Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Web Standards: it’s about quality, not compliance

June 1, 2007

In spite of the widespread acceptance of Web standards by a specific segment of the design and development community, hosts of professionals – those out there right now creating the Web – are working in direct opposition to these standards. A significant reason for why this is happening and how those not working with Web standards justify their activity boils down, I believe, to something regrettably simple: nomenclature.

So far as I can tell, “Web standards” and “standards compliancy” are exactly the wrong names and terminology for the worthy ideals and purposes that these terms embody. The Web standards movement faces widespread resistance and apathy, in part, for the most ridiculous of reasons. These reasons are unnecessarily supported by poorly chosen terminology and how the message is being communicated.

This is unfortunate, because when you examine the fullness of the technical and experiential results of crafting websites and web applications according to Web standards, and compare the results with efforts not crafted according to these standards, what you’re confronted with is a stark contrast in what really matters: quality. It is the idea of quality, not standardization, which provides the compelling argument for the Web Standards Project and for the W3C. It is unfortunate, however, that they’re not effectively seizing on this important fact and are not appropriately crafting their message for the intended audience. Regardless of what WaSP and W3C are putting out into the community, the proper argument is not being heard and the message is not nearly as compelling as it needs to be.

The Web is not just some frivolous vehicle for entertainment and virtual community. Going forward, it’s going to be a vital aspect of human endeavor and an important lynchpin in affecting the human condition.

It is not going off on a tangent to also observe that the fundamental structure and approach exemplified by poorly crafted websites and applications perverts certain foundational elements of the Internet environment; namely, search engines. For unfortunate but understandable reasons, there are too many who view search engines as little more than obstacles or instruments of commerce – something to be exploited and mislead for selfish or competitive purposes.

To conceive of search engines only in this way is to ignore or distort the actual, useful, incredibly necessary purpose of search engines: to index and catalog a vast amount of information, in the proper context, so that it can later be found and accessed according to some fundamentally sound, standardized models. It is irresponsible to hinder this worthy task or to disrupt the related, necessary standards.

You might wonder why I mention these two seemingly unrelated issues at the start of this article. Well, issues of high quality Web craft and those of search engine function and purpose are interrelated. How they’re related is central to the proper context for championing good practices on both fronts. For when characteristics of Web design and development quality are mischaracterized or when search engine optimizing/indexing purpose is perverted or improperly approached, the fabric of the Internet is damaged. All Web professionals need to learn to recognize the real reasons for adopting what are called Web standards, and they need to learn to think about the related concepts in the proper context; not for the sake of standards, but for the sake of quality.

This is where we’re losing the battle for the adoption of Web standards. The argument is centered on standards rather than quality. The Web is not just some frivolous vehicle for entertainment and virtual community. Going forward, it’s going to be a vital aspect of human endeavor and an important lynchpin in affecting the human condition. What we’re making today is what we’re delivering to those who come after us. If we’re irresponsible in our approach and concepts we will fail ourselves and our decendents in ways we may scarcely imagine right now.

Therefore, our arguments in favor of these things that constitute Web standards must be characterized according to the more real and more compelling reasons involved. Else we stay mired in issues of argumentative semantics and imbedded in protracted conflicts of misrepresented interest.

Web Craft Quality

It is a simple and easily demonstrated fact that poorly crafted websites and applications, while they may be aesthetically pleasing and function well under certain narrowly defined contexts, crumble in all manner of horrible ways when confronted with the broad context of different accessing technologies and differing human preferences and practices.

Too many fail to grasp the relevant point: it is not “eyes” that access websites and online applications; it is unpredictable human beings of varying abilities, technologies of varying platforms, and important indexing engines that access these things. So websites and online applications must be conceived and built in accordance with what works best in this broad context – and in accordance with the idea that it’s not okay to build things that easily break due to low quality construction.

So how about we redefine the case for Web standards for what it really is: the case for Web craft quality.

Imagine that you’ve purchased a new pair of running shoes. They look great and fit your feet perfectly. They seem to have the right combination of cushion and sturdy construction. Then you put them on and go for a run through the park early one morning, only to discover that they begin to deteriorate when they get wet from the dew on the grass.

See, the person who designed and built these shoes never intended for you to run in the rain or on dewy grass. But he neglected to tell anyone, thinking it to be unimportant because the shoes look great and function perfectly in average conditions. Is this okay? Absolutely not. Is the relevant issue one of standards for shoemaking? No, it’s an issue of quality.

But the shoemaker’s justification is the same employed by many of those who refuse to adopt Web standards in their work. In their minds, they’re refusing to adopt arbitrary standards as prescribed by some busybody organization. And when “standards” are the core component in the effort to convince them to adopt Web standards, their position is automatically reinforced and they’re compelled to further fortify it. But the real issue at hand is one of quality, not standards or compliance. Let quality be the core component of the effort to convince people to adopt Web standards and defenses begin to crumble.

If your product is not suitable for the breadth of likely or inevitable contexts and environments in which it is to be used, it is a poor quality product. If your product circumvents or perverts the efforts of others to utilize or access the contents of the product, yours is a low quality product. The argument is as accurate and irrefutable as it is compelling.

This same argument finds firmer footing outside of the Web designer and developer community. The general public does not care about Web standards any more than it cares about the minutiae of standards for aircraft hydraulics. The airplane just better damn work right. So the general public does care about product quality, and companies or craftspeople that are known to produce low quality products are not well regarded, and for good reason. Standards are for organizations to sort out amongst themselves for their own edification. Quality is what matters in the end. Quality is what matters to those who have to interact with products.

But surely the argument for standards is still an important element in describing the necessity for quality production. The one thing needed by those who would craft assistive technologies and who would index and catalog information, in order to be maximally effective is…, wait for it… standardization. But the idea of standardization is received far better when it is characterized as a resultant benefit rather than the reason for adoption.

So how about we redefine the case for Web standards for what it really is: the case for Web craft quality. Standards will certainly follow, but this concept cannot serve effectively as the poster child for this important effort. To paraphrase a catch-phrase: it’s the quality, stupid.

Thus far, the crafting of WaSP’s and the W3C’s message has been poorly accomplished. The message needs work and we’re just the folks to help. There are many designers and developers in our community who are compelled to be activists for social causes; green causes, animal rights causes…, all manner of causes that are deemed worthy and which need a clearly communicated message. After all, design is about communicating.

So if you want to become involved in something worthwhile and whose purpose has been woefully mischaracterized, become a Web quality activist and lend some of that communication skill to this worthy social cause. And don’t just preach to the choir; craft a message that is appetizing to more than just open-minded, bohemian designer types. Cite qualitative factors; talk about the real reason for doing good work. Professionalism and quality products are hard to argue against.