The Effect of Web Standards on Users

So, while much of the discussion focuses on whether sites validate, whether there is too much focus on standards, or which image-replacement technique is preferable, I’d like to humbly point out how these amazing new technologies affect those we design for.

The current crop of web standards (XTHML & CSS) have had a dramatic effect on the work of the web designers who have adopted them. Writers of the best kinds have trumpeted the benefits of these standards over the coding practices that had become second nature to most (image spacers, anyone?). The biggest effect of this natural progression may be that designers have begun to write code nearly as it was meant to be written: semantically. In other words, designers are using tags correctly instead of doing things like tables for layout and image tags for headers.

The discussions concerning web standards have never been hotter: some view that there is too much focus on them (and not enough on users), while others are called hypocrites because their site doesn’t validate. And still others pondered some of the reasons why standards are difficult to learn.

I believe these discussions are definitely worthwhile: they help designers learn the tools they need to use. After reading many of them, however, it occurred to me that very little of the talk was directed toward how the standards affect users. Nearly all of the talk is about how standards help designers, not users.

That being said, users aren’t the ones who implement standards, designers are. So getting that train moving is certainly good. However, most of us would agree that we can always focus more attention on user needs.

But what if we’re designers who don’t do that sort of thing? What if it’s not in our job description? What if we simply code what is given to us? (I coded a site recently that I did not design, and I wondered if the code could actually have an effect on the user experience). So does the act of coding to standards/writing semantically correct code help users in and of itself?

Thus I come to the ways that web standards positively affect users.

    Improved Accessibility

    Designers who write semantically correct code make much more accessible web sites. Screen readers have a chance of deciphering them: titles and headlines make sense when read in order. Tables used for layout no longer confuse those users whose browser doesn’t support them. Imported stylesheets can be hidden from browsers that were written before the standards push. Improved techniques such as using images in the background of headers while retaining the header text drastically improve the accessibility of the page. And I haven’t even mentioned more font control, multiple user agents, or user-defined style sheets.

    Improved Search Results

    Huge improvements in both in the search itself (spiders will index them better) and on the results pages (good title and header tags are much easier to read) make semantically-correct pages much easier for users to find. On one site that I made simply changing paragraphs to headers on the home page tripled my traffic. That was enough evidence for me to attempt to never use a tag incorrectly again.

    Speed

    If everyone changed pages coded in the old style to pages coded in semantically-correct XHTML, the web would lose almost half it’s volume in terms of bandwidth. I’m basing this assumption on numbers like those attained by the folks who redesigned ESPN.com. In addition, rendering speed and caching speed are improved. Now, if we could just ensure that the content we were displaying (faster) is worthwhile, that would be an increase in the speed with which we complete our tasks.

So, while much of the discussion focuses on whether sites validate, whether there is too much focus on standards, or which image-replacement technique is preferable, I’d like to humbly point out how these amazing new technologies affect those we design for.

Published: April 26th, 2004

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