Web standards as discipline

We often sell web standards by explaining that using them improves accessibility. We might talk about reaching as wide an audience as possible, or about laws requiring accessible websites.

However, accessibility is only part of the story. An equally important benefit of following standards is the discipline they require.

Professionalism and self-respect

The concept of discipline that I want to introduce in this article is closely related to professionalism and self-respect.

Having discipline as a web professional requires the self-respect to admit that what we do is valuable in itself — not just as a plugin to a more legitimate activity. Once we have self-respect, we can begin to bring order to the way we work: discipline. Using web standards is a powerful way to achieve that.

Before standards there was junk

In the junk markup era, it was effectively impossible to follow web standards if you wanted visual or behavioural consistency across browsers. We had to use code forking and nested table layouts, which led to rushed websites with messy, unmaintainable code. Only a handful of pages validated.

This led to the belief that anyone could create websites after a few hours of hacking, and a corresponding lack of self-respect among web professionals. We felt powerless to influence the web, and as a result we lacked discipline in our work.

Web design: a plugin?

Part of the difficulty in having discipline comes from the tendency for clients, management and colleagues to assume that our role is a minor subset of some other activity, like graphic design or software engineering.

Jesse James Garrett refuted this assumption in his Elements of User Experience, in which he argued that the essence of web design is managing the tension between web as software interface and web as hypertext space. One example of the dot-com era tendency to write off web design as a subset of graphic design is demonstrated by Adaptive Path‘s decision to use the term ‘user experience’ instead of ‘design’, to avoid an association with visual stylists, who had no grasp of what we would call web design.

The problem with computer science

When faced with the lack of discipline I’ve described, many web developers have turned to computer science and software engineering as a source of discipline. They see methodologies like Object Oriented Design and Model View Controller as solutions, and use frameworks based on these methodologies to bring discipline to their work.

An analysis of the benefits of these methodologies is outside the scope of this article; clearly, many programmers find them useful. However, I argue that they can shift the focus of thought away from the essence of web design, because they assume that our main task is programming — that web design is a subset of software design. Again, this is an error: although we may do some programming, we are not primarily programmers.

The discipline of web standards

So, how can web standards give us discipline? Using semantic and valid markup, styling using CSS, progressively enhancing with widely-supported JavaScript and using clean URLs introduces a lot of discipline. And it’s not easy to do.

More difficult than it sounds

Writing valid markup is not intrinsically difficult, but correctly applying semantics to documents is not straightforward for most people. To demonstrate this, how many people do you know who are able to use Microsoft Word’s outline styles feature semantically, instead of just using presentational styles like bold and italic? Creating content management systems that allow non-technical people to write semantic markup is even harder.

The basics of CSS are straightforward; for example, it’s easy to demonstrate how to change the colour of headings in a document. However, successfully pulling off floated or positioned layouts, flexible width columns or bulletproof designs that work with zoomed text is much harder, especially when you have to support a range of browsers.

JavaScript is also more complicated than it looks. It’s straightforward to trigger an alert box when a form element is left empty, but unobtrusively adding interactivity that gracefully degrades when JavaScript is disabled requires a lot more thought.

The concept of using clean URLs sounds easy, even obvious. Implementing them well, however, requires a lot of thought — there are implications for information architecture, navigation, content management and database design.

The reward

I argue that simply by following web standards in the way I’ve outlined, you go a long way towards introducing discipline in your work. You’ve separated content from presentation, written your documents semantically, used style sheets for design, progressively enhanced behaviour for modern browsers, and used URLs to make your content easily accessible. You’re more likely to produce maintainable, reusable code, and to be able to transfer what you’ve learnt to other projects.

Standards gave us professionalism

Molly Holzschlag wrote last year about a new professionalism in web designers and developers. She talks specifically about the need to keep our skills up to date, and to be willing to learn. I argue that an equally important element of the new professionalism is gaining the self-respect to realise that what we do is not a subset of some existing field, that it is not easy — and therefore, that it has substantial value.

It isn’t a coincidence that the new professionalism arrived at the same time as the mainstream adoption of web standards; and we should use our new self-respect to argue that following web standards is a discipline in itself.