Tips for a standards martyr

Q: How does a spectacularly immense organisation go from tables and HTML 4 to web standards and XHTML strict without breaking a sweat?
A: They don’t.

A large company that shall go unnamed to which I have a particular affiliation has recently updated the standards to which all new websites will be developed. This is after having spent the last nine years using the same, table-based layout for 1000s of sites, mini-sites and single pages. Nearly half of this rubbish contains elaborate CSS hacks for IE 5. Imagine that.

The first, and potentially most difficult battle has been won: getting the support of management across the organisation and the resources to research and develop the new solution.

The second, and arguably most fun part of the task has been completed: you’ve created a flexible, standards-based template using a new brand or design that works in every browser you care about.

Now comes the dirty work.

The particular concoction of 100s of developers, a gigantic online catalogue and nine years of “internet time” has created a labyrinth of hacks, validation nightmares and enough <td>s to crash View Source. Resource-wise it would have been impossible to go through each and every page of HTML to upgrade the templates. We all know that this essentially means a rebuild and in some cases a redesign – not just dumping content into a few div tags.

So what do we do?

I’m not an expert in change management but I have played various roles in the evolution of a company’s code, thinking and practice from old to new. Each experience was different, but I’ll try to provide an outline of what to look out for.

New sites – a new way

It makes sense that all sites in development will follow the fresh standards since you now have your new code and the rules in which you can implement them. This teething period should weed out any structural problems with the code and allow time for designers to explore the possibilities and limitations of their new space. Make sure you share what you have learned!

If you work with a team of developers, get together before starting and ensure that everyone understands how the new code works and should be used.

You can also use this opportunity to document new guidelines and show off recently-built sites to other staff and indoctrinate them in the ways of standards. Content editors in particular deserve a training session in coding for standards and using semantic markup.

It’s a good idea to discard old dependencies unless you really need them. Importing JavaScript or a CSS file that was used in your old site will create confusion later. These files may even be deleted three years down the track when someone considers the migration “complete”.

Old sites – a new project

You will be updating the landing page of your portal, or parent site. That is clear. However, there will be a period when your network of sites will not be consistent. This may cause some minor panic in the creative or marketing department and elsewhere where brand consistency is considered important.

Take care of the vitals first:

  • Your brand – if the branding changes, try to modify this across all your sites first. The process will be a pain but not as great a pain as the designers and brand managers will be when they realise that your sites don’t represent the company’s “brand-spanking new persona”.
  • New navigation elements – unless you want people to get lost when moving in between your sites, you’d better update any changes to the global navigation. For example, network bars in the header, footers and links to new content like updated help/accessibility pages (which you will update to reflect site modifications, won’t you?) 🙂

Again, depending on your resources, you should then organise a new project. At the very least you have to:

  • Evaluate your online properties and decide upon the sites that are priorities for migration.
  • Book time with your most efficient designers and frontend programmers to determine the methods, timeline and resources.
  • Start one at a time – after the first site has been completed you’ll have a better idea of what to expect as you go down the list.

Things that will go wrong

A portion of your audience won’t like it and they will tell you. They would have grown accustomed to navigating around the old layout, if indeed that has changed, and the former look and feel. A simple task in web education should suffice to address discontent even if it consists of one page describing the reasons and advantages behind the changes. You can then direct any complaints and queries to this page and then hope that they will understand. You will never please everyone, but an explanation is usually considered polite.

Even though we are in 2008, a few members of staff may not possess the sufficient skills to code according to your new standards. Sometimes it is only a misunderstanding of simple concepts or a gap in their knowledge regarding new standards or elements. For instance, thanks to a generation of “Dreamweavers”, we often see this:

.myclass {border-top:0px;border-right:0px;border-bottom:0px;border-left:0px;font-size:12px;}

For CSS best-practice and accessibility issues a one-day session should suffice.

Nevertheless, I’ve come across many cases where there is a misunderstanding of fundamental concepts such as inheritance and syntax, or of the accepted usage of markup such as using unordered lists for navigation. Teaching people even elementary JavaScript or CSS 2 in one day is not realistic and will require a more extensive training program assuming the person is a valued member of the team.

Some members of your team may resist. Generally I found it was the content editors who didn’t understand why they had to change what they had been doing for four years. Since you have management support, they will have to comply but being nice and explaining things in simple terms will work better.

Going the distance

After all the hard work is done, keeping abreast of new standards and then advocating them wherever possible is the best way to ride out with greater smoothness the wily waves of the ever-changing web. Given the nature of large companies with disparate teams and financial objectives, a full migration will probably never happen in your employment lifetime but with planning you can go close. You can pick out even the tiniest success story and make it into something huge. Is there someone out there who, because of your changes, can now access your site more easily than before? What are your SEO results like these days?

Don’t stress if you don’t get the W3C green light. Unless you have full control over all aspects of your sites, achieving 100 per cent validation will be like trying to dig a hole with a defrosted fish-finger. Liberating your sites from tables and font tags will feel better than any endorsement anyway and you can always work on these points later.

Ode to my Saturday morning newspaper

“Adapt or perish”, “turn new corners”, “invest in people”: yeah ok, enough already. If you haven’t already heard about the rise and rise of online news then you may not have had the pleasure of hearing such responses to the perceived challenge of the internet from media executives. But if all the hysteria and rapid investment in the web by media companies is any gauge, then there is actually some substance to what they are saying.

Countless paragraphs have been published on the implications of the digitisation of news media, particularly surrounding the fate of traditional media at hands of its precocious digital cousin.

But what it boils down to is consumer behaviour patterns – how people consume news media, how they are told to and how they want to. The behaviour of the market is what drives our capitalist system. It’s not the actual presence of the internet or the web or the ipod – it is that people are using or prefer to use these methods of information retrieval and delivery. But are we all heading towards a plugged-in future?

Personally, I enjoy the whole weekend newspaper ritual. You buy two kilograms of recently pulped Tasmanian rain forest, discard anything related to motoring, sport, advertising or the insidious tabloid journalism that is infecting the major dailies these days, haul it down to the local café and spend the next two hours skimming. I could just as easily take along my laptop which weighs about the same and utilise the café’s free WiFi, thus gaining access to all the adblocked news, entertainment and porn I could ever want at 10pm on a Saturday morning. However, until the concept of e-paper is commercially realised, a newspaper will always have the following advantages over online news:

  • Convenience

    The portability of paper is why it’s still quite popular. In fact, you can take it nearly anywhere except to places where you might indulge in a little swimming or fire dancing. And we all know that sand and keyboards don’t mix and that’s a fact. Furthermore, in the absence of sudden blindness or total solar eclipse, you can assume full control over your reading experience. There are no cords, no electricity and no download limits and you can read a newspaper in bed and on the toilet. Hoorah!

  • Readability

    Unless you are the terminator, I’m guessing that prolonged reading from computer screens makes your eyes tired and your mind mush. Reading a newspaper is just easier. Black and white. No white on cotton blue, or 10px Arial with 80 per cent opacity, marquees or whatever some designer considered cool on the day.

  • Static structure

    The static nature of newspapers can sometimes be a disadvantage, but it is dependable. It presents you with a sequence of information that can be accessed as part of an unchanging index. There’s no danger of losing your way, and if you decide to skip or re-reread a feature on battery-hen farming practices it will be there when you return, just where you left it and unedited by a nervous copyeditor who has just received a call from KFC’s lawyers.

  • Information underload

    Newspapers and websites provide distinct reading experiences. Unlike modern news websites, newspapers don’t contain flashing advertisements or promotions tempting our brains and fingers to click away from what we really came for. Of course,  a newspaper contains publicity and, at times, grossly over-sized advertisements but there are no popups or 1000 links to divert your attention from breezing past these and onto the next page. I know a great deal of money is poured into online information architecture these days however with a newspaper you don’t have to spend hours figuring out why the letters section isn’t listed in the navigation, and is linked from the right hand side of the op-ed main page.

  • Enjoyment

    Reading, whether on the web or through the printed medium is fun and when combined with another activity, such as sunbathing, it can be terrific!

Online news is tremendous nevertheless and gives us access to a seemingly unlimited and close-to-realtime resource of world and local news, weather and facts. And although the web’s influence on modern journalism and news production is undeniable, I am confident that we won’t see a radical decline in the stuff that ends up as birdcage liner in the immediate future. Newspapers will change the way they present information and we will see more references to online editions, but I speculate that we latte-lovers will continue to have our moments of newsy solace every weekend for a long time to come.

Web professionals? Quando, Quando, Quando

Can we call ourselves professionals? Given the age of the web, it can be claimed that a huge chunk of people in our line of work have really only been doing what they’ve been doing for maximum of ten years. I’m excluding folk like Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and other over-achievers of course.

Ten years is a long time for our small brains but not for an industry. We take for granted the existence of solicitors, accountants, nurses, politicians and so on, because well, they’ve always been there. Society has already categorised, stigmatised and attached symbolism to the people and places involved in these professions.

Young industries like ours have an advantage: because the rules are still being written, we have had the extraordinary ability to help define professionalism for ourselves, based on accepted levels of commercial practice nonetheless. But what I’m talking about deals more with culture. For instance, whoever said “no” to suits at the start, deserves free beer forever. I can tell you that the most daunting thing about becoming a lawyer in a city office was that you didn’t have a choice about what to wear. It sounds trivial but the lifestyle difference it makes is unbelievable. The standards of professionalism in the legal sector had been decided eons ago and the probability of changing the system is as stratospheric as the probability of any movie written by L Ron Hubbard becoming a success.

So how does the real world view what we do and the industry in general? Have we already reached status of web professionals? My answer is yes and no.

I only like to rely on dictionaries for scrabble, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. Let’s take a look on how our word professional, the noun, is defined:

Wikipedia: A professional is a worker required to possess a large body of knowledge derived from extensive academic study (usually tertiary), with the training almost always formalized
Merriam Webster: engaged in one of the learned professions [where a profession is defined as a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation]

Please excuse the North-Americanised spelling.

Hmmm.. extensive and intensive academic training. Doesn’t sound like most web developers and designers I know; these talented people gained probably 98 per cent of their knowledge doing what they do best which was just doing their job or through personal or freelance projects. In fact most of my colleagues and acquaintances who now call themselves web professionals gained their formal education in disciplines far removed from the internet, for example, law, archaeology, English literature and even the armed forces.

The lack of formal qualifications related to our careers says nothing about our willingness to study – we do it every day. I think it is more related to the ever-evolving nature of the industry. Already the division of labour in whatever call it – the web industry, internet, new media, computergeekdom – is mature and hundreds of new roles have emerged. Who had ever heard of a SEO consultant pre-Google?

Furthermore, we’ve all had to learn various protocols, languages, software and standards all of which change every week. Keeping up with all this requires many mornings of coffee and blog-reading. So while the basics can be taught and the sources of information passed on, the industry is so young that the main type of educational choices that we see are usually short courses on “Web publishing” or “Dreamweaver” hastily put together for immediate consumption. Creating a three to four year syllabus seems almost impossible unless we treat it like the humanities, that is, to establish a web design and technology faculty provided teaching in an array of disciplines. Until that happens we use the best tool available: the web.

Therefore we can throw the formal definition out the window. Many people don’t fit it, yet an officious bystander would clearly label as professional anyone who is:

  • aware of the latest standards of their industry and uses them
  • an intelligent communicator in relation to their area of expertise
  • a producer of excellent work

So we are “professionals”. But we always knew that.

If we had to further argue the point, sociological thinking lends a great deal of weight to prestige. We behave and react according to standards of prestige be they related to language, careers or the things that we own. Stereotypes about professions and careers are usually influenced by prestige and, together with academic qualifications, the main source of prestige in relation to a person’s career is “how much money?”. Fortunately for us the web is big business today and with million-dollar deals going down everyday there is no shortage of evidence that what we do is and should be taken seriously. I guess that when the epoque arrives in which everyone will have been born or have grown up in the internet age, we will be like the lawyers, doctors and pilots: just there because we have to be to make society work. I just hope our successors don’t have to wear suits.