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In: Columns > Wide Open

By David Wertheimer

Published on June 18, 2002

Hello, Digital Web Magazine?

Hi, yeah, long time listener, first time caller here.

Yes! What can we do for you.

I see you have an open seat there, where Stephen Van Doren used to sit, and I thought maybe I’d pull up a soapbox for a while, if you’ll have me.

Let’s see what you have to say, then.

Why, thanks! And thank you, dear reader, for poking your cursor into this new and cozy corner of Digital Web Magazine. I’m David Wertheimer, long time Web designer, HTML author (by hand, thank you, BBEdit!), user-centric writer and commentator. I plan on spending my time here dissecting the limits of online usability, user experience, and other timely ease-of-use adjectives.

This month’s theme on Digital Web Magazine is Cascading Style Sheets, which is a fine way to settle into my columnist’s chair. CSS, while an excellent means by which to control both content output and adopt better, standards-based practices, is also the rallying cry of forward-thinking Web designers and developers. But CSS is also a standard that is not yet 100% available for our use, and like all new technologies, should be used sensibly.

We all know CSS can at its finest perform virtually all the presentational tasks of a Web page–from fonts and colors to positioning and spacing. More importantly, simple style sheets have near-universal acceptance and can simplify data output. In fact, strict markup standards have done away with presentational elements such as font entirely, leaving such controls to CSS. What gets in the way of adopting full style sheet-enabled Web pages are the “fogeys” of the Web: Users with older machines that don’t support contemporary Web browsers or people using browsers that are several years old.

Demographics regarding site visitors and their hardware or software limitations differ from site to site, but some mass-market and low-tech sites still get as much as 20 percent of their traffic from 4.x versions of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. These browsers have inconsistent and incomplete support for CSS specifications with Netscape 4.x being the most problematic, as most readers of Digital Web Magazine are all too-well aware. The percentages of visitors should continue to drop, especially with the release of Mozilla, but for the time being, the reality is otherwise.

So what does this all mean from a usability standpoint? Well, if you’re running a cutting-edge site, not much. The user-base of Digital Web Magazine, for example, may have virtually no version-4 usage, and the staff can happily toss its tables and font tags out the window. For mass-market designers, though, making the leap into full style sheet layouts proves more difficult. While CSS guidelines are written in firm, clear language, browser interpretation of CSS is much less clear. Incongruities drive even the most sophisticated authors crazy, and workarounds aren’t always simple or even possible. Many designers are beginning to opt for sophistication over consistency, letting the desire to standardize be the driving force behind their work.

To the community of cutting-edge designers using browsers with rich CSS features on their office T1 lines, and to an Internet in desperate need of widespread standards, this is fundamentally a good thing. It is not, however, going to make a Web site look good to a beginner-level user on a dialup modem. And this is where things get complicated. If you are designing a site with a broad user-base–one with a mass-market focus or an unspecified, widespread readership–dumbing-down your site down to match your users’ level of sophistication is likely better than forcing advancements upon them.

Hey, new guy!

Um, I’m in the middle of something here.

Yes, but we’re curious why you’re advocating a Luddite approach to this progressive developer audience. We want to look forward, not back.

Good point. And I’m no fogey, even though my sites are littered with font tags. I stress that maintaining consistent displays is important to one’s readership, even if it comes at the expense of full-scale advancement. There’s no reason why a site cannot, for example, experiment with a parallel RSS feed and a separate renderer for PDA and text-browser visits, in conjunction with a standard Web page display for all browsers. Indeed, the market bears this out.

Take a look at this list of high-profile retail and media Web sites, each one needing to reach the greatest possible number of users with the same Web display, and look at how many of them still use 1990s-style markup:

Boston Globe Tables No CSS: Using Font Tags None
Chicago Tribune Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
Los Angeles Times Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
Miami Herald Tables CSS (pts) None
Minneapolis Star Tribune Tables CSS (H1 etc.) 4.01 Transitional
New York Times Tables CSS 4.01 Transitional
San Francisco Chronicle Tables No CSS: Using Font Tags HTML Public
Seattle Times Tables No CSS: Using Font Tags None
WashingtonPost Tables No CSS: Using Font Tags None
CBS News Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
CNet/ZDNet Tables CSS (HTML) None
CNN Tables CSS (Using Pixels) 4.01 Transitional
NBC News Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
Amazon Tables CSS-embedded (HTML) None
BestBuy Tables CSS-Embedded (HTML) 4.0 Transitional
The Gap Tables CSS (Using Pixels) 4.0 Transitional
J. Crew Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
Lands End Tables CSS (Using Ems) None
Target Tables CSS (Using Points) 4.0 Transitional
Dell Tables CSS: Using Font Tags 3.2 Final
Gateway Tables CSS (Using Pixels) None
HP Tables CSS (undetermined) 4.0 Transitional

Not only do all of the above sites rely on tables for their layout, a handful of them still rely on font tags and don’t follow standard markup practices. But don’t scoff–they’re not deliberately holding out on the adoption of new technology. Instead, they have made a decision not to trip up their users with layouts and standards that may not work on their machines. For all we know, may still get heavy traffic from 3.x browsers on old Dell machines, and it has made a conscious decision not to leave its legacy systems behind.

This is not to say you should switch your site back to font tags, ignore standards, leave out DOCTYPEs, and use no CSS. By no means should you stop moving forward with your development techniques. Even as I write this, I am redesigning my personal site this month with CSS. But by no means should you leave your users behind, either. The burden is not necessarily on your audience to get its browsers up to par. The burden is yours to study your audience, create a relationship with them, and deliver to each of your visitors the best possible experience, time and again, regardless of their browsers.

However fast or slow the Web continues to develop, the goal of considering your audience will not and should not ever change.

Related Topics: Web Design, CSS

David Wertheimer is the owner of User Savvy, an Internet usability and strategy consultancy. He lives and works in New York City.