Being Obsessive about Web Standards

June 23, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Usability, Web standards.

Alice Tappart had an article today at WebProNews which was rather interesting. Primarily a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of Why Web Standards Could Be Making You Ill, the article does have serious points.

When it comes right down to it, the article is warning that an obsession about validation and web standards is not as important as ensuring you’ve provided great content. This is true, for the most part. Websites have errors. Undoubtedly, this site has a few errors here and there. I know that I’ve had problems with unescaped copyright symbols lately; but haven’t obsessed about it. The point of her article is that it is very easy to fall into a pattern of constantly verifying the validation of your code, and waste large chunks of time finding every unescaped ampersand rather than writing useful articles, improving your product descriptions, or making a site easier to use.

Web standards are very closely tied to web accessibility and usability. There is no question in my mind that it is utterly necessary to work towards valid code, semantic organization, and the use of all the appropriate markup involved in aiding a site towards accessibility.

But! I don’t think this means you should obsessively verify your validation on a daily basis. I check the site whenever I introduce new features, or when I revise the design. But if I have to make a choice between doing yet another check of accessibility or validation or writing or revising an article; I’ll pick the latter.

It’s necessary to view the site from a big picture perspective. If you have already worked very hard to create a usable, accessible site, it is incredibly unlikely that a few edits you make in the site will cause it to become unusable or inaccessible. A validation error; a missing alt tag; none of these will change your website so radically as to invalidate all your labor. However, regardless of the correctness of your code, a single poorly-written article could easily lose you your reputation.

Few will notice a validation error or missing accessibility feature. Those who do, will probably also notice the amount of work you’ve done elsewhere on your site to accomplish these very things. Hopefully, they’ll send you a note or make a comment to alert you to something you’ve missed. On the other hand, those who visit your site will be reasonably likely to read your most recent article – if it’s poorly researched and badly written, they will not continue on to read your other brilliant works.

In summary, it’s better to spend that extra hour a week writing new content than it is to obsess about every tiny element of your site. Think of issues as a matter of scale – if your shopping cart can’t be used by the blind, that needs immediate attention. Do you have an incorrectly nested paragraph? Deal with it when you have time.

8 Comments on “Being Obsessive about Web Standards”

  1. Does any one know how to add a content into missing alt tags found in avatar-images in wordpress comments? The Alt tags there are missing, it’s mandatory to have them as per xhtml compliance, I was just wondering how to fix that.

  2. Thanks, Cath! Nice to see you showing up here, as well!

    It’s tough to keep up, I know – but the important thing, to my mind, is to keep trying. Even though it’s possible that some people will hold one or two errors against you, you should always know that THOSE people are just being obnoxious – you know the work you’ve put in!

  3. Good article Joe. Being someone who is new to web design, accessibility and validating code, I admit to being a little obsessive about validating my pages, not every day, but after every update or change. I posted about this at Cre8asite, and my view on it is still the same, I think the professional webmasters should do their best to make sure their sites validate, it’s you guys who set the example for us mere hobbyists and if the professionals’ sites don’t validate, what incentive is there for the rest of us to help Yuri Improve the Web.

  4. Very good point of view, Joe. Personally I don’t get carried away any more that makes me feel good (I do very much enjoy the challenge). I allow some stuff to slide, but very little. I do validate every time I make edits to one of my sites. I do this because I find it’s easier to keep up with it if I do it right away. It’s not daunting that way. Plus, if my code is valid and whatnot, I can rest easy knowing that the original design won’t be broken or inaccessible to some user because I created a critical (to their UA) error. Moreover, because some newer developers do look at what I do and consider some of it exemplary, I sort of feel I have an obligation to them to keep my pages valid. Last thing I want is someone pointing out to me that I have an invalid page. Thus, I try to check and have it corrected before someone else does.

  5. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t think I was making a Manichean argument. I simply meant that web standards, while important, are not necessarily the final word in a good website. And I do NOT in any way think that an alt tag is unimportant – my precise statement was that a missing alt tag will not “invalidate all your labor” – that is, a mistake does not mean you haven’t worked hard. It DOES mean that it needs to be fixed – I would not call a website accessible which was missing an alt attribute. I would, however, give that person due credit for their work.

    And sorry, “unescaped” is the wrong word – I meant that I have found copyright symbols cropping up without the proper html entity references.

  6. This isn’t a Manichean argument. You can fix your writing and also add your alt text, the latter of which is more important than you think (and more important than a single unencoded ampersand).

    By the way, how can a copyright symbol be “unescaped??

  7. I certainly can\’t argue – I won\’t claim to be innocent of obsessive validation myself.

    I do sincerely enjoy the detailed and nitpicky elements of accessible design and some parts of SEO. My argument is more to the point that sometimes it\’s important to step back and make sure the whole website is really providing what you need from it.

    For some of us, a website really needs to provide a place for us to exercise our nitpicky tendencies 🙂

  8. Some of us do ENJOY the complexity of accessibility – accessible website design and SEO is the only thing that keeps me interested in web design.