Standards are something I hadn’t really thought about before I learnt about them. Not because I felt they unimportant but because I assumed something like the Web had to have them. I knew they might not be perfect but surely designers conformed to them such as they were.
Now though I know better. Are there standards for the Web? Absolutely. Do designers conform to them? Not as much as you would expect. The same goes for usability and accessibility. Often, or so it was not long ago, accessibility and usability were thought of last. They were tagged on at the end of the design process and not surprisingly suffered as a result.
What are ‘Standards’?
At their basic, standards can be seen from two perspectives. One that of the browser vendors and developer of languages and technologies on the Web. The other is a how they are implemented — best practices and the like. They both have in common the notion of uniformity though and work together (or try to).
From the technical side, standards are a bit iffy. You’d expect after all these years that browsers would do things the same. That they would display pages the same way, use the same technologies. They certainly do not. In their defence, they are all a lot closer now than they were even 5 years ago but they don’t render the same. They all have their own take on how pixels are calculated for example, which can shift page elements around.
The main example would be Internet Explorer [IE]. Once a pioneer of Web standards, it was great. Though it quickly was followed by other browsers such as Opera, Firefox and Safari. All of which followed in the footsteps of IE. But after years of no upgrades IE just stagnated and didn’t conform to the latest standards and didn’t render things the same as any of it’s brethren (due in part to how it calculated the box model and pixels). Until that is IE9, which marks a major improvement in all areas over previous versions.
Design standards or best practices are how the technologies or programming languages are implemented and used. For example, this would partially govern how XHTML is implemented and which elements are used where. So if you wanted to put an address on your website, you would use
Another example would be layout. Layout should be done through CSS. However, before standards were in full effect and before designers started to appreciate the need for accessibility as well, they used tables. Tables are not meant to be used for layout. They are for tabular data. That is to say rows and columns of information. A table. And so a big part of standards is using elements correctly and semantically. Semantically means that you name divs correctly and nest elements.
It means using an the address tag correctly. In short, it’s giving meaning to your code and it’s relation. Using
<br /> to create paragraphs for example isn’t semantic.
You can read more about standards on Smashing Magazine or you can read about them on the W3C.
This is an area of increasing interest. Nowadays designers, developers, browser vendors and the general community of Web professionals are taking this quite seriously. They’ve realised for the most part the importance of accessibility. Partly due to the emergence of legislation for disabled users on the Web and partly through the emergence of mobile devices.
Accessibility is being able to use a site on a variety of devices and being accessible for disabled users too. Such as blind users who would use the site with screen readers. This is when using the correct elements is important. If you used a table layout it would be very cumbersome for them to use.
Usability is a lot like accessibility. You need to be able to use the website. Therefore, links need to be obvious, such as bolder or underlined. Similarly buttons need to be obvious and change state when you hover.
As well as having obvious links and buttons, you need the site to make sense. You need to look at the site and easily find the navigation, the main areas of the page and find what you want quickly. It’s estimated that in 10 seconds of loading the page a user has made up their mind as to whether it’s usable or relevant.
Steve Krug’s book on usability Don’t Make me Think is all about best practices on usability and accessibility. He has written another similar book that has additional content. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Don’t Make me Think. His point is that you should think about it from the user’s perspective.
If you can’t find the search area or you are wondering “can I click that?” then you’re doing something wrong. The aim is to make it easy for the user not befuddle them. The latter will more likely make them turn away in frustration and never return.
I’ll finish this section with a quote from Steve Krug himself which sums up my point:
“…much of what I do is just common sense… Usability really just means making sure something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability can use the [website] for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.”
So all 3 of the things we talked about in this post are quite relevant to each other. I hope that from this post or from the references provided you can start to see the importance of these topics. My great wish is that you will start to think more about these issues and take them into consideration when building your own sites.