Archive for the 'Web Code' Category

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Web accessibility can be hard to get your head around. It’s all very well talking about best practise, but without personal experience it can be very difficult to understand the day-to-day issues people face.

I’m lucky, in that my eyesight is still 20/20. Yet today I ran head-on into a common web accessibility barrier. I got a (diluted) taste of what it’s like to use a screen magnifier to browse the web (like many vision-impaired users).

I was playing on the Wii and when I’d had enough of Super Mario Galaxy for the day, I jumped over to The Internet Channel (or Opera for Wii as us web monkeys know it).

I loaded Google Mail. Alas I have a relatively small television by today’s standards, so the on-screen text was rather small. Thankfully, on the Wii it’s very easy to zoom in on a certain parts of the screen, so I did. I scrolled across to the Labels part of Google Mail and clicked one. Just as you’d expect, it updated the conversations part of the page. No problem.

Well, no problem except for the whole zoomed in bit. Because the site is built using Ajax, there hadn’t been a full-page refresh. It meant I had no way of knowing something had happened elsewhere on the page until I zoomed out again.

Now, Google also offer basic HTML versions of their web applications. These don’t use Ajax, so you get the full-page refresh (and hence you’re aware that the page has changed). That’s one way to solve the problem, but creating separate web applications for different groups of users isn’t always an option.

I’m not saying Ajax is a bad thing — rather pointing out one of it’s side effects. I’m not yet sure how I’d work around the problem (and I’d love to hear suggestions), but it’s certainly food for thought when designing for the web.

Back-end user experience

I’m sure you spend a lot of time making sure your website’s user experience is up to scratch. But are you thinking about all of your users? What about the poor sap who has to use the content management system (CMS) that drives it all? Are you making life easier for them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of default CMS installations are just plain horrible to use. They’re over-complicated, difficult and ugly. After the initial Oooh, I’ve got a shiny new toy to play with! feeling has worn off, you (and your users) just don’t want to use them. If the user doesn’t want to update the website, the website simply won’t get updated.

So what’s the answer? You can either find yourself a new CMS and rebuild the website around that, or you can make the best of what you’ve got.

Now, it’s likely that your CMS users won’t know HTML and nor will they want to. To help them out, the CMS often comes with a WYSIWYG HTML editor that tries to look, feel and work like Microsoft Word.

That’s all well and good, but they often come with absolutely everything enabled. Imagine Word with all of it’s toolbars switched on – it’s got buttons that’ll do the washing up, summon a small army and invade New Zealand or even change the colour of your text. It all adds up to make an editor that’s hard to use and intimidating to the new user. Besides, do you actually want the user to be able to change the text colour? Won’t that contravene your brand guidelines or ruin your lovely design?

Keep it simple, stupid

Now for a tangent: A lot of people love Apple products. Why? One reson is their simplicity:

The most fundamental thing about Apple … is that they’re just as smart about what they don’t do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things.

(from technologyreview.com).

It’s that good old maxim again: Keep it simple, stupid. So what happens if we apply that to our HTML editor?

I started by removing absolutely all of the buttons and drop-downs. Every last one. I was left with a blank canvas on which to type. Obviously this is a bit limiting, so I slowly added back the functions I needed to do the job (and nothing more). The end result is vastly simplified; an environment that lets you focus on the content, not the features of the editor. What’s more, by stripping out some of the more advanced features, I reduced the likelihood of the editor going bananas and cranking out the sort of HTML that Word itself would be proud of *.

Now, this is obviously just one small aspect of the CMS. But apply that principle across the whole system and the end result will be simpler, easier to use and less intimidating.

Don’t stop there either. If you’re able to customise the look and feel of the interface, make it look good, too. Here’s that article again:

Attractive things work better… When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least feels like it does.

(also from technologyreview.com).

If you get the interface right, it makes life easier for your users and they’ll love you for that (or at the very least, harbour less of a desire to kill you).

* Not sure what I mean? Open a document in Word, then visit File > Save as Web Page. Open the result up in your text editor of choice and — as Mr. T would say — Let me introduce you to my friend pain!

Internet Explorer combination float bug

So, I’m creating a layout that looks something like this:

Picture of a three-column web-page.

It’s a fairly simple three-column layout. The thing is, I’ve used some funky negative margin trickery to swap the first and second columns (so that the HTML is displayed in the correct order for non-CSS user agents).

Unfortunately, IE6 renders this:

Picture of IE getting a three-column web-page wrong.

…except in some hard-to-reproduce circumstances when it gets it right.

It turned out to be a combination of bugs, which made it ever so slightly difficult to track down. First up was The IE Doubled Float-Margin Bug. Adding display: inline; to the CSS for the floated columns appeared to just make the problem worse, but was in fact needed to correct the issue.

Once that was in place, the page was only correctly rendered once I’d moused over certain links. It took me quite some time to figure out what was going on: IE was incorrectly calculating the funky margins: Instead of basing them on the width of the floated column’s parent element, it was working them out from the body element. I figured that out because the rendering was slightly different dependent on the width of the window.

The solution was to wrap yet another element around the outside, and set the width there too.

I’ve created a simple test-case that explains the solution for the anybody else that runs into the issue.

Crimes against HTML: Best practise and the CMS

I’ve been evaluating some content-management systems recently. We’ve got a few requirements that rule out a lot of them straight off: It’s got to be a .net system, be able to run over SSL and be very secure, have decent versioning, document management, audit trails and so on. There aren’t many products out there quite fit our needs.

We’re currently working with one (I’m not going to name names here) which has a document management component that looks something like this:

DocLib.gif

It’s a simple tree-view that works very similarly to Windows Explorer. Believe it or not, to build that simple box they’ve used twelve nested tables, a div, a span, endless inline styles, javascript: URIs and even a made-up HTML attribute (view the full horror). Even if you don’t know HTML, you can see that it’s overkill. Apart from one on the outer-most element, it’s lacking any useful IDs or class-names for me to hook into with my style-sheet.

I know I’m a mark-up purist, but really that’s just taking the piss. Accessibility? Search-engine friendliness? Page load-time optimisation? Nope, never heard of them. It’s alright though, it does AJAX.

It’s no wonder that so many corporate web-sites have appalling mark-up when this is the state of the default output from the “enterprise level” CMS products that drive them. If web standards and best practise are going to go truly mainstream, we’re going to have to reach out to the developers of these products and nudge them in the right direction.

I’ll leave you with this exerpt from Bruce Lawson & Patrick Lauke’s talk at the multipack’s Geek in the Park event:

Legal & General… made their site accessible because they were worried about the legal risk.

And they found as side effects: 30% increase in natural search engine traffic, a significant improvement in Google rankings for all their target keywords, a 75% reduction in time for pages to load, accessible to mobile devices, their time to manage content reduced from an average of five days to half a day per job, they saved £200,000 a year on site maintenance, they got a 95% increase in visitors getting a life insurance quote (which was the purpose of that site), a 90% increase in sales online, and 100% return on investment in 12 months. And that was the side effects of making the site accessible.

London Buses

Firefox 2 Microsoft aren’t the only ones releasing a new browser this week.

Mozilla have stepped up and released Firefox 2, the latest version of their browser. A built-in spell-checker and protection against fraudulent & malicious web-sites are amongst the new features.

If you already use Firefox, the built-in update system should let you know about the download shortly (if it hasn’t already). If you aren’t you really ought to give it a go — Grab a copy from getfirefox.com.

Heads Up: Internet Explorer 7 is here

Just a quickie to note that Microsoft have released Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP. Get it while it’s hot!

This will be pushed out via Windows Update in the next few weeks, though it’ll be a non-crititcal as a high-priority update for now. IE7 will not install without asking first. More information on the IE Blog.

[Thanks to Andrew Disley for the tip-off]

Pink for October

I’m a bit late to the party here, but what the hell.

Inspired by Phu, Anton and Matthew, I’ve turned this site ever so subtly Pink for October (you might need to hit refresh), in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Mmm, garish.

Microformats

Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards.

I didn’t understand it at first. I just couldn’t see the point. I wasn’t thinking outside the box. It took a kick up the backside from Jeremy Keith and co to figure it out.

You see, most web-sites contain some form of useful data: Contact information, reviews, events and so on. Sometimes, it’s not even obviously structured data. Take my “About the author” snippet for example:

Olly Hodgson is a Web Designer dude from Cheltenham, England.

It tells you who I am, what I do, where I’m from and includes a link where you can find out more about me. There’s almost enough for a business card.

The thing is, no two coders will mark-up their contact information, reviews and events in quite the same way, so it’s not exactly simple to extract it and use it elsewhere. Microformats aim to change that.

Here comes the science bit

Let’s take a closer look at that snippet:

<p class="vcard">
<a href="http://thinkdrastic.net/about/" class="fn url">Olly Hodgson</a> is a <span class="title">Web Designer</span> dude from <span class="adr"><span class="locality">Cheltenham</span>, <span class="country-name">England</span></span>.
</p>

You see those class-names wrapped around the important bits of data? That’s the hCard microformat in action. Basically, it’s an HTML version of vCard, which is the industry-standard electronic business card format. In there we’ve got a name (class=”fn”), a web address (class=”url”), a job-title (class=”title”) and so on.

Run this page through Technorati’s hCard to vCard converter and hey presto! A vCard you can open in your address book software.

The real beauty is that you don’t have to change the look-and-feel of your web-site in the slightest. Just add the magical class-names to your existing mark-up and you’re done.

So what’s next?

Microformats are obviously still in their infancy, but their potential is endless. Where hCard opens up contact information, hCalendar does the same for events. hReview has the potential to completely shake up the way products are rated in the online shopping world. XOXO could enable a web-browser to offer an outline-view of your site similar to the one offered in Microsoft Word. The list goes on and on.

What’s more, while microformats offer a standardised way of extracting data from HTML, they don’t in any way lock you into writing it in a specific way. Your HTML code can look how you want it to really, as long as it includes those magical class attributes.

Go on, get out there and implement them. You know you want to.