both Adobe and Microsoft are about making a profit — not helping the web as such. They have both been guilty of pushing “solutions” through proprietary technologies. They can help me by creating tools that really create standards friendly content. Things are getting better but do you know how to properly tag a PDF for accessibility?

    I don’t think CSS is hard. Doing certain things with CSS is hard. You just need to temper your expectations with your abilities. Expertise grows over time.

    I wouldn’t expect you to teach me how to build a beautiful website. Aesthetic design comes from the culmination of all that you have learnt and all you have experienced — both emotionally and practically — distilled down to a decision making process based on finding solutions to a given set of questions about the expectations of others. 🙂

    Again, I am a bit lost on the context here. Maybe I have just confused myself after that last smart-assed comment.

  2. I’m finding it hard to compose my thoughts on CSS into decent text at this time in the morning, but…

    Generally, I find that CSS is *really* good at some things. Falling off a log-type stuff. But for others, you have to jump though all kinds of hoops, scavenge code from lots of different examples, to get the same result as 30 seconds of table tweaking.

    There are some good tutorials out there, but CSS could really use some Gang-of-Four-style design patterns. (I just googled “css design patterns”, and this turned up: – so I’m not alone, at least!)

    Not only would it be a useful resource for designers and tool developers, but it’d help highlight some areas that might need attention in CSS. e.g. “These 3 patterns all have a footer that is always at the bottom of the page. Maybe we could improve CSS to make this easier.”

    Possibly not the best example in the world, but hopefully you get the gist.

  3. Let’s celebrate the web instead

  4. Are we failing the web?

    No, not outright failing it…there’s always room for improvement, but I don’t think we’re failing. I think we are at a very interesting time at the moment when we can still improve things for the web and that’s already starting to happen.

    (What do you think) About browsers?

    I’d still like to see more use of open-source browsers by the general public. IE7 to NOT be rolled out with Vista by default, and perhaps more variations of browsers for PC users (to mirror the selection available to Mac users).

    (What do you think) CSS?

    I think it’s great! I’ve found it to be easier to learn than I ever expected…but the hardest part is all these annoying bugs it encounters in the different browser types (oh, maybe my previous answer about browsers wasn’t so good after all!)
    I think CSS3 needs to address issues that CSS2 keeps bumping in to…but will it do this? Probably not.

    (What do you think) The W3C?

    I think they need to do something about their public image fast! The very technical end of some of their documentation is overwhelming for some new designers or anyone starting off trying to learn about markup, doctypes, css and that sort of thing. They definately need an image re-alignment if they want to be a really useful part of shaping the future of the web.

    (What do you think) Yourselves?

    Your past articles on ‘Professionalism’ is a great starting point…I think this is what we need more of in the web industry at large. Even a random check from a search of web design companies/consultancies in my local region in the UK shows that the general standard is not where it should be and the public are no wiser to this either! It all works on two fronts:
    1 – Get the web industry more professional
    2- Make the public aware that the web industry is profession-based.

    More of that needs to happen (dramatically) for things to improve for the web too.

  5. I agree, but maybe it’s not as simple as you suggest.

    Education: You’re right in that education is never given due respect and enough resources. Part of the trouble though, is the relentless pace of change.

    Tools: They are getting better and we know the next range will be good. MS Expressions Web Designer is pretty nice – it’s good to see tools that are CSS focused.

    CSS: Falls into two camps. The really simple and everything else, which as you rightly say, is fucking hard. I phoned my designer friend the other day about an overflow problem and she said “well, sometimes it’s just trial and error”. As paul says “scavanging” is very common. Interestingly though, despite the pace of change of everything else, CSS is fairly static; despite that, CSS driven sites seems few and far between. Why? Because the tools so far haven’t pushed us that way. When something is hard or time-consuming, you let the tool do it for you.

    Workflow: Those of us who have a long background of developing software know about iterative cycles. Write, test, deploy, user test. Repeat. The same goes for education; small changes can gather weight.


  6. Education? I spend a fair bit of time helping people out in forums, but you’re right, it needs to go further than that. We need to take our message to the schools and universities.

    Tools. In terms of CSS tools, they still need a lot of work (and people need to be willing to learn them). They’re great if you’re already an expert, but I think there’s quite a high barrier to entry. A new paradigm is needed perhaps.

    CSS: Yes, it’s complex, but it’s solving a complex problem. The tools for manipulating it need to improve (on both sides of the equation – for both users and developers alike) and again, people need to be willing to learn.

    Workflow: I like iterative, too. I’m also a fan of revolutionary.

    Professional web-design isn’t easy. Nor is cross-platform programming, which is one of the few professions that must run into the same issues that we do. Imagine trying to make your software run on Windows, Mac, Linux and $deity knows what else. People need to accept that and stop seeing it as a soft option. I guess it comes back to that professionalism thing again.

  7. Nope.
    I see better and better sites every day.
    Often these are inspired by bloggers — like what’s her name? Molly something.

  8. We’re not failing the web, we support it all in our own way.
    The struggle might be in that same sentence; “our own way”.
    Is our own way good enough for the web?
    Should we all follow those rare guru’s like Tantek and mr. Zeldman?
    Maybe if we all start following one, and just one idea of the web we could build it into 1 web.
    But will this be good?
    I don’t think so, 1 web means everything will use exactly the same driving idea.
    No more special CSS or browser development will be needed.
    This will fail the web aswell.

    If you think we’re failing the net, ask your self how we could do a better job.
    Is it because the tools we can’t do it better?
    No, some people still use there Notepad to create wonderfull things.
    Is it the whole web 2.0 idea?
    Probably not, we’re working up to the standards.
    This almost ‘forces’ browsers and developers to follow us.

    Friendly Greetings,
    Martijn van der Ven

  9. CSS itself isn’t hard, or at least, it shouldn’t be. The way it’s currently implemented in browsers makes USING it extremely difficult. Some day, we’ll be able to use display: table, advanced layout and other tools that really will make things easier. Right now, we’re stuck with IE6 and its non-interoperable “quirks” (the nicest possible way I can put it). Those quirks are what make CSS difficult. Of CSS’s underlying principles, I think specificity is the hardest one for people to really understand, but that’s way easier than understanding the ins and outs of almost any other W3C recommendation.

    I think that browser makers deserve much more of the blame than we (the “authors”) do for any of the web’s “failings”. We’re just using the tools we’re given and doing the best we can to come up with consensus best practices and do our jobs. Its their job to give us better tools. Even the W3C is relatively blameless by comparison. There’s no use coming up with new standards (good or bad) if they’re not implemented. Standards are only worth anything when they’re implemented. Until we get interoperable implementations (we have them… wait for it), and people actually USE them, we’re stuck in failure-waiting-to-happen-land.

  10. I don’t know if CSS is that hard. It lets you do things a lot more easily than presentational markup ever did. Who doesn’t remember the unfathomable joy the first time they used the position property instead of using tables? Of course, there are browser annoyances, but those will be greatly reduced over the next few years as browsers improve.

    And you’re right, being a master of CSS won’t make you a good visual designer, but neither will being adept with tables and spacer gifs 🙂 No matter how powerful a styling language is, it can’t do the designing for you!

  11. The flux of really bad websites (launched by larger corporations) can sometimes make me feel as though we have failed the web. I take for granted the fact that not EVERYONE understands the web, standards, and usability. I find myself frustrated. Not as in a ‘failing’ frustrated, but simply frustrated that people don’t want to take the time to LEARN their trade. They want to let adobe and microsoft solve all of their problems, they don’t want to have to know CSS, HTML, or JavaScript. They just want to make websites that look good – disregarding EVERY other aspect to a website.

    Education is KEY. I have made it a point this year to read at least one book a month about something related to my field. Education in the school systems is tough. Too many are still WAY behind. This is where the curriculum struggles and as others have mentioned, the rapidly changing technology doesn’t slow down for anyone.

    I would agree that CSS is hard. It was much harder when I was just beginning and it frustrated me immensely. Now it is not as tough – some just require more thought that others to keep the markup lean. However, I understand that for someone just beginning that it is intimidating. BUT – the tough part is they learn the wrong methods. They learn to use CSS to style inline or spans and divs all over the place (which, to me, is no better than font tags all over the place). So – part of it with CSS is that its a learning curve. As professionals, we should be willing to learn our professional tools. Adobe and Microsoft will never be able to replace that.

  12. Regarding education:

    I’m not sure that there is a shortage of good, instructive resources about web standards and best practices on the web itself; although, as it’s commonly said, the W3C specs are absolutely atrocious reading for any working web developer who requires instruction and not verbosity. As well as providing the full-blown spec, the W3C really needs to do more in providing practical, real-life examples and demonstrations of the spec in effect. Related to this, I’d love to see one or two or perhaps a team of top web designers contribute to the design and content of these pages.

    Are educators being empowered? As long as the W3C doesn’t meet their practical needs, then no. But of course, educators themselves must want to learn. I have no idea if it has been done (so apologies if this suggestion is redundant), but I wonder if it would be a good idea for the W3C to assign a team in several countries to liase with various schools, colleges and universities, survey their current syllabuses/curricula and suggest improvements. I can well appreciate that this could be a mammoth undertaking, but perhaps at least some regular contact can be made with educational institutions to supply them with updated links to resources covering best practices.

    Does this sound unrealistic?

  13. No Molly, you haven’t failed the web. You are a living example of what makes the web such a beautiful and amazing place. Its quite debateable whether the W3C have failed the web, but when it comes to the commercial vendors – the IBM’s, the Microsofts, the Adobe’s – they have let the web down badly. Sometimes they realise it – when sparks like Brian Goldfarb, Chris Wilson flicker in the night. At least there’s a growing recognition that the web isn’t as right as it should be.

    I dream about the day big companies wake up and realise that the Web is dead, and the reason for that death is because there isn’t a clear transition between the mess we are in now (tag soup and non-semantic markup being the mess), and the overhyped Semantic Web. Hopefully one of two things will happen: the mess will suddenly find itself pushed off the web into the little nooks and crannies being replaced with structure – or semi structured – information. The other path is starting a brand new Web, clean and pure.

    But we have one heck of a clean up jobs on our hands just to prove that there’s even a benefit for structured content. Benefit enough that people would want their sites to reflect it. At the moment, we are kinda dragging organisations in kicking and screaming (well, that’s been my experience).

  14. I don’t think we are failing the web, we are just playing catch up as it evolves beyond anyone’s original ideas. The trouble with evolution is you can’t overly predict the pattern and as a result you are one beat behind it. The evolution is sometimes random and things are dropped whilst other seemingly originally useless things are implemented at the core. This is happening with the web. There does need to be a stock check at times rather than a never ending developing without taking time to overview. This is one problem that has happened lately – a great period of growth without checking and sorting wheat from chaff. That is what is needed now in my opinion. To stop so rapidly develop everything and sort the good from the bad.

  15. Failing? My car fails me molly not me my car. One can only do one’s best and be human and live and try harder next time.

    We need also to realise all this is running on 30 year old technology. If we were to build a new internet today, re: david clark I think it is, wouldn’t it be phishing proof, spam proof, kiddie porn proof. If we are in any way failing the web its by not cutting our losses now and getting something up which IS secure and relevant to our future needs.

    I’m of a mind to look at many of the big problems we face and wonder why they are so? Why can’t we rebuild from the ground up – we can spend billions bombing the bejesus out of hospitals in the middle east wot!

    I too am a bit disenchanted with the industry, and to be honest I don’t really want to be a web developer / designer nowdays because it seems to be a circular thing pulling me down. When I get a new project I’m starting to feel a bit ill lol… that’s not loving one’s work anymore.

    I just wish more people would stand back and ask those big questions.

  16. How does one fail when a task hasn’t been completed? How old is “Web Standards”? How old is “tables-structured HTML”? I agree with karmatose: it’s evolution; it’s progress. Yahoo supports microformats. Large albeit forward-thinking companies have gone to CSS-presentation. Web Standards must have some mainstream intrinsic merits since well-known SEO comapnies have gone to Web Standards and CSS-presentation. Web Standards has progressed. Slowly. But it has.

    Education is improving. Tools should get better. And, once tools are improved to a commonplace level of Front Page, everyone will take their education and tools and adopt web standards.

    CSS fundamentals are not difficult. Pixel-perfect design across platforms and browsers is. Still. All inventions of CSS layouts has gone static in CSS 2.1. CSS3 is a clever toy but it’s far from mainstream, is it. Bugs and hacks have mainstream attention.


    No. We are not failing. Sisyphus never did.

  17. Education – Yes, difficult to find good training, especially if you’re competent/advanced already. Then it ends up being conferences, and lots are not in the UK, and travel is costly.

    CSS – I think its hard, and a pain in the Ar$e. I mean CSS would be great it if followed the spec of CSS3 and every browser did the same thing. Waiting for everyone to update their browser and for Browsers to impliment specs is a pain too. IE7 autoupdate, well its going to be a pain, a real pain, but at least it will move people forward quicker.

    Tools – Dammit, what about a decent replacement to Homesite ! or continue developing/maintaining it. Is it too much to ask for a nice development environment that isn’t flooded with bells and whistles like dreamweaver. Just a professional code editing environment for css, javascript and xhtml. Oh and I mean on a PC, Macs already have some very nice tools.

    Failed the web –
    everyone – well its not easy, I think its come out surprisingly well so far, and its stumbling on different things from time to time, but I think it still being driven on by people who care, and people who believe it can be better and its worth the effort, for humanitarian reasons if nothing else.

    you? Pfft. With how hard you try, with so much you’ve commited your time, effort, body & soul! no, you’ve not failed it.

    me? Well, I’ve tried hard, I’ve had my bad decisions, and I’ve not tried as hard at other times. In all fairness and all humility (as molly well knows) though, I think I’ve not failed the web, i think I’ve made a positive difference. I know I’ve set a quiet example for a lot of people, who have followed it without knowing me. I’ve stood, well st in the corner with a white hat on, for i18n, for accessiblity, for standards and for developing the web.
    Molly, you said I should be proud of what I’ve achieved, so for at least another 30 seconds I’m going to allow myself a little pride in my work.

    Oh, finally, can we lynch the spammers and virus writers, if anyone has failed the web they have.

  18. I’ve just joined the Internet Professionals department at Washtenaw Community College. Our department’s goal is to educate and turn out top-notch web professionals.

  19. > CSS is really fucking hard.

    Geez, Molly! There goes my confidence.

    As a CSS n00b who is wading through your (excellent) “CSS for Designers” tutorial, I want to believe I can make layouts like the one you do in the video – but when I try it myself – I run into some kind of insane missing colon-instead-of-a-semi-colon typo needle in the haystack or it just doesn’t work. Or SOMETHING.
    Something very obscure and unforgiving.

    It takes a lot of practice. CSS is a hatchling beast. But for explaining it clearly, I think you do a better job of that than any other instructor I have come across.

    THANK YOU!!!

  20. CSS is hard?

    CSS might be hard for a designer coming from the days of tables and spacer gifs, but young people learning CSS fresh in college who have never designed sites with tables are able to look at CSS with a fresh perspective and pick it up rather quickly. It isn’t to say they don’t run into bugs like everyone else, but the future of CSS looks good, if we are willing to teach the next generation of designers.

  21. Humbly I do not wish to leave such an expansive comment as I wrote. Please refer to the following:

    Failure is Not an Option

    Keep up the good work (as it were).

  22. We’re not failing the web at all.

    This is still a brand-new industry in our world, compared to others. It’s evolving far more rapidly than others, which is good, but that doesn’t mean we should have absurdly high expectations for it (which is bad).

    It’s a gradual process, things are improving pretty much every day. Doesn’t mean we’re seeing massive changes every day but there’s no reason to worry or feel that we’re “failing the web” 🙂

    Also, you know very well about my plans to improve on the workflow for people, so hush 😉

  23. Pingback: I Have No Idea » Failure is Not an Option

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