Why Joe Client Doesn’t Care About Standards

Web standards should be a driving force behind the work of any designer or developer. They provide a scale against which to measure the quality, structure, syntax and methodology of design work.

To explain the benefits of web standards, I’ve compared on my own blog the landscape of the web today with that of 10 to 15 years ago.

Questions related to cross-browser compliance and the necessity of testing extensively before launching still linger, but the standardization of DOM, (X)HTML, CSS and a number of other technologies has made the digital world much more predictable.

When coding a standards-compliant website, we can be reasonably certain that it will render the same in Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and even Internet Explorer (from version 7 up, of course). Inconsistencies do arise, but anyone who has stood on either side of the past decade of web design and development would surely recognize the value of standards.

As a community, we embrace standards and encourage others to do the same. We write semantic code, validate it and occasionally go as far as having in-depth discussions about how we should (or shouldn’t) format our CSS and HTML.

But the ugly truth is that the average Joe Client simply doesn’t care. Joe is looking not for a compliant website, but for an effective website.

There are exceptions, of course. You might be “lucky” enough to pick up a know-it-all client who demands standards compliance because they overheard a friend of an assistant to a fellow CEO say that it’s important.

For the most part, though, Joe is not looking to hire a designer based on their ability to meet all of the standards recommended by the W3C. He probably doesn’t even know what the W3C is.

Rather, Joe is looking for a designer who can build a website that helps him achieve his objective. Whether the objective is to sell more products, share information about his company or bring people with a common interest together, he will certainly be more concerned with achieving it than with having a website that can be checked off as being standards-compliant.

So, do we abandon standards altogether to give Joe what he wants? Not at all. Standards, as we’ve discussed, are critical and should figure largely in the work we do for clients, even if they’re not a selling point in and of themselves.

I have seen a number of portfolios in which the designers proudly claim that their websites were built on valid standards-compliant HTML, CSS and so forth. While this is certainly a good thing, we have to ask ourselves what this means to Joe. More often than not, Joe will presume that you mean merely that your designs are of high quality, or perhaps that you are up to speed on the latest technological trends (such as the often-misunderstood Web 2.0).

Standards are so much more than that. But we can’t afford to leave Joe to connect the dots when he doesn’t fully understand standards in the first place. Rather than emphasize the standards themselves, we should focus on explaining their benefits.

 

Accessibility

Accessibility is about creating websites that can be used and navigated by users with disabilities. The most commonly cited implementation is to make content recognizable to screen-reading software and text-to-Braille hardware.

This could pose a great benefit to clients. Most clients probably do not understand that such assistive technologies basically parse the HTML document and return the content in a format that can be understood by the user. Standards-compliant code helps to create the document structure required for these devices to function properly, thus making the website more accessible.

help sign with Braille

Separating content (HTML) from presentation (CSS) also makes pages more accessible when certain stylistic elements are unavailable (whether because the server has failed to deliver them or the user’s custom settings override them).

Without the style information, a well-constructed website simply reverts to the browser’s defaults, which means that the content is still accessible even if the stylistic elements are not. Websites that do not comply with standards generally do not fall back accessibly in this way.

 

Future-Proofing

While the landscape of the web is constantly shifting, clients usually do not want to have to pay for a completely new website after a few years because of outdated code.

While the big browser makers do their best to make their rendering engines backwards-compatible (and HTML5 itself has this concept built into it), the future-proofing benefits of web standards might appeal to clients.

Just because a non-compliant website looks fine in current browser versions doesn’t mean it will in future ones, especially as browsers continue to deprecate certain quirks in favor of broader standardization. As such, one simple argument you could make is that compliant websites are best equipped to stand the test of time, because they are built according to the blueprint that guides the development of the web.

 

Improved Performance

Even the most uninformed client would recognize how damaging a sluggish website would be to their business. Web standards can help greatly with this, too.

The guideline to separate content and presentation was not established by purists out of semantic snobbery. It really is the best way to create a website. Embedding style mark-up on every page would create a lot of bloat and drive up page sizes (and the amount of information that users would have to download).

By moving the style code to a cacheable CSS file and eliminating layout tables and other useless mark-up, you will make the website more responsive and user-friendly. Joe would certainly appreciate that.

Improved performance also reduces bandwidth consumption and related costs (even though most hosting packages come with more bandwidth than a website would ever need).

 

Simpler Maintenance

Of the many benefits that come with having a standards-compliant website, perhaps the most appealing is that it generally requires less maintenance than a non-compliant website—or at least the maintenance can be done much more quickly and cheaply. A few tweaks to a style sheet will activate changes across the website.

Compare this to a website that mixes up style and content. Making a simple change could require digging through several template files or, worse, a set of static HTML documents. I remember having to do this myself, pre-enlightenment, wading through a host of ugly font tags scattered throughout the pages. Any typographic change would take hours, and I invariably missed one or two somewhere.

easy maintenance

Standards help clients avoid these headaches and instead benefit from much simpler, cheaper and more efficient maintenance.

Because it is semantic and follows established document structures, a compliant website is also easier for other designers and developers to read and understand. So, if the client ends up needing someone else to maintain their website, that person will not have to spend hours trying to wrap their head around the code.

 

SEO

While there is no real consensus on the effect of web standards on search engine optimization, one thing is clear: standards don’t hurt. In fact, they very likely bring a number of benefits to a website’s search ranking. Just look at the tips that Aaron Walter suggests in his “Findability/SEO Cheat Sheet: Guide to Web Standards SEO,” all of which comply with web standards. Here are some of the requirements he suggests:

  • Your mark-up should contain no errors that would make the page difficult for a search engine to index. Validate your mark-up with the W3C’s validation tool.
  • Write semantically meaningful mark-up. This means using tags as they are intended to be used and in a way that reflects the content, rather than according to their default style. Use W3C’s semantics extractor to check your work, and view your website without CSS to ensure that the information hierarchy supports your message.
  • Write intelligible title tags, beginning with the page name, then the website name, then a short keyword-rich phrase that describes the website.
  • Use heading tags with relevant keywords to identify the key sections of your pages. Put the headings tags in order of importance, starting with h1 (for the website or organization’s name).

It stands to reason that standards-compliance would help a website’s SEO for the same reasons that it would make it future-proof. As search algorithms improve, compliant websites will naturally remain the most readable and crawlable, making them rank well.

Make sure that clients understand that SEO should not be done at the expense of standards. Anything that breaks standards is little more than a quick fix for fleeting results, not a forward-thinking solution to maintain visibility.

 

Conclusion

While Joe doesn’t care about standards-compliance in and of itself, he will be receptive to the many concrete benefits it would bring to his business. But you are the one who has to explain those benefits to him.

You have to explain how adhering to web standards will make his website faster, more accessible, easier to maintain, more future-proof and, in all likelihood, more findable. If you can help him grasp all that, he might become even more excited about standards than you are!


Written exclusively for Webdesigner Depot by Matt Ward. Matt is a respected designer and writer who freelances under the moniker Echo Enduring Media. He also currently acts as the Creative Director at Highland Marketing. You should follow Matt on Twitter.

How do you approach web standards? How do you explain their benefits to clients? Share your view below.

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  • http://www.hortal.com Roberto Hortal

    “There are exceptions, of course. You might be “lucky” enough to pick up a know-it-all client who demands standards compliance because they overheard a friend of an assistant to a fellow CEO say that it’s important.
    For the most part, though, Joe is not looking to hire a designer based on their ability to meet all of the standards recommended by the W3C. He probably doesn’t even know what the W3C is.”
    So none of your clients know anything about the web and why the way it is built is important? How unfortunate you’ve been! Those of us that have forged a career at running successful eBusinesses do not make our decisions based on overhearing assistants and definitely know what the W3C is. Indeed we have been actively involved in driving the widespread adoption of the standards you mention above, and a few more. The change in the Web standards’ compliance you mention in the post wasn’t driven by designers – it was by savvy businesses who understood the need to build sites right. After all, it was designers who embraced Flash, made it ubiquitous and are now resistant to wane themselves off it ;)
    You make some very valid points on your post -indeed I want to make sure it is clear I support all your other observations and recommendations- but the basic premise that clients are clueless couldn’t be more wrong. Surely there are some. They’ll learn or they’ll fail, but most of us do not see ourselves reflected in your stereotype.

  • http://twitter.com/beingmrkenny Mark Kenny

    I’ve never understood this: why would the client need to care anyway? Why do we need to sell standards to clients. Surely it’s something we just do anyway. Does it cost anything extra to put CSS in a separate file, or to close HTML tags, or to use only W3C DOM methods?

    I have to say, I don’t see the need to explain standards to clients. I guess it might help to reassure clients that you “do things properly” but otherwise I don’t see the need. It’s like a doctor putting “I wash my hands” on their website or a mechanic saying, “I read the manual.”

  • http://twitter.com/designeronduty Sergei Tatarinov

    So this is what every designer/developer must have their portfolio say – I make fast, accessible, easy to maintain, future-proof and search engines friendly websites. Not exactly word-for-word, of course; personal touch is a huge plus. Although this should be a common sense, not many bother to use such explanation. They either don’t realize the importance of it or try to come up with the coolest introduction phrase ever, calling “I make fast, accessible bla bla bla..” a boring clichè and trying to stand out from the crowd. I think the latter position is a good one, but if only your introduction delivers a message to potential clients. For example, ‘I craft beautiful websites’ is not really a good way to describe what you do. It must be easy to comprehend for every non-designer/dev person, but strong enough for your colleagues on the shop floor to appreciate your level of professionalism. I hope this writing makes any sense. :)

  • dev0347

    Accessibility is about creating websites that can be used and navigated by users with disabilities.

    Ummm.. I would argue that it’s not. It’s about making your website usable for the greatest number of people, regardless of their abilities or how they choose to access the internet. Older people who have difficulty reading any text that is below, say, 11px on a screen are not disabled, but readability is certainly an accessibility issue. Designing a site in Flash with no fallback is an accessibility issue because plenty of (non-disabled) people can’t use Flash: people with iPhones; those whose employers block all streaming content; the vast swathes of the population who wouldn’t begin to know how to upgrade or install it on their machine.

    Roger Johansson explains this better than I could: http://bit.ly/cBDfPK

  • http://www.seanrieger.com Sean

    Great post. I think you hit on something a little deeper here, which is of growing concern to me. Clients are growing tired of the “I’m the expert so trust me, I’m smarter than you” types in our industry. ( As am I. I don’t think that attitude furthers our craft at all ) The best skill you can develop as a Web designer, is one of effectively explaining what you know in terms that the client can understand. We need to reconnect Web development and design to the real world business best practices. Communication and relevance is the key.

  • http://www.gethifi.com Joel Sutherland

    Search Engines may be indifferent to standards, but they DO care about semantics. This is a great trojan horse for getting your clients to agree to standards.

    Semantics are important particularly to body content. Using correct headers, paragraphs, image alt tags, etc are very important to search engines. That is what signals to them the important parts of the page.

  • Stijn Verplancke

    There is truth in that quote saying that most clients probable don’t -exactly- know what the W3C is. But they don’t need to in order to find out rather sooner than later that errors appear when people check out their website. Modern standards bring comfort for both back- & front-end; and all the way through as a matter of fact. For us creating it from scratch and for them browsing from a to z with whatever browser-goggles they’ve put on. It doesn’t matter the client does or does not run the whole validation-show; you just deliver a quality product along with a service that is up to standard and preferably above.

    But honestly, sometimes the most exciting combinations of code (php, css, js,…) can display a little different from browser to browser, but minding a couple of fixing mark-up lines even that takes care of business to render a smooth and, yes, sexy thing. That’s why we’re talking modern standards (IE6+)

    As such I’d strongly advise to set the “IE6-alert pop-up screen” to display on every project you’re set to launch. Sure, pop-ups are anoying; but kindly suggesting people to use updated technology (not even the latest) is different from delivering a website that lacks accessibility. As most probably are aware; more and more web developing outfits put it specifically in the contract presented to the client: “IE6-compliancy not guaranteed”. And there’s no W3C-shame in that. On anything else, I can concur.

  • http://uklwd.net/ kane

    To the most part, I think the issue I face more as a developer are clients asking for more strict standard compliance. Whilst I’m a big standards advocate, standards is not black and white and this is an issue.

    We have fed clients that validation is standards, and so when we start using ARIA and the page does not validate, they think they get minus accessbility points, minus SEO points, minus future proof and minus website perfomace. But in fact, it actually increases accessibility, SEO for semantics, makes it future proof because w3c is not up to date and does not necessarily affect performance.

    It’s a more difficult task explaining that your code follows standards even when it does not validate.

  • Paul

    I agree with Mark – standards, compliance & accessibility is something we should be doing for every client. I explain to my clients that they will be getting a site built in accordance with the w3c and so on – I don’t charge more for doing so its just a standard that I a designer strive for – win win.

  • http://www.rawkmedia.com John

    Setting customer expectations with regards to SEO is huge… and just about the most difficult thing to do :) One great argument for standards & compliance, is the SEO factor. SEO best practice drives HTML standardization.

  • http://www.acousticwebdesign.net Mitchell Hall

    I completely agree with Mark and Paul, most of my clients don’t know or care what web standards are and they shouldn’t. Every developer should be writing standards compliant websites not because their clients want it, but because it’s the best way to ensure the site will be seen and found by the biggest number of people and it makes maintaining the website simpler. I seriously doubt a client is going to come to me and say I don’t want a standards compliant website. I wouldn’t even consider building a non standards-compliant website.

  • Grant

    I disagree with most of this article. My experience over the last 15 years is that the impact of inconsistencies today is much greater than 10 years ago. And growing, too.

  • http://www.jajja.com Jimmy Wirsborg

    As an SEO I love this article.

    It’s so tedious to explain this over and over to clients that have their flashy frames/js/flash sites that will never even get indexed properly…

    Now I got a few more arguments to add to the arsenal and a link to spread! Feel the love and appreciation.

  • Ox

    Talking about standards… perhaps it would be a good idea to explain to all web developers what actually is XHTML and when they can use it. Joe doesn’t care and know about that but a web dev should so we won’t see this great beautiful sites packed up in the great __XHTML__ being served as html.

  • http://www.curtisscott.com Curtis Scott

    I agree with Mark about why the client would not need to know much about web standards Clients only need to know and trust that you know what you are doing for them and you follow best practices.

  • http://www.edgarleijs.nl Edgar Leijs

    Cars are made a certain way for security & accessibility reasons, why not websites?

  • Kathleen

    I found this article to be very informative, and I enjoyed seeing the need for standards from the supposed view of the client. I think the article did an excellent job of reinforcing the need for standards, and how you could communicate them to a layman, aka your client.
    I think the two factors that really stood out for me were the arguments that standard compliant pages load faster, and will be future compatible with the constantly changing web environment. These two factors alone, are excellent points to make to a client, when informing them about web standards and why the fact that you offer compliant sites, will get you the job.