First published December 2006.
Picture this: you visit stagecoach.co.nz to find the timetable for the bus to town. You can’t drive yourself today because your foot’s been injured. When the page opens you can see a ‘ticker’ letting you know you can get special buses to the next rugby match. Then you see a few words reading:
Welcome to the Stagecoach New Zealand website. Our services are now online. Please click the section that is relevant to you.
Following that are copyright and privacy information. There’s nothing to click!
You wave your mouse around over the blank page and watch the status bar. Aha! In one invisible spot there seems to be a link for your city.
This is just like one of those text-based adventure games from the 80s where you blunder round hoping that ‘Go north’ will be your ticket to finding the treasure. You click and hope.
On the next page there’s a link for the timetables. You click it and another page opens. You see these words: “Click here to view Timetables”, but when you try to click on that spot nothing happens.
You give up and phone the 0800 number.
It’s not an adventure game
Perhaps you didn’t believe my description above and called up the website to see for yourself. “What rot!” you’ll say, “There are buttons right there to click on.” [Update: since this article was written the website has been overhauled and improved.]
Well, OK, there are. There are pictures telling you what the links are.
If your web browser doesn’t show you the pictures — perhaps you’re using a cellphone that doesn’t show pictures, or you’ve turned off the images to reduce costs, or you’re blind and your computer reads pages aloud to you — then you’re stumped.
But the web isn’t an adventure game, setting out to challenge its users to win out against the mysterious and unknown. It’s a medium for information and entertainment.
Subject, verb, object; alt text
We all understand the headline “Man bites dog” and for that matter, “Dog bites man”, but we’d be confused by “Bites dog man”.
English grammar has rules that the person doing the action comes first (the subject), then the action they’re doing (verb), followed by the thing they’re acting on (object). Provided we stick to that sequence we all know what’s going on. Once we ignore those rules then communication can and does fail.
The web has rules too: behind every website is coding. Usually web pages are made out of HTML: codes that mark up the text, images, movies and sounds that can be part of a web page.
One extremely simple rule says that if you use an image in a web page then you must include alternate text that can replace the image.
What professionals should know
That’s not a new rule; it’s been there in the rules of HTML ever since images first appeared in web pages. As the users, or even perhaps the owners of websites, we have a right to expect that anyone making a website will follow that rule.
After all, there are many things we take for granted in this world. Would you get a quote from a builder for a new window and expect the builder to walk away, job done, without putting glass in it, or have a new house built without a roof? Windows have glass, houses have a roof, website images have alternate text — it’s the way of the world.
Back in January 1997 the rules of HTML 3 said the alternate text for images was ‘vital’, by December 1997 it was ‘required’. We could rightly expect any professional web designer to at least know the rules for making web pages.
The invisible problem
The problem is that most people, today, look at web pages on a computer screen, and most people don’t know about all the dry rot lurking behind the shiny page in front of them. If it looks great then it must be great.
But as soon as something slightly unusual happens it can all fall apart, unless the web designer was professional enough to follow the standards.
Before Apple can sell me a Mac they have had to make sure that computer complies with a whole raft of standards: wireless networking, wired modems, power supply, various essential components.
I don’t even know what they all are, nor do I care, I can just relax knowing that there are standards in place protecting me. I can assume that the act of plugging in my MacBook Pro won’t kill me because Apple manufactured the power supply to standards, and the electrician wired up my house to standards.
A decade ago the web was so new and exciting that people used to simply throw up web pages without any skill or thought. And yes, I chose that terminology deliberately.
It was a kind of goldrush as individuals and companies would discover that their word processing software, or Frontpage (or now, iWeb) software that came with their computer, could create web pages.
Export as Web Page from the File menu having no idea that the software was creating what’s commonly known as ‘tag soup’, a tangled, fragile mess of badly put together coding.
The pages they created were slow, unwieldy, unfriendly to search engines and people using web browsers that weren’t part of the herd. Remember the days when you’d see “This page is best displayed with Internet Explorer 4 at 800 * 600”?
We think different
As Mac users we’re different. We think different. We use a ‘different’ computer from most people and a ‘different’ web browser: Safari, an extremely capable modern browser. So we understand what it’s like to be different.
How many times have we been told: “Oh, you have to use Windows to…” use a service, bank online, view online videos, connect to a favourite gadget.
In fact, most people are different
Websites that assume every visitor will use a Windows computer, with Internet Explorer 6 and be able to see and use images, videos, and all the other flashy stuff are making bad assumptions.
Increasingly people are visiting websites with handheld devices such as cellphones or PDAs, WebTVs, games machines. Blind people may use Braille devices and will listen to web pages. They have specialised software that helps them use web pages, but if the web page doesn’t follow the standards then their software can’t help them much at all.
No-one who attended Darren Fittler’s presentation at the May 2006 Webstock conference in Wellington will forget how painful his session was.
Darren’s a lawyer whose clients pay him to research their legal problems.
He took us all to one site he often consults. When he arrived at the site there was little information to help him orient himself, so he set about finding his way to the main content.
He pressed the Tab key and his software read out what was happening. It wasn’t what he was searching for so he pressed Tab again, and again, and again. He pressed Tab 72 agonising times before he reached the useful content.
Darren’s blind. We in the audience could all see what he needed to know, but he had no overview in the way we had an overview. If the site had been built according to rules and standards his software would have empowered him to instantly find what he needed.
His session was painful because we all experienced what Darren suffers daily. It was a brilliant and memorable session. Some of the other presenters at Webstock were so impressed they have written that his session should be available at all web conferences.
How can I know?
I have a lot of faith that my car won’t let me down. I’m not a car mechanic, nor do I want to be one, but fortunately the regular Warrant of Fitness check takes care of watching out for failures.
Most people who own or run websites have other people create the site for them. There is a simple free test anyone can do to at least get an idea of whether a website is up to standards. Call up the online validator at validator.w3.org, enter the address for a web page and click the Check button.
A green bar on the results page is a good sign. A red bar on the results page is bad news, though anyone can slip up and make an occasional error.
Web standards make sense
Designing to standards doesn’t guarantee a perfect site, but it’s an essential starting point; Lewis Carroll used perfect grammar when he wrote: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”, but it still didn’t make sense.
Only hire the best
Before hiring a web designer validate their site. Ask them how they intend to make sure the site uses valid and standards-compliant coding. Pay for some accessibility and usability testing to make sure the site works for everyone.
Code for freedom
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1989 his vision was a powerful force for social change and individual creativity. Coding to standards can help realise that vision. Web standards are code for freedom.
This article was first published in Macguide magazine Issue #30 November / December 2006 and may have been modified from the original.