Of Patterns and Power: Web Standards Then & Now

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.

You’re welcome: cutting the mustard then and now.

EVERY TIME I hear a young web developer cite the BBC’s forward-thinking practice of “cutting the mustard,” by which they mean testing a receiving web device for certain capabilities before serving content, I remember when my team and I at The Web Standards Project invented that very idea. It’s a million web years ago, by which I mean fourteenish human years ago, so nobody remembers but me and some other long toothed grayhairs, plus a few readers of the first edition of Designing With Web Standards. But I like you, so I will tell you the story.

Back then in those dark times, it was common practice for web developers to create four or more versions of the same website—one for each browser then in wide use. It was also a typical (and complementary) practice to send server-side queries to figure out which browser was about to access a site’s content, and then send the person using that browser to the site version that was configured for her browser’s particular quirks, proprietary tags, and standards compliance failings.

The practice was called “browser detection.” Nobody but some accessibility advocates had ever questioned it—and the go-go dot-com era had no time or care for those folks.

But we at The Web Standards Project turned everything on its head. We said browsers should support the same standards instead of competing to invent new tags and scripting languages. We said designers, developers, and content folks should create one site that was accessible to everyone. In a world like that, you wouldn’t need browser detection, because every browser and device that could read HTML would be able to feast on the meat of your site. (And you’d have more meat to share, because you’d spend your time creating content instead of crafting multiple versions of the same site.)

To hasten that world’s arrival, in 2001 we launched a browser upgrade campaign. Those who participated (example participant here) employed our code and content to send their users the message that relatively standards-compliant browsers were available for every platform, and inviting them to try one. Because if more people used relatively standards-compliant browsers, then we could urge more designers and developers to create their sites with standards (instead of quirks). And as more designers and developers did that, they’d bump against still-unsolved standards compliance conundrums, enabling us to persuade browser makers to improve their standards compliance in those specific areas. Bit by bit, stone by stone, this edifice we could, and would, erect.

The code core of the 2001 browser upgrade campaign was the first instance of capability detection in place of browser detection. Here’s how it worked. After creating a valid web page, you’d insert this script in the head of your document or somewhere in your global JavaScript file:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}

We even provided details for various flavors of markup. In HTML 4 or XHTML 1 Transitional documents, it looked like this:

<script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->
</script>

In STRICT documents, you’d either use a global .js file, or insert this:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->

You could also just as easily send visitors to an upgrade page on your own site:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.yourdomain.com/yourpage.html"
}

Non-WaSP members (at the time) J. David Eisenberg, Tantek Çelik, and Jim Heid contributed technical advice and moral support to the effort. WaSP sysadmin Steven Champeon, the inventor of progressive enhancement, made it all work—under protest, bless him. (Steve correctly believed that all web content should always be available to all people and devices; therefore, in principle, he disliked the upgrade campaign, even though its double purpose was to hasten the arrival of truly standards-compliant browsers and to change front-end design and development from a disrespected world of hacks to a sustainable and professional craft. ((See what I did there? I’m still respectfully arguing with Steve in my head.)))

Discovering rudimentary DOM awareness or its absence in this fashion was the first time web developers had tested for capabilities instead of chasing the dragon in a perpetual and futile attempt to test for every possible browser flavor and version number. It was the grandparent, if you will, of today’s “cutting the mustard.” And it is analogous as well to the sensible responsive design practice of setting breakpoints for the content, instead of trying to set appropriate breakpoints for every possible device out there (including all the ones that haven’t been invented yet).

Which reminds us that the whole point of web standards was and is forward compatibility—to create content that will work not only in yesterday’s and today’s browsers and devices, but in all the wonderful devices that have yet to be invented, and for all the people of the world. You’re welcome.

—CHICAGO, Westin Chicago River Hotel, 1 September 2015


Hat tip: John Morrison

No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart

Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.

Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.

Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

Boston Globe’s Responsive Redesign. Discuss.

AS EVERY WEB DESIGNER not living under a rock hopefully already knows, The Boston Globe has had a responsive redesign at the hands of some of today’s best designers and developers:

The spare Globe website has a responsive design that adapts to different window sizes, browsers and devices, and it has a built-in Instapaper-type feature that saves articles for reading off various devices on the subway. The overhaul has incorporated the talents of Boston design firms Filament Group, and Upstatement, as well as a large internal team, and pre-empts the need to build separate apps for each device.—New York Observer

As the first responsive redesign of a “real” website (i.e. a large, corporately financed, widely read newspaper site rather than some designer’s blog), the site has the potential to raise public awareness of this flexible, standards-based, multi-platform and user-focused web design approach, and deepen perceptions of its legitimacy, much as Mike Davidson’s standards-based redesign of ESPN.com in 2003 helped convince nonbelievers to take a second look at designing with web standards:

In a major step in the evolution of website design, the Boston Globe relaunched their site today using a Responsive Design approach. For a consistent experience across mobile and desktop browsers, they redesigned the site to add and remove columns to the layout based on the width of your browser window.

This marks the first major, high-traffic, content-heavy website to adopt a responsive design. The lead consultant behind the project is none other than Ethan Marcotte, the designer who wrote the book on responsive design. Much as ESPN changed the way we worked by being one of the first to launch a fully CSS driven site a decade ago, the Boston Globe’s redesign has the potential to completely alter the way we approach web design.—Beaconfire Wire

More work remains to be done. Some sections of the paper have not yet converted, and some site architecture has yet to be refreshed, so it is too early to call the overhaul a complete success. But it is clear that Ethan Marcotte, author of Responsive Web Design and creator of responsive design, together with the geniuses at Filament Group, Upstatement, and the Globe’s internal design/development team have managed to work beautifully together and to solve design problems some of us don’t even know exist.

Congratulations to the Globe for its vision and these designers and developers for their brilliant work.