HTML Purist Revolution

Lately, it seems, most of the sites I see on the web are lacking any serious thought of mass audience usability. It used to be that anyone coding HTML was quite aware of how many different browser configurations there were to design for. It used to be easy, back when all we had to deal with was HTML 1.x and 2.x- enabled browsers. Some quick HTML, some good content, decent design, and you’d have a pretty good site that was viewable by 98%+ of your audience.

Nowadays, I’m seeing a serious lack of awareness about how sites are viewed from people who call themselves “web designers” . Lately, it’s like anyone with a computer and some free software from TUCOWS is calling themselves a “web designer”, has hung the shingle out on the virtual roof, and is advertising cut-throat prices. It still doesn’t mean their work is any good, or usable. (There are some notable exceptions, of course.) Maybe the problem is that we’ve made it too easy to publish web sites. There is so much free software available and computers have beome so inexpensive, the barriers of entry into this industry have pretty much vanished.

But, the loss of these obstacles has come at a price. Namely, the sacrifice of good usability among web sites. Because the software people use these days to create web sites is so easy to use, many “web designers” forget about the hundreds of little things that make a site truly usable. Why, for instance do people always seem to forget to use ALT tags? It’s one of the easiest things to do to increase the usability of your site.

But a more glaring example of decreased usability among web sites, are these sites made entirely up of graphics. Sure, they’re pretty, that I can admit, but man do they fail the usability test. Not only do they take forever to dowload, the designer behind such sites shows incredible ignorance towards sites *enabled* for most browser configurations. What if your user has graphics turned off? What if your user is sight-impaired or hearing-impaired, and is using a custom browser to see your site? What if your user has turned off underlining of anchor text? What if your user wants to print out your pages? Are you using frames or a dark background that may prevent this? Are you thinking about these people when you design a site?

These are things you absolutely must take into consideration when you’re designing high-volume sites, especially high-volume ecommerce sites. The more visitors you have, the more potential you have for running into the problem of differnt browser configurations (and custom-browser configurations). The longer it takes to download a page, the more potential you have of losing that customer. The harder you make it to use your site, the more frustrated your users are going to get, and go elsewhere.

That’s why I think we’re seeing many of the high-volume sites reverting back to some very basic HTML. Most people call these sites “portals”. The look is simple. It downloads fast, and gives a quick representation of what resides deeper in the site. Yahoo, ZDNet, Excite, Altavista, Infoseek, etc. have all morphed themselves into this look. It used to be that every site had the C|Net Brand yellow bar down the left. Now, most sites seem to have the Yahoo Brand portal look. Colored table cells on a white or gray background.

Is this what they call HTML Purism? Have we finally come to our senses and decided to just ignore the technologies that interfere with site usability? Technologies like CSS, DHTML, HTMLScript, etc., where each can be implemented differently in each browser, causing a break in standards and/or usability.

Personally, I’m glad that site designers have decided to take this approach to site design. It’s refreshing to see a site in 7 different browser configurations, and have it be just as usable as the last.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at August 20, 1998 11:59 PM

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