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June 11, 2004

Catching web standards

Last night I went to a fantastic Web Standards Group meeting, where Peter Ottery discussed the Sydney Morning Herald's transition to XHTML and CSS (this is the number one media site in Australia with over 4 million unique visitor each month. Goes to show that this stuff works in the real world.). I came home to find my girlfriend (she doesn't like the term "partner"), who has been doing some very cool web related stuff, had written a lovely little tale.

So, for a change from my usual rants, read on.

I am not the usual sort of person who writes about web standards. I'm the kind of girl who'd rather write about a royal wedding. I'd rather write about my kitty. Until recently I was part of what might have been kindly termed the Clueless Majority. However, here I am to tell those of you who do not think it can happen, that it is possible to get a Luddite interested in web standards and have that affect their commercial decisions.

I am John Allsopp's girlfriend. To let you know how far I've come, this was about my level of knowledge when John and I started going out a couple of years ago:

In one of our first conversations I described myself to him as doing 'on-line stuff' for one of my firm's websites. This meant I cut and pasted text into our CMS. Not that I knew it was called a CMS, or if I had, what CMS stood for. I probably called it the web page thingy.

I had in my armoury an array of at least four HTML elements that I could use to jazz up our web pages. I could add a link, use <b> and <i>, and I knew what a <p> was.

When I started going out with John and was describing him to my friends who had not yet met him, I would vaguely refer to him as an 'internet billionaire'. I would then say something like "Have you heard of Cascading Spread (sic) Sheets? Yeah, Style Sheets, that's it! Well, he makes software which is something to do with that." For a while back there I actually thought John had invented CSS. Which, while I had no idea what it was, I knew would have been way cool.

Now, for all my many failings I am actually a pretty fast learner. So in the two years that we've been together I've managed to progress somewhat from my Clueless Majority beginnings.

A lot of my knowledge comes from being what I'll describe as a Developer's Widow. I'm sure there's a support group for us spouses of web developers out there - I must find out when they meet. We developers widows come home from our 9-5 jobs every day to find our partners tapping away at their computers, eager to show us the latest cool thing that their application can do, describing the political ins and outs of the blogosphere, ranting about the trolls on their mailing lists. We try to drag them out to buy groceries but before they go they simply must check their email for the 800 millionth time just in case something's happened. They marvel at those of us foolish enough to participate in the rat race. They ask what the weather was like outside. They are excited (though sometimes feel slightly confronted) to have a real person to talk to after a day in cyberspace.

In my post-work discussions with John I've managed to learn quite a lot. At first I just learned the buzz words so that I'd have some ability to comprehend what John was talking about. Otherwise John would have been to me as the teacher was to Charlie Brown in Peanuts "W3C blah blah blah, tables blah blah validation blah blah. Blah blah. I am not a zealot!"

For something to do in my spare time I did John's courses, which I have to say, were excellent. I started tooling around making my first website. I validated my code.

And something funny happened. I started to care about web standards. I realised that even though I am not some screen reader employing totally blind person, web standards affect me. I have a mixed astigmatism and my glasses are too dirty for me to wear at the moment. So when my favourite chicks websites set text in pixels instead of ems and I can't make it bigger it really bugs me. Lack of adherence to web standards is going to give me crows feet from squinting! This is bad.

I like to refer to my conversion as sexually transmitted web standards. Slightly more fun than the clap, but just as contagious.

Anyway, in my newfound enthusiasm, I managed to turn my boss, who knows even less than I did in the beginning, over to the idea of web standards. And - unlike John with me - I didn't even have to sleep with him. Here's how it happened.

As a bit of background I will say that I work for a firm that employs around 4,000 people. We have a huge website and most of the web development is done in-house. We are currently developing a new website specifically for our department. The developer I was working with initially built our site using tables, and when I pointed out that company policy was to use CSS, she got, shall we say, a little huffy. I knew I had to get my boss on side to influence her to do it over.

So I went in to him. "Boss", I said "you are not going to understand much of what I am about to say but you need to know that it's important and I will try to explain it to you as best I can."

He looked mildly alarmed.

I went on. "Imagine that you wanted me to send out a document on your behalf, and we have a lovely word processor there to use, but I created the document on a manual typewriter instead because I didn't know how to use the typewriter." He nodded. At this point I dropped the analogy "Well that's kind of what happened with our website. Someone who doesn't know how to use the new technology, CSS, has done it the old way, with tables. Now, it matters because people looking at our website on anything other than a computer - like on their mobile phone or a pda are going to have trouble understanding it."

I had him at pda. "No, that's no good!" he said "a lot of our audience will be on the road, they've got to be able to access it from anywhere."

"Not only that, but doing it with tables is going to cost us more money in bandwidth." At this point I launched into an elaborate explanation of bandwidth, which I will leave out of this narrative other than to say it involved complicated comparisons to crowded doorways, some Marcel Marceau impersonations, and left my boss blinking.

"AND" I moved in for the kill, "it's actually illegal in Australia to have this kind of website because we are discriminating against visually impaired people. People have been sued for this kind of stuff." Back came the expression of mild alarm. "PLUS" I drove it home, "if we want to make changes to the look of the site down the track we'll probably have to completely re-do the site, rather than simply being able to make a few simple cosmetic changes."

I paused for breath.

"So," Boss said, "this CSS. It costs more?"

"Well, only in that the developer may not know how to use the technology, and will have to be trained, so it may take her longer."

"Right. So you're saying if we use tables it's more expensive, potentially discriminatory and won't get to much of our audience. But it might take a little longer to do it with CSS. Is that right?" I nodded. "Well, I want the CSS! She's got to do it again!"

It was that simple. And you know what? The developer who huffed and puffed later confessed that she loved re-doing the site with CSS - saying it was so easy to work with. It took her a day to re-do it. My boss thinks he's a web guru. I feel smug. It was upside all-round.

Web standards are not only sexually transmitted. But if you believe in web standards and you're single, go on and talk about them to a cute member of the Clueless Majority. You may well have a convert, and you never know, you may just get lucky in the process.

June 11, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Great story. Very heartening to read especially after so other posts I've read today Thanks, it made my day.

BTW John, your girlfriend is a better writer...way cooler too..(kidding)...

Posted by: dez | Jun 11, 2004 6:41:15 PM

I have to agree with Dez there on all fronts (even the bertter writer bit) :)
An excellent read!

Posted by: Russ Weakley | Jun 11, 2004 9:31:37 PM

Can that boss be made into a standard ? (uh ??)

Posted by: Philippe | Jun 12, 2004 11:03:36 PM

So good to hear there are fellow Developer Widows out there! My husband Jeff, whose passion is his web development business, Accessibility 1st, pointed out your post, suggesting it would resound with much of my own experience...and it did! I don't know how many times I've walked in the door at the end of the day to be met not with a "Hello, how was your day?", but a 30 minute diatribe about the latest excitements/outrages/achievements or whatever about Web Standards, CSS and Accessibility - or anything else that has attracted his interest on the web that day.
I too, however, soon caught the passion about Web Standards and Accessibility, and now find myself speaking out about it at dinner parties with great gusto. Heck, I somehow even seem to find myself selling his development services at meetings where I am meant to be pitching my own business services.
But you're right, Web Standards and Accessibility are definitely worth being passionate about, so go for it guys! However, a developer widows support group is not a bad idea...

Posted by: Jane Lowder | Jun 13, 2004 10:48:59 PM

Agreeing with comments 1 & 2 that was a great read I have just recently started my own blog and was told by my brother to use CSS or die so I did, I also bought Stylemaster and find it makes the whole thing a lot more pleasurable. As to chatting someone up by talking of web standards that will probably work better on a guy than on a female clueless majorti (yes I made up a new word)

Posted by: metalhero | Jun 14, 2004 9:11:26 AM

Up until to the standards thingy, it was an interesting post, then it got funny and this standard nonesense kicked in. Let's go outside and cheer for standards, and tell everybody about standards. We got to use the standards, oh, no tables are not standards. You got to do everything in CSS. I could have appreciated some of this effort, if only John wasn't selling style master. But now it looks like standards is important because we need to sell more style master program? At least use the best techniques or something, rather than standards, cause tables are also standards, and telling otherwise is lying.

Posted by: Alex | Jun 20, 2004 6:41:59 PM

Alex,

this is your first and final warning.

Debate the subject at hand reasonably, rationally, and particularly without personal disparagement, or you will be blocked.

I have let you post a number of times accusing me of deceit and dishonesty. You've done it elsewhere, to others, and I have reason to believe you even use multiple names to do so.

No more? Is that clear?

There will be many who think I have already been too generous to you, "but I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd"

john

Posted by: John Allsopp | Jun 21, 2004 10:40:32 AM

When did the term "web standards" get redefined to mean only "new web standards" and/or "CSS?" I mean this quite seriously and not as a slam at anyone. Being rather new to web design I've been trying to learn how to do it well. In the process, it seems clear that tables and other old standards are quite commonly presented as conventional - even standard - techniques. CSS is typically referred to as the next big thing and by some it is what is meant by "web standards."

As a marketing effort, I think this is an effective tactic - changing the vocabulary to the point where something new is automatically defined as good while the older technique is implicitly defined as bad, but neither is actually true. From a technical view, I understand that CSS has some advantages over other techniques, but that isn't really the point.

Frankly, as someone who would be happy to produce effective pages in any common what you see is what you get web page software (Dreamweaver, Netobjects, whatever), what I long for most of all is a reference that would help me learn when to use which technology. What should I create a table? When should I use CSS? When should I use tables within tables? When should I use boxes versus columns in CSS? So long as I can figure out what to do to get my design onto the web, I really don't care what version of code the software writes to the html file (my apologies to all the true coders out there).

But, again, why is a common technique such as tables, which appears to be recognized in almost all web browsers, no longer considered "standard" while an apparently still less commonly used technique, CSS, considered "standard?"

Can someone help me on this?

-Danny

Posted by: Danny Weiss | Jul 2, 2004 11:29:00 AM

Danny,

very good questions. I'm working on an article title "what is all this standards stuff anyway?" that will cover these issues in detail. Stay tuned,

john

Posted by: John Allsopp | Jul 10, 2004 11:28:27 AM

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