Setting a new standard for web designs

E-commerce sites succeed or fail on the usefulness of their content and the attractiveness and ease-of-use of their designs. At most web sites, the user interface is built using early versions of HTML. This can result in problems with browser compatibility, so the W3C, the standards body of the web, now recommends the use of XHTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Until recently, the only sites that were using XHTML and CSS were weblogs and small sites. This changed with the redesign of Wired News [1]. Wired has introduced a new version of its site that is based on XHTML and CSS. This approach offers many advantages. The site is more accessible, faster to download, and the content can be used effectively over a broader range of devices. Users can easily increase or decrease the font size for the site with one click. The site design can also be changed by modifying the style sheets that control the look and feel of the site.


XHTML is a version of HTML that has been rewritten as valid XML. The combination of XHTML and CSS allows designers to mark-up content semantically. For example, a headline is marked up with a headline tag, rather than being marked-up as large, bold and with a certain font. The look of the content is controlled by a style sheet. The style sheet tells the browser that headlines should be displayed large, bold and with a certain font. This allows the same content to be used with multiple style sheets, such as one for print, one for the web, and one for handheld devices.

The combination of XHTML and CSS is powerful, but has been adopted slowly. The reasons for this include:

* Older browsers may have trouble displaying the new markup * Web builders may not understand the new techniques * Companies want to make sure that their sites look good in all browsers * Site redesigns can be difficult to cost-justifyBecause of these issues, these new tools have been used most effectively at small sites devoted to design or web building. Many of these smaller sites, such as Glish [2] or AListApart [3], have helped demonstrate how the new approach to web interfaces can be used. The New York Public Library [4] system is one of the first examples of a larger site that is using this approach. They have mandated that all NYPL sites must be authored in valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional and styled with valid CSSs.

Risks of XHTML & CSS

There are many benefits to using currents standards to build your site. Wired's new site demonstrates that a large site can be attractive, flexible and easy to use, while supporting current standards. Unfortunately, many site builders will find that there are still problems implementing current web standards.

The biggest concern is that many people use browsers that don't support the current standards. The designers at Wired were conscious of the fact that many features of their new site will only be visible in standards-compliant browsers. Based on their web statistics, this means that as much as 14 percent of its audience will see a "stripped-down" design. Most companies will not be willing to short-change a large portion of their customers.

Many browsers also have quirks when displaying CSS-based designs. For example, in Internet Explorer 6, columns tend to jump around when resizing the browser window. It can also be very difficult to select copy in a CSS-based layout. Older browsers have more significant problems.

Another large concern is that some designs that are very easy to implement using older approaches can be difficult or impossible to duplicate using current standards. The Glish website has examples of various types of 2, 3 & 4-column layouts built using XHTML and CSS. However, there are few examples to be found of very complex layouts built with CSS. E-commerce sites commonly have dense, complex layouts created with nested tables. These can be impossible to reproduce with CSS, or may require hacks to accommodate the limitations of various browsers. As designer Mark Pilgram puts it, "Apparently we've traded a big stinking pile of table tricks for a big stinking pile of CSS tricks. It's not more semantically pure, it's not more accessible, it's not easier to maintain. Why is this progress?" [5]Finally, few of the arguments for web standards carry much weight in the business world. Standards advocate Jeffrey Zeldman has argued that, "99.9 percent of web sites are obsolete. " [6] These same sites probably do 99.9 percent of the business on the web and get 99.9 percent of the traffic. It's very difficult for companies to justify the cost of web redesigns, especially since many companies have had poor ROI on their site redesign investments in the past.

For now, Wired's new site stands as an interesting example of what can be accomplished using current standards. As Wired's designer Douglas Bowman puts it, "Love it or hate it, this is the Wired aesthetic." Companies considering a redesign need to understand the pros and cons of using current standards, and incorporate current standards wherever possible.



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