• Part 1 (Contracts, Site Requirements,Information Architecture)
  • Part 2 (Hosting and Security)
  • Part 3 (Navigation, Scent)
  • Part 4 (Semantics, Structure vs. Design, Universal design)
  • Part 5 (Interaction, Errors, and Administration)

So, we’re finally getting to the meat of best practice web development. This is what people are usually thinking of when they ask about best practices in web design or web programming: actually building the web site itself.

Web design best practices encompass a wide range of needs — everything from the visual look of the design and use of well-chosen markup to the implementation of alternate styles for mobile devices or print shows up in this area. Covering it in one article is, perhaps, ambitious. Fortunately, I’ve written on parts of this subject frequently in the past, so I’ll be providing a lot of links.

It’s important for best practices to clearly separate the structure of your web design (the internal labeling and definition of page elements) from the design elements (the appearance of these elements.) In the last article in this series, I discussed a few key elements of design: not in terms of color, layout, or typography, but in terms of communicating information.

Best practices ultimately leads to creating a universal or accessible design, and this practice hinges on two key concepts: web semantics and the separation of your structure from your design.

The Semantics of HTML (HyperText Markup Language)

You can argue for days (or years, if you take look at the search results for “html semantics” or “web semantics”) on the detailed semantics of how HTML tags should be used. I’ve written on this several times, myself, including articles discussing the value of empty elements, the age-old debate between table-based or CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) layout, among many others.

Semantics are very important. However, when you really look closely at HTML you’ll inevitably notice that it’s not a strongly semantic language — the mark-up language doesn’t even come close to describing all possible uses of the tags. Many tags end up inevitably serving multiple functions.

So what web semantics really require is interpretation. The HTML specification provides one version of this interpretation, with suggested uses and meanings for elements. I’ve provided my own interpretation, as well. There are without question differences of opinion between those documents.

Obviously, you can argue very convincingly that any interpretation which disagrees explicitly with the HTML 4 specification is wrong. Feel free. The core of best practices in web semantics is to use them and make decisions: it’s about thinking, not specific rigor.

We need to differentiate, however, between the semantics of HTML and web semantics. The semantics of HTML are specific and defined: meaning as applied to the elements of HTML. This is a finite list of items, although the complete definition of meaning is less so. Web semantics, on the other hand, describe the application of meaning on the web. This is a more global concept, and applies to all aspects of your web development process.

Web semantics includes everything used to add meaning to your site, providing better comprehension of code and content. Using describe class and ID naming conventions, descriptive function names in server or client-side scripting, or providing helpful comments within your code can all be considered points of web semantics. Best practices means providing a site which is meaningful in both the front and back end.

For specific suggestions about element use, refer to my guide to semantic HTML.

Separation of Structure from Design

This is such an old question to harp on, but the importance of separating the organization of your page from the way it looks has never really flagged.

At a superficial level, it may appear that any markup you use has an effect on the appearance of your site. After all, there’s a clear visual difference between unstyled text marked as a heading and unstyled text marked as a blockquote! However, this visual difference only truly exists because the description “unstyled” is truly a misnomer.

If you disable stylesheets on a web site, you’ll see an extremely plain view of the site. It is not precisely “unstyled,” however — the design has simply been reduced to the default styles applied by the browser. In general, every browser has very similar defaults — but they’re not exactly the same. This is one of the reasons that it’s common to begin a stylesheet with a set of reset styles.

If you conscientiously remove the browser default styling, it can make your own development easier: the slight differences between browsers can then be ignored.

The point is that you should never place anything in your markup which exists purely to create a different appearance. Attributes or tags which define font faces, colors, or styles are obvious problems — but the use of small or strong can also be problems. It’s not that you should never use small: but your use of the element shouldn’t depend on the text being rendered smaller than the surrounding text.

It might not happen, after all.

This is one of the key complaints about using tables for design layout. A table is designed to organize information by providing easy access to it in a matrix. The columns and rows visual appearance of a table is a formality used because it is an expected way to view this type of data organization.

When you take a table and use it to layout your design, you are violating the separation of structure from appearance: your design is now dependent on the default organization of tables. Should somebody attempt to re-organize your table (for example, to linearize the information,) they may encounter a radically illogical data structure.

Fundamentals of Universal Design for the Web

The goal of universal design is very simple: make the information in your website available to every person or device which attempts to access it. This includes mobile devices, search engines, assistive technology, disabled users, and standard desktop browsers.

Universal design is where we bring everything above together. Attention to web semantics and a strong separation between structure and design give your web site at least a fighting chance of being universally usable. Obviously, you can still screw things up!

In the same way that following web standards doesn’t mean that you’ve made a web site accessible, following best practices for general web development doesn’t mean that you’ve made a site which will be great on a hand-held device or with a screen reader.

Different devices (like people) have different special needs.

Creating a web site which is truly universal requires you to be aware of the special needs of every device you’re working for — but a few basic principles will get you 95% of the way there.

The Principles of Universal Design provided by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University are a good guideline for thinking about universal design. Although these principles are truly designed to be universal, in that they are intended to be applied well outside the realm of web development, the basic principles are sound in any context.

If you break the concept of universal design down to a single core issue, it could be that dependencies break access. Whenever you set up a situation in which a specific technical or design element must be present (a dependency on Javascript, a requirement that a control matches the description provided, or a requirement that a user must see a given image, for example,) then you are creating the potential for design failure. Avoid creating anything which depends anything out of your control.

Knowing what is and isn’t in your control (and, more importantly, what seems like it’s in your control, but really isn’t) is critical to best practices in web development. Acknowledging that although you can set the color of the text, you can neither guarantee that a visitor will be capable of seeing that color nor that the text will in fact be that color at the point that a visitor sees it is a critical step in understanding universal design.

Best Practices in Web Development: Part 5 (published on Friday, September 5th) covers interaction design, error management, and long-term site administration.