Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor

Launched today (my birthday), Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a $49.99 extension for Adobe Dreamweaver. It includes two major interfaces:

  1. The Web Validator validates your HTML and CSS and verifies the proper use of microformats, including hCard and hCalendar, for single pages or entire websites.
  2. The Web Standards Advisor checks for subtleties of standards compliance in nine different areas—everything from structural use of headings to proper ID, class, and <div> element use. Nonstandard practices are flagged and reported in the Dreamweaver Results panel for quick code correction. A full report with more details and suggested fixes is also generated.

How did it get here?

Over coffee in New Orleans last year, WebAssist’s Joseph Lowery and I chatted about a fantasy product that could improve the markup of even the most experienced front-end coder. The benefits were obvious. After all, better markup means lighter, faster web pages whose content is easier for search engines (and thus people) to find.

The product would look over your shoulder and notice things.

  • If you were using a class when you might be better off using an ID (and vice-versa), the fantasy product would cough gently and tell you.
  • If you skipped a heading level—say, if you had h4s and h6s but no h5 on your site—it would discreetly whisper in your ear.
  • If, on an old site (or sadly, on a new one) you used class names that were visual instead of semantic (i.e. class=”big_yellow_box” instead of class=”additional_info”), it would quietly let you know about it.

To me, this was a fantasy product, because so many of these things seem to require human judgement. I didn’t think programmers could develop algorithms capable of simulating that level of judgement. Joseph Lowery took my doubt as a challenge.

A year of collaborative back-and-forth later, Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a working 1.0 product.

How good is it?

I ran Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor on the four-year-old markup of this site’s current blog layout, and discovered embarrassing mistakes that don’t show up on validators. (I haven’t fixed those mistakes yet, by the way. For fun, or extra credit, see if you can figure out what they are.)

Then I ran the product on several new sites coded by some of the best CSS and markup people in the business, and found a surprising quantity of mistakes there, as well. Nobody’s perfect—not even the best coders.

Some of the errors the product found were mere errors of style, but were still worth correcting, if only to set a good example for those who view source on your sites. Other errors the product revealed could affect how easy it is for people to find a site’s content. Fixing such errors is a business necessity.

Some issues are purely judgement calls: is it okay to sometimes use <b> instead of <strong>? When is it perfectly fine to skip a heading level? To address those subtleties, there is a wiki where such topics are discussed, and “error” messages link to the relevant topics in the wiki, so you can click straight through to the online discussion.

Who is it for?

  • Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor will help beginning and intermediate coders write smarter, more compliant markup that makes site content easier to find.
  • It will help coders at any level (including expert) who use Dreamweaver as a primary web development tool, and who know about web standards but don’t spend all day thinking about them. Now you don’t have to—and you can still create leaner sites that work for more people, and whose content is easier to find.
  • Site owners might run the product on their site, to see how compliant it is and how findable their markup allows their content to be.

But what about many people reading this website, who write their XHTML and CSS by hand, and who rightfully consider themselves standardistas? That’s right. What about you?

You aren’t the primary customer, but you might find the product useful. I’m a hand-coder and always will be. I own Dreamweaver mainly because it comes with Adobe CS3 and CS4. Installing Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a no-brainer, and running it on my work (or that of people working for me) turns up enough surprises to more than justify the time and expense.

Plus, after you use it to clean up your own, small, embarrassing errors of markup, you can run it on your heroes’ websites and revel in their mere mortality.

Disclosing the obvious

Jeffrey Zeldman's Web Standards Advisor

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a product. It is not a free product. At $49.99, it’s not terribly expensive, but it’s not free.

I have a small financial interest and a gigantic brand interest in it. If it’s a weak product, it reflects badly on me, my agency, my conference, my books, and possibly even the very category of web standards. I therefore have a huge stake in making sure it’s a good product—that it’s easy to use, meets real needs now, and evolves in response to customer feedback and the slow but steady evolution of standards. (XHTML 2? HTML 5? More microformats? Stay tuned.)

[tags]webstandards, advisor, dreamweaver, extension, markup, helper, assistant, webassist, zeldman[/tags]

An Event Apart redesigned

There’s a new aneventapart.com in town, featuring a 2009 schedule and a reformulated design. I designed the new site and Eric Meyer coded. (Validation freaks, only validator.nu is up to the task of recognizing the HTML 5 DOCTYPE used and validating against it; the validator.w3.org and htmlhelp.com validators can’t do this yet. Eric chose HTML 5 because it permits any element to be an HREF, and this empowered him to solve complex layout problems with simple, semantic markup. Eric, I know, will have loads more to say about this.)

Family branding concerns drove the previous design. Quite simply, the original An Event Apart site launched simultaneously with the 2005 redesign of A List Apart. Jason Santa Maria‘s stripped-down visual rethink was perfect for the magazine and is imitated, written about, and stolen outright to this day. It was a great design for our web magazine because it was created in response to the magazine’s content. It didn’t work as well for the conference because its design wasn’t driven by the kind of content a conference site publishes. But it was the right conference design for 2005 because the goal at that time was to create a strong brand uniting the long-running web design magazine with the new web design conference that sprang from it.

New goals for a new environment

In 2009, it’s less important to bolt the conference to the magazine by using the same layout for both: by now, most people who attend or have thought about attending An Event Apart know it is the A List Apart web design conference. What’s important in 2009 is to provide plenty of information about the show, since decisions about conference-going are being made in a financially (and psychologically) constricted environment. In 2005, it was enough to say “A List Apart has a conference.” Today more is needed. Today you need plenty of content to explain to the person who controls the purse strings just what you will learn and why a different conference wouldn’t be the same or “just as good.”

The redesign therefore began with a content strategy. The new design and new architecture fell out of that.

Action photos and high contrast

The other thing I went for—again, in conscious opposition to the beautifully understated previous design—was impact. I wanted this design to feel big and spacious (even on an iPhone’s screen) and to wow you with, for lack of a better word, a sense of eventfulness. And I think the big beautiful location images and the unafraid use of high contrast help achieve that.

Reinforcing the high contrast and helping to paint an event-focused picture, wherever possible I used action shots of our amazing speakers holding forth from the stage, rather than the more typical friendly backyard amateur head shot used on every other conference site (including the previous version of ours). I wanted to create excitement about the presentations these brilliant people will be making, and live action stage photos seemed like the way to do that. After all, if I’m going to see Elvis Costello perform, I want to see a picture of him onstage with his guitar—not a friendly down-to-earth shot of him taking out the garbage or hugging his nephews.

So that’s a quick overview of the redesign. The store is now open for all four shows and the complete Seattle show schedule is available for your viewing pleasure. I hope to see some of you in 2009 at our intensely educational two-day conference for people who make websites.

[tags]aneventapart, design, redesign, relaunch, webdesign, conference, events, HTML5, ericmeyer, zeldman[/tags]

Making Modular Layout Systems

Jason Santa Maria details his approach to building a modular system for laying out pages with CSS—“a handy way to predictably tame content without becoming predictable.” Deep tricks of the trade revealed!

[tags]modular, layout, system, css, design, webdesign, jasonsantamaria[/tags]

Workers of the web!

Evolt.org, the amazing resource for web developers, turned 10 on Sunday, 14 December. Well done!

Editor Erika Meyer and her staff want to know how they can better serve their community. To find out, they’ve created a survey. Reader responses will help shape the road map for Evolt’s future development. Take the survey and help shape the next decade of Evolt.

[tags]evolt, webdesign, development, 10years[/tags]

20 signs you don’t want that web design project

Most clients are good clients, and some clients are great clients. But some jobs are just never going to work out well. Herewith, a few indicators that a project may be headed to the toilet. Guarantee: All incidents taken from life.

  1. Client asks who designed your website.
  2. Client shows you around the factory, introducing you to all his employees. Then, behind closed doors, tells you: “If you do a bad job with this website, I’m going to have to let these people go.”
  3. Client takes six months to respond to your proposal, but doesn’t change his due date.
  4. At beginning of get-acquainted meeting, client informs you that someone has just bought his company.
  5. Client, who manufactures Russian nesting dolls, demands to know how many Russian nesting doll sites you have designed.
  6. At meeting to which you have traveled at your own expense, client informs you that he doesn’t have a budget per se, but is open to “trading services.”
  7. Client can’t articulate a single desired user goal. He also can’t articulate a business strategy, an online strategy, a reason for the site’s existence, or a goal or metric for improving the website. In spite of all that, client has designed his own heavily detailed wireframes.
  8. As get-acquainted meeting is about to wrap, the guy at the end of the table, who has been quiet for an hour and 55 minutes, suddenly opens his mouth.
  9. Leaning forward intensely, client tells you he knows his current site “sucks” and admits quite frankly that he doesn’t know what to do about it. He asks how you would approach such a problem. As you begin to speak, he starts flipping through messages on his Blackberry.
  10. Client announces that he is a “vision guy,” and will not be involved in the “minutia” of designing the website. He announces that his employee, the client contact, will be “fully empowered” to approve each deliverable.
  11. On the eve of delivery, the previously uninvolved “vision guy” sends drawings of his idea of what the web layout should look like. These drawings have nothing to do with the user research you conducted, nor with the approved recommendations, nor with the approved wireframes, nor with the approved final design, nor with the approved final additional page layouts, nor with the approved HTML templates that you are now integrating into the CMS.
  12. Your favorite client, for whom you have done fine work in the past, gets a new boss.
  13. The client wants web 2.0 features but cannot articulate a business strategy or user goal.
  14. Shortly before you ship, the company fires your client. An overwhelmed assistant takes the delivery. The new site never launches. Two years later, a new person in your old client’s job emails you to invite you to redesign the site.
  15. Client sends a 40-page RFP, including committee-approved flow diagrams created in Microsoft Art.
  16. Client tells you he has conducted a usability study with his wife.
  17. Client begins first meeting by making a big show of telling you that you are the expert. You are in charge, he says: he will defer to you in all things, because you understand the web and he does not. (Trust your uncle Jeffrey: this man will micromanage every hair on the project’s head.)
  18. As approved, stripped-down “social networking web application” site is about to ship, a previously uninvolved marketing guy starts telling you, your client, and your client’s boss that the minimalist look “doesn’t knock me out.” A discussion of what the site’s 18-year-old users want, backed by research, does not dent the determination of the 52-year-old marketing guy to demand a rethink of the approved design to be more appealing to his aesthetic sensibility.
  19. While back-end work is finishing, client rethinks the architecture.
  20. Client wants the best. Once you tell him what the best costs, he asks if you can scale back. You craft a scaled-back proposal, but, without disclosing a budget or even hinting at what might be viable for him, the client asks if you can scale it down further. After you’ve put 40 hours into back-and-forth negotiation, client asks if you can’t design just the home page in Photoshop.

[tags]client services, client management, clients, agency, agencies, freelance, work, working, design, designing, designing life[/tags]

ALA No. 273: trad vs. agile

Issue No. 273 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, looks at web design from both sides now:

Flexible Fuel: Educating the Client on IA

by KEITH LAFERRIERE

IA is about selling ideas effectively, designing with accuracy, and working with complex interactivity to guide different types of customers through website experiences. The more your client knows about IA’s processes and deliverables, the likelier the project is to succeed.

Getting Real About Agile Design

by CENNYDD BOWLES

Agile development was made for tough economic times, but does not fit comfortably into the research-heavy, iteration-focused process designers trust to deliver user- and brand-based sites. How can we update our thinking and methods to take advantage of what agile offers?

About the magazine

A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices. Issue No. 273 was edited by Krista Stevens with Erin Kissane and Carolyn Wood; produced by Erin Lynch; art-directed by Jason Santa Maria; illustrated by Kevin Cornell; technical-edited by Aaron Gustafson, Ethan Marcotte, Daniel Mall, and Eric Meyer; and published by Happy Cog.

[tags]agiledevelopment, agiledesign, informationarchitecture, scope, scopecreep, managing, client, expectations, alistapart, forpeoplewhomakewebsites[/tags]

ALA 272: Accessible web video, better 404

In Issue No. 272 of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

This is How the Web Gets Regulated

by JOE CLARK

As in finance, so on the web: self-regulation has failed. Nearly ten years after specifications first required it, video captioning can barely be said to exist on the web. The big players, while swollen with self-congratulation, are technically incompetent, and nobody else is even trying. So what will it take to support the human and legal rights of hearing impaired web users? It just might take the law, says Joe Clark.

A More Useful 404

by DEAN FRICKEY

When broken links frustrate your site’s visitors, a typical 404 page explains what went wrong and provides links that may relate to the visitor’s quest. That’s good, but now you can do better. With Dean Frickey’s custom 404, when something’s amiss, pertinent information is sent not only to the visitor, but to the developer—so that, in many cases, the problem can be fixed! A better 404 means never having to say you’re sorry.

[tags]alistapart, closedcaptioning, captioning, captions, webvideo, video, accessible, accessibility, 404, error, reporting, usability, programming, design, webdesign, webdevelopment[/tags]

Is your (website’s) underwear showing?

It’s astounding how many web designers forget to specify a background color on their site. They’ll spend months iterating wireframes and design comps; write CSS hacks for browsers predating this century; test their work on everything from Blackberries to old Macs running System 7; and of course they’ll validate their markup and style sheets. But after all that, they’ll forget to apply a background color to their site, and they won’t think to check for it.

To see it in action, set your browser’s default background color to magenta, or something equally piquant. Then visit websites. You may be surprised.

If you find a site with its underwear showing, please share it in the new Underwear showing (web design) group on Flickr.

[tags]design, webdesign, underwear, showing, color, backgroundcolor, interface, interfacedesign, errors[/tags]

ALA 271: words and scripts that work

The fundamental things apply in Issue no. 271 of A List Apart, for people who make websites. Erin Kissane tells how non-writers (i.e. the people who write most of the stuff on the web) can make every word count in “Writing Content that Works for a Living.” And Aaron Gustafson wraps our introductory series on progressive enhancement with a look at the thinking behind (and best practices for executing) “Progressive Enhancement with JavaScript.”

[tags]alistapart, progressiveenhancement, writing, fortheweb[/tags]

ALA No. 270: progressive enhancement 2; work at home

In Issue No. 270 of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Progressive Enhancement with CSS

by AARON GUSTAFSON

Organize multiple style sheets to simplify the creation of environmentally appropriate visual experiences. Support older browsers while keeping your CSS hack-free. Use generated content to provide visual enhancements, and seize the power of advanced selectors to create wondrous (or amusing) effects. Part two of a series.

Working From Home: The Readers Respond

by OUR GENTLE READERS

We asked. Our gentle readers answered. In A List Apart No. 263 we inquired how you walk the blurry line when you work from home. Here are your secrets—how to balance work and family, maintain energy and focus, get things done, and above all, how to remember the love.

[tags]progressiveenhancement, workathome, webdesign, webdevelopment, alistapart[/tags]