by Randal Rust, R.Squared Communications

This article is a companion piece to a presentation given to the Central Ohio Macromedia User Group on Wednesday, March 20th, 2002.

I was first exposed to computer programming when I was in the sixth grade. I attended a Saturday-morning class that taught BASIC. I hated it. I have always been very visual in nature, and writing lines of code just did not appeal to me.

Fast-forward 18 years.

For the past year, I have been working on a web site for the State of Connecticut. When the project started, I did not know HTML, had next-to no knowledge of Javascript and had never heard of the Document Object Model. While this had much to do with my background as a graphic designer, it had even more to do with my aversion to writing code and my dependence on Dreamweaver to generate code for me.

One day a document was faxed to me from a co-worker in Connecticut. It was an overview of the State’s accessibility requirements for web sites .

It took me completely by surprise. While I was a minor advocate of Jakob Nielsen’s usability initiative, the accessibility guidelines for Connecticut were actual requirements.

The Connecticut guidelines referred to a World Wide Web Consortium document called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, which I had heard of before, but really did not know what it was. I had no choice but to familiarize myself with the guidelines and implement them.

I read the guidelines and understood them, but I had one very big problem. My lack of scripting knowledge had finally caught up with me. It was evident in reading the guidelines that I was going to have to really learn HTML and CSS.

Luckily I had spent enough time working with Dreamweaver to at least know how to clean up the buggy code that it created. And I had picked up more than enough tricks to make my pages display properly across browsers. But my knowledge of CSS was limited. All I could really do with it was style text.

So I decided that learning CSS was the first priority. This is because the WCAG Guidelines recommend using CSS for positioning, instead of tables, which was a major shift in my web design philosophy. Deciding to start with CSS may be the best decision that I have ever made in terms of learning web design.

It started with a simple email that I sent to Jamie Collingwood, asking how to style links. Since then, I’ve read the CSS Level 2 Specification, countless articles on CSS and joined the CSS discussion list that Westciv hosts. I can pretty safely say that I am now an expert at CSS, which is pretty good for a guy who couldn’t even write CSS by hand until last Fall.

One thing you need to know about me is that when I start learning something, I want to learn everything about it that I possibly can. CSS is a fantastic technology, and CSS is a standard. So while I learned CSS, I delved into some of the other W3C standards — XHTML, XML, DOM. A whole new world was opening up before me. I was starting to like this programming thing.

And if I had not begun with CSS, had I started with something else, I might have once again passed on learning these things. You see, CSS is the visual part of web design, which is what I am most familiar with, and most interested in. But I’m also always looking for ways to reduce the amount of time it takes to maintain and edit documents. I’m always looking for efficiency in the process. And that is what CSS and standards bring to the table.

Learning CSS and standards has been a near-religious experience. It has completely changed the way I view web site design, and it would be a travesty if I did not mention the fantastic resources that helped along this long and winding road:

Of all these resources, the one that made the most impact was the New York Public Library Style Guide. It was the last piece of the puzzle that I needed to complete the picture. Not only does it provide an excellent overview of CSS and XHTML, but it provides numerous resources for implementing standards.

As I learned about all of these technologies, I also had to make sure that I focused on accessiblity, which is no small task in itself. I joined the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative mailing list. And while that has at times proved to be a very frustrating group to have conversations with, it has been very beneficial. Not only are there members who have been advocating accessibility for years, but there are also disabled users, who can give first-person feedback on issues that they have encountered.

Many people seem to think that accessibility and usability are the same thing. This is not true. While usability can certainly be measured, it is not a legal requirement. This is why accessibility is more important, accessibility is required by law.

learning to let go

Accessibility means that users of any kind, using any device, should have access to the essential information that is contained on your web site. The information is the key. All too often, web designers focus on how a web site looks from one browser to another. They get caught up in developing a pixel-perfect design for Internet Explorer and Netscape, running on a desktop machine. As the Internet grows, and more devices become web-enabled, designers must take into account what happens when a user tries to access a site with an alternate device.

Designer have to learn to stop trying to control the display of their pages. They have to accept that forces beyond their control will cause their design to display differently, sometimes radically, in certain situations.

This is something that I accepted very quickly. And it has made my life much simpler. Rather than focus on how my page displays in a particular browser. I concern myself more with how the code is structured, and how it is displayed with CSS. Pages must be structured logically, so that screen-readers can accurately describe them, or so that a wireless device can display the information.

It is at this point that the issue of accessibility goes beyond just disabled users. If the rate of alternate media devices continues to grow, then businesses will need to be sure that their web sites can be viewed on more than just a desktop machine.

I mentioned before that one of my goals is to strive for efficiency. I realized that the only way to ensure that I was doing things the in best, most efficient way was, simply put — to code to the standards.

The W3C has created recommendations that are meant to be the building blocks of an accessible, flexible Web. In all of the research that I have done over the past year, it is obvious to me that a standardized web is emerging. XML is going to be at the core, and there is not better place to start learning about XML than with XHTML.

Later this year, the Connecticut project that I have built to standards will launch. It will be the culmination of 12 months of relearning how to build web sites.

When this journey began, I could not write code by hand to save my life. Now I use Homesite for nearly everything, including writing this article. The journey is far from over, because there is still so much more yet to learn—XForms is what I am most interested in, along with programming the DOM with Javascript.

For years web designers, including myself, have complained about the differences between Netscape and Internet Explorer. As those browsers have moved towards standards, I find it disturbing to hear people in the design community complain about the emerging rules that standards are bringing to the table. There seems to be a prevalent attitude that standards will stifle creativity.

This is simply not true. With this new version of my web site, I am able to achieve things that I never could have before, thanks to standards. Not only does this site not need a “print” version, but I can change the entire look of the site by simply changing the parameters of my style sheet.

I am now able to achieve things that I could not with a table-based layout. I am less frustrated with web design, and I am ahead of the game, with my eyes toward the future.

resources for alphabet soup presentation

Part 1: Barriers to Accessibility

Part 2: The Americans with Disabilities Act

Part 3: Hooks v. OKBridge

Part 4: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Part 5: Assistive Technologies

Part 6: The W3C and Accessibility Guidelines

Part 7: Section 508 and WCAG 1.0 Requirements

Part 8: Web Standards

about r.squared communications

R.Squared Communications is a full-service web firm located in Dublin, Ohio. We work with clients in Columbus, Marysville, Upper Arlington, Springfield, Urbana, Delaware and Cincinnati, Ohio. We specialize in web design, web applications, search engine optimization and web marketing.