Home Inspection for the Web Consultant

October 19, 2006

Topics: Web Development, Web standards.

I’m currently entering into the process of buying a house, so my thoughts are naturally finding ways to compare facets of buying a house with facets of web development. Today, I’m thinking of home inspection.

When a home is inspected, the inspector will check out the building with two particular facets in mind: safety and function. Does it work? and Does it conform to building codes?. (I’m not going to go into the whole question of whether building codes mean safety….)

Houses are built for the needs and expectations of their era. A home built in the 1940’s may use only two screws where a newer home needs three. It may have asbestos insulation. Perhaps it won’t have appropriate ground faults in the wiring; or a fuse box instead of circuit breakers. An inspector is likely to comment on these factors: whether a particular element is non-functional, whether it’s non-standard, and whether it’s hazardous.

This is where the comparison starts to come in between home inspection and web development. Older web sites were built to specifications and expectations which were different from those one should expect today. (The scale of years is vastly different, but we’ll disregard that for the sake of analogy.) This doesn’t necessarily make them bad websites – it makes them old websites. You don’t have to fix everything an inspector tells you is off code: most things will still be perfectly functional, despite their lack of conformity to modern standards.

But there are some problems where that inspection will make stronger recommendations: these elements are hazardous. This is also true of web development. There are some features which have been used in web development and some techniques used for search engine optimization which are seriously hazardous: they may result in an inability of some populations or users to conduct business with your site, or they may cause search engines to apply filters which prevent you from appearing in search results. Either of these are hazards of web design: they may destroy your livelihood.

As a web consultant (that is, when I’m helping somebody improve an existing site, rather than designing a new site), my first priority is to look for these kinds of hazardous elements in a site. Repair the fraying wiring and ground the lightning rod before looking for fixtures with one too few screws…

It’s not that getting everything up to the most current standard isn’t worthwhile and important: but when you’re setting your priorities, keeping the house from being burned down is the top concern.

2 Comments to “Home Inspection for the Web Consultant”

  1. I’d relate the issue to ease of repair, too. A skippable splash page, for example, although minor, is also extremely easy to remove. Simple layout tables, on the other hand, are more pernicious: settled in throughout the design, possibly on hundreds or thousands of pages…

    It’s a tough issue, since ultimately I’d prefer to fix everything, but the practical issues sometimes get in the way. It’s hard to decide what issues make a site actually “hazardous” to use – but I think you’re definitely on the right track.

  2. That’s an interesting analogy! I know a lot of accessibility and usability proponents (me included) have a tendency to go mad and expect every tiny thing to be fixed before considering a website worthy, and equally I know that’s not realistic in a commercial setting.

    So what kind of issues would you classify as “outdated” rather than “hazardous”?

    I’m guessing that it would include “features” such as simple layout tables, accessible frames, skippable splash pages, some degree of non-semantic code … how does that fit with what you’d put on the list?