Design Ethics

Many times on the HTML Writers Guild (HWG) mailing lists I've taken a site by someone under discussion and recoded it in valid HTML without changing the end look in the upscale browsers. But taken it from jumbled garbage in Lynx to a usable site.

There are some things you cannot do and maintain degradability, but then I question the value of those tricks. And there is more than one way to achieve a desired impact, so you may find another method to achieve your end goal.

It just takes some real thought and dedication.

There are some very successful folks who just happen to lack a sense most people have - sight. HTML makes it easyto do sites that degrade for blind and visually impaired people. These people exist, and the frustration they feel when they run into a site they can't navigate is real.

As for the low end of the market, there are all of the students in schools dealing with donated older hardware and usually freeware browsers because of inanely low budgets. Or, the large number of AOL users still on 2.x level browsers (according to AOL themselves). They aren't keen on upgrading with each new release because they're not the most computer savvy. Then there are people who are hard working, and doing the best they can - but all they can afford is a 486 with an AOL account.

Some designers' sites indicate that they feel these people are an underclass, not worth their time. Yet that is the single largest audience, and mostly the middle-class market a consumer site would want ot reach.

I just think there is a responsibility on the part of technologists to avoid creating yet another class split. Like it or not, we aretechnologists. The web is a communications technology, and we are helping to build the information infrastructure. That can either be made an open system that works for all or a closed system aimed at the elite.

And no one is asking designers to give up the high-end glitz. I don't have a thing against all of the end results. What I am 100% against is the coding practices used to achieve those ends. Most of the time there are other ways to accomplish the same thing using valid HTML and making it degrade cleaner. But it seems many designers don't want to bother.

But which is better - a site that doesn't look wonderful but that has all the information you need, or a site that looks great but isn't intuitive?

What good is being visually engaging if you can't get the data you need? What good is visually engaging to a blind user?

For example, the concept of knowinglynot including ALT text to exclude the blind is, to me, offensive. No better than an asshole who parks in a handicapped space on purpose.

Also, where designers used frames they could have used tables. And it would have meant not having to deal with a no-frames version, etc. The one-frame trick basically fixes a frame size - BFD, you could make a single cell table and fix the pixel width too. You could even fix the cell height. And tables work in more browsers than frames!

Also, little single-pixel gif tricks will make it harder to get CSS into wide use. Because many of these hacks are invalid, parsers cannot produce a valid document structure from them to apply CSS or the DOM, too, which I think is fine if the designer knowsthis.

But the problem is there are many people who see 'experts' talking about how great these hacks are, and they never tell anyone the potential problems. I can't count the number of times I've had to explain to designers what they are getting themselves into on HWG lists and on USEnet. And that is frustrating and upsetting. Teaching people short term hacks that in the long run will shoot them in the foot - it is irresponsible in the extreme to not tell them the full story.

I'm not saying to stop using images or to stop laying things out. I am saying to consider HOW you do it. Can I use a table here instead of a frame? Did I remember to put in ALT text? Could I spend an extra 5 minutes and build a text index since my site is mostly graphic? Or hell, an extra 15 to do a small script that will do it for me so I never have to do it again? These are ways designers can go just that little bit farther than the general use of their talent and effort.

There IS something you can do. It isn't earth shattering, but it damn sure is a step in the right direction. This 'well, why bother' attitude is why nothing is ever done. Spending a few minutes extra to make a site more accessible won't solve world hunger - but then, neither did elevators or wheelchair cuts in curbs. What curb cuts did was prove useful for bikers and commuters who skate to work. No one anticipated that, but it is a favorable spinoff. Making webpages accessible can have the same kind of spinoff impact.

At WWW6, they talked about alternative access media. Telephone access using speech technology, PDAs using text only browsers - all kinds of new systems coming online. And if you design pages today for the margin market, you are ready for tomorrow's wider market. Even the most draconian business person should see the benefit in that.

Here are some examples of situations I've come across:

I've run into a LOT of users from the networking community - people who work with computers full time, who didn't even know you could adjust font sizes in the browser! These are not stupid people, they just have better things to do than play with every menu in their browser. They install it, it runs, it surfs. End of story. And when they find a site that is hard to read because of the font size they don't change the browser, they blame the designer for being a moron and move on. I've seen this regularly for over five years now.

Every day, I see experienced computer professionals confused by conflicts between MSIE and NS on their systems. Or missing DLLs, etc. The state of technology today is NOT very user-friendly. I think it is unreasonable to expect all users to upgrade as soon as the latest and greatest comes out. Remember how NS 2.0 bitched about a DLL? Remember the numerous warnings from others online about MSIE 3.x and NS 3.x breaking in various ways? Remember the ongoing series of news stories about the numerous major security problems in MSIE 3.x? It is not surprising that folks aren't eager to take a risk.

I have a friend in the industry who has 3 PCs at home - but the highest model is like a 486-100. One other is a high-end 386, the other a mid-range 386. He is sick of buying a new machine every few years just to have all of the latest stuff. Byte or PCWeek can confirm that he is not alone.

Hell, my parents own their own heating company - one of the 3 largest Lennox dealers in the US. They're semi-retired, successful, very intelligent and well educated. They just are not computer people. They grew up without computers, and didn't have a need. My mother worked for NY State as a computer operator when she was young, but times have changed. She does have a 486-75 notebook that she uses for word processing, spreadsheets, etc. She doesn't like to upgrade software and I can't blame her. Everytime some new package comes out it comes with new bugs. So if Word 2.0 does what she needs it to do, and it does, why should she upgrade to Word 6.0? She doesn't need any of the new features and she is understandably concerned about having to relearn things.

There are more issues that the designer has to keep in mind.

For example, browser bugs. At least in NS 2.x, user colors wouldn't override the FONT COLOR tag - just the body tag settings. And FONT SIZE with an absolute size can also override the browser settings, etc. You can't just say "well screw them, not my fault the browser does it stupidly." It is like when MS has a dialer bug - do users blame MS or their ISP? They blame the ISP because MS can't be wrong. Surfers do the same thing - since all these other pages look ok, and this one doesn't, it must be the page not the browser.

That is frustrating, but that is the way it is.

There is also PDF. I've talked to Adobe reps one on one on the issue. They do not believe PDF is right for the web. They are looking at EPDF (encapsulated PDF) as a possibly embedded vector image system, but they do not feel that full PDF is right for the web. Neither does the W3C, nor the MS engineers I've talked to - which is the group of guys who code MSIE. Actually there are a couple of other formats being looked at as a vector image format that have major advantages over EPDF. Such as being able to have embedded META info stored in plain text to make the image itself indexable.

And to me, another problem is designers from print trying to make the web act like print - which is all things like the single frame kludge do. There are some really good sites out there that still look good when I resize my browser. Those are the designers who understand the medium - who can design pages that look good on a variety of displays, in a variety of browsers, at different sizes. It is easyto design a site if you fix the page size. Making things flow when you know how the page is sized is a no brainer. Making it work when you don't control it- that is what takes real talent.

So who has done the better job? The designer with the glitzy facade and no foundation to back it up? Or the designer who has taken all levels into consideration and gone that extra distance not only to have a flashing facade up front with the marble staircase, but managed to include a wheelchair ramp in the process without sacrificing their design?

What is wrong with believing that technologists have a responsibility towards the public when shaping their products? What is wrong with believing that we have the best opportunity to date to produce a medium openly accessible to more people than any other ever created - and that casually throwing away that opportunity is offensive?

When I run into an interesting site I tend to check out the coding to see if they did it with hacks or with real talent. And I've seen a lot of the latter out there - more and more thankfully.

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