IN “CONTENT Display Patterns” (which all front-end folk should read), Dan Mall points to a truth not unlike the one Ethan Marcotte shared last month on 24 ways. It is a truth as old as standards-based design: Construct your markup to properly support your content (not your design).
Modular/atomic design doesn’t change this truth, it just reinforces its wisdom. Flexbox and grid layout don’t change this truth, they just make it easier to do it better. HTML5 doesn’t change this truth, it just reminds us that the separation of structure from style came into existence for a reason. A reason that hasn’t changed. A reason that cannot change, because it is the core truth of the web, and is inextricably bound up with the promise of this medium.
Separating structure from style and behavior was the web standards movement’s prime revelation, and each generation of web designers discovers it anew. This separation is what makes our content as backward-compatible as it is forward-compatible (or “future-friendly,” if you prefer). It’s the key to re-use. The key to accessibility. The key to the new kinds of CMS systems we’re just beginning to dream up. It’s what makes our content as accessible to an ancient device as it will be to an unimagined future one.
Every time a leader in our field discovers, as if for the first time, the genius of this separation between style, presentation, and behavior, she is validating the brilliance of web forbears like Tim Berners-Lee, Håkon Wium Lie, and Bert Bos.
Every time a Dan or an Ethan (or a Sara or a Lea) writes a beautiful and insightful article like the two cited above, they are telling new web designers, and reminding experienced ones, that this separation of powers matters.
And they are plunging a stake into the increasingly slippery ground beneath us.
Why is it slippery? Because too many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.
As Maimonides, were he alive today, would tell us: he who excludes a single user destroys a universe. Web standards now and forever.
Toward a more inclusive web form
REGISTERING for school, paying bills, updating government documents—we conduct a significant part of our daily lives through web forms. So when simply typing in your name breaks a form, well, user experience, we have a problem. As our population continues to diversify, we need designs that accommodate a broader range of naming conventions. Aimee Gonzalez shows how cultural assumptions affect what we build on the web—and how fostering awareness and refining our processes can start to change that.
Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web
MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.
The two principles are:
Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.
“The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.
A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:
I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.
And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:
It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.
I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)
To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.
I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)
Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”
TAKE A LOOK in dev tools; maybe you don’t need a couple of dozen trackers on every page.
Chris Wilson on why Web vs. Native is the wrong question, and what web developers can do to maximize the web’s strengths instead of undercutting them by over-relying on heavy frameworks designed to emulate native apps.
Those eager to bash Hixie and the WHATWG are using the new spec as if it were a cudgel; “this is how you deal with Hixie and WHATWG” says Marc Drummond. I don’t think that’s productive. What is productive is the debate that this publication will (hopefully) foster.
“DESIGN GURU Jeffrey Zeldman, says while he likes Muse for its ease of creating layouts, it still doesn’t answer his plea for a better Internet. ‘Software can’t generate HTML that is search-engine friendly, accessibility-friendly, and portable between desktop and mobile,’ he says. ‘Only web design professionals who understand semantic markup, responsive and adaptive web layout, and mobile user interface can do that.’”
YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.
Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.
The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.
Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.
I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:
SOME IDEAS SEEM inevitable once they arrive. It’s impossible for me to conceive of the universe before rock and roll or to envision Christmas without Mr Dickens’s Carol, and it’s as tough for my kid to picture life before iPads. So too will the internet users and designers who come after us find it hard to believe we once served web content in boxy little hardwired layouts left over from the magical but inflexible world of print.
I remember when the change came. We were putting on An Event Apart, our design conference for people who make websites, and half the speakers at our 2009 Seattle show had tumbled to the magic of media queries. One after another, CSS wizards including Eric Meyer and Dan Cederholm presented the beginnings of an approach to designing content for a world where people were just as likely to be using smart, small-screen devices like iPhone and Android as they were traditional desktop browsers.
Toward the end of the second day, Ethan Marcotte took what the other speakers had shared and amped it to 11. Suddenly, we had moved from maybe to for sure, from possible to inevitable. Ethan even gave us a name for his new approach to web design.
That name appears on the cover of this book, and this book represents the culmination of two years of design research and application by Ethan and leading-edge design practitioners around the world. Armed with this brief book, you will have everything you need to re-imagine your web design universe and boldly go where none have gone before. Happy reading and designing!
Progressive enhancement: all you need to know is here
ONE GLORIOUS AFTERNOON in March, 2006, as a friend and I hurried past Austin’s Downtown Hilton Hotel to catch the next session of the SXSW Interactive Festival, a young stranger arrested our progress. With no introduction or preliminaries, he announced that he was available to speak at An Event Apart, a conference for web designers that Eric Meyer and I had launched three months previously. Turning to my companion with my best impression (which is none too good) of Mr Burns of “The Simpsons,” I asked, “Who is this brash young upstart, Smithers?”
The brash young upstart quickly became an essential colleague. In the months and years that followed, Aaron Gustafson created dazzling front- and back-end code for some of my agency’s most demanding clients. Just as importantly, he brilliantly tech-edited the second and third editions of Designing With Web Standards. The job largely consists of alerting Ethan Marcotte and me to the stuff we don’t know about web standards. I’ll let you think about that one. For five years now, Aaron has also been a tough but fair technical editor for A List Apart magazine, where he helps authors succeed while ensuring that they are truly innovative, that their methods are accessible and semantic, and (thanks to his near-encyclopedic knowledge) that they give all prior art its due. Moreover, Aaron has written seminal pieces for the magazine, and, yes, he has lectured at An Event Apart.
Given my experiences with the man and my admiration for his knowledge and abilities, I was thrilled when Aaron told me the premise of this book and began letting me look at chapters. This isn’t just another web design book. It’s an essential and missing piece of the canon. Our industry has long needed a compendium of best practices in adaptive, standards-based design. And with the rise of mobile, the recent significant improvements in desktop and phone browsers, and the new capabilities that come with HTML5, CSS3, and gestural interfaces, it is even more vital that we who make websites have a reliable resource that tells us how to take advantage of these new capabilities while creating content that works in browsers and devices of all sizes and widely differing capabilities. This book is that resource.
The convergence of these new elements and opportunities is encouraging web professionals to finally design for the web as it always should have been done. Adaptive design is the way, and nobody has a wider command than Aaron of the thinking and techniques required to do it well. In these pages you will find all that thinking and those methods. Never again will you lose a day debating how to do great web design (and create great code) that works for everyone. I plan to give this book to all my students, and to everyone I work with. I encourage you to do likewise. And now, enough preliminaries. Dive in, and enjoy!
O’REILLY AUTHOR, INTERVIEWER OF ROCK STARS, and longtime web and UX designer Jen Robbins (jenville.com, @jenville) is our guest in Episode No. 50 of The Big Web Show, to be recorded in front of a live internet audience on Thursday, June 2, at 12:30 PM Eastern via 5by5.tv/live.
Jen began designing for the web in May 1993 as the designer of O’Reilly Media’s “Global Network Navigator.” Since then, she’s written several books about web design, including Web Design in a Nutshell and Learning Web Design. She recently made the switch to mobile as the Senior Designer for O’Reilly Media’s new mobile publishing department. Her first app, “HTML 4 & 5 Complete Reference,” an adaptation of her HTML Pocket Reference book, is available in the App Store now.
The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) records live every Thursday. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!
Note that, for the time being, the shows are audio only. If you subscribed to the video feed in iTunes, you’ll need to switch to audio. Sorry about that!