February 19, 2001

Are standards-compliant websites better?

Summary: The adhoc way in which much of the web was developed has created a dilemma for web designers: should websites comply with standards, ensuring accessibility, or break the rules and work with older browsers? At this moment, the answer is simple: Websites should work with older browsers.

Some websites are beginning to convert to a single, standards-compliant version. Unfortunately, those websites aren't likely to maintain their visual structure (which is important for ensuring usability) in older browsers, and they may not even work at all. That means that a great number of web users, likely the huge majority, won't be able to effectively use the websites. On the plus side, those websites will work with future generations of browsers, are easier for designers to code and manipulate, and are much more likely to be accessible to all web users.

Introduction to the debate over backward compatibility

Many proponents of adopting standards (and refusing to support older, noncompliant browsers) insist that forcing users to upgrade their browsers to newer, standards-compliant versions will benefit everyone in the internet community. Recently, Jeffrey Zeldman, publisher of A List Apart, made the site compliant with the latest standards, but ignored backward compatibility. Now, some users can't use the website at all, and some users are going to experience severely reduced interface quality because of inaccurate rendering by already poor browser software.

Zeldman talks about the aspects of his plan that benefit web designers. He says that the workarounds that web designers have been using for years are no longer necessary. Designers can now separate content from style. Designers can now be assured of nearly flawless reproduction from platform to platform. Designers can now make complex multicolumn layouts with interactive bells and whistles that burn a website's usability to a crisp. Website style can be changed on a whim (even if it throws off thousands of users who rely on the website).

The positive aspects of obeying standards are very desired and could be a huge benefit to usability. Interactive, context-sensitive, website-specific help can now be developed. Text can be sized and spaced more appropriately, and of course, style and content can be separated. However, the benefits are outweighed by the negative factors that enter the equation, and aren't even part of the websites themselves.

Why standards-compliant, non-backward compatible websites aren't appropriate now

Firstly, many web users can't use the latest software, because:

Secondly, the vast majority of web users still use noncompliant browsers.

This paradox of outdated browsers will not last forever: users will eventually upgrade to compliant browsers. But because of the factors involved in upgrading right now, simply making a lot of websites inaccessible or horribly unusable for users of older browsers will not increase the rate of upgrading significantly. Just as users don't visit poor sites that aren't standards compliant, they won't visit poor sites that are standards compliant. Now is not the time to ignore backward compatibility.

Web designers can make compromises

Zeldman says: "It would be swell if we could have backward compatibility and pure standards compliance. But we can't. We have to choose." That's not true: all web designers need to do is really tone down their designs, back to purely textual, well-organized pages. A List Apart could have a simpler design. If a web designer wants a specific appearance, he should use a minimal amount of trickery, ensuring backward compatibility, and try to comply with as many standards as possible. If a web designer wants standards-compliance, he should forget about fancy layouts and stick to code that will work in the oldest or most arcane browsers.

The merges website, including the article that you are reading right now, is not standards-compliant. I had to use HTML trickery to get the look I wanted. But the website works pretty well in the latest browsers, it works pretty well in 3.0 and 4.0 browsers, and it works with text-only browsers. It is certainly far from perfect, but by avoiding complex designs that would necessitate a plethora of workarounds, I was able to ensure a great deal of backward compatibility. One change to the website, removing the dark background of the body and returning to black-on-white text, would make the website even more backward compatible. But I made a choice about where to draw the line. (That line is drawn in erasable pencil, though!)

Jeffrey Zeldman is right: standards will change the web for the better. But he is ahead of his time; maybe a year or two from now more users will use standards-compliant browsers, but not enough users are able to upgrade right now. Web designers should find middle ground, simplifying their designs if necessary to ensure maximum accessibility and backward compatibility. That way, fewer web users are left out in the cold.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.