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Alastair Revell is the Managing Consultant of Revell Research Systems, a Management and Technology Consulting Practice based at Exeter in the United Kingdom.
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The material published in this web log is for general purposes only. It does not constitute nor is it intended to represent professional advice. You should always seek specific professional advice in relation to particular issues. The information in this web log is provided "as is" with no warranties and confers no rights. The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions.

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Review Entries for Day Monday, 05 November 2007

What is the minimum for a good web site?

I am often asked to give an opinion on whether a web site is good or not. I normally start by assessing whether the web site complies with relevant law and technical standards, since these are easy and objective tests to apply.

It seems sensible to me to say that all good web sites, at the very minimum, will comply with these. I am, of course, aware that good web sites will also have well-written copy and excellent graphics, be informative and easy to navigate, but these are much more subjective than the bare minimum requirements above and consequently far more open to opinion.

However, I do believe that it is reasonable to assert that any site that fails these basic fundamentals cannot realistically be called a good web site, so it is pretty easy to assess whether a particular site is not good.

So what laws and standards are applicable?

Legally, web sites built for operation in the United Kingdom should comply with the Companies Act 2006, the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 (eCommerce directive) and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995  as a bare minimum. (There are similar requirements in many other jurisdictions.)

I have mentioned some of these before in my earlier article Legal Compliance of UK Web Sites in which I suggested that the eCommerce requirements actually are just common sense in that they help to build trust between site operator and visitor. Many people report that they are happier if the know where a business is based, even if they only ever trade with them online. I think the DDA is equally sensible – why would any business want to turn away custom?

Technically, I believe web sites should comply with the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), such as those for XHTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Firstly, most browsers render code written to these standards correctly, so a web site that is compliant will reach a much greater audience. This includes those browsers designed for use by people who have some form of disability, which helps compliance with the DDA. Code that ignores these standards will generally still be rendered, but exactly how will depend on what the browser thinks is trying to be achieved, which is highly likely to differ between products. The result is that the same web site can look somewhat different and sometimes even totally broken using different browsers.

Secondly, search engines are also far more likely to understand compliant code, which means that web sites that are built to these standards are far, far more likely to receive better search engine results than those that don’t. In fact, given how many web sites have been optimised by so called search engine optimisation (SEO) consultants, it is staggering how many still aren't compliant, but I touched on this in my article on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in August 2007.

I doubt that many people who commission web sites are actually experts in web design. If they were, they would presumably have built their own web sites in the first place. The point is that people who commission web sites look to their web designers to execute their work to the best available technical standards and certainly expect their work to comply with the relevant laws.

The reality is that this rarely seems to happen. I believe that many web sites operated in the United Kingdom fail to comply with the relevant laws, which leads me to conclude that many web designers build web sites that do not comply with the law.

The questions is: How upset would you be if you found the web site that you had paid good money for landed you in court facing a hefty fine because it was illegal?

Problems with Professionalism

There does seem to be a general lack of professionalism within the web design business in the United Kingdom. I can feel the hackles of many web designers rise as I suggest that many of them simply are not “professional”, but you would not expect any other profession to deliver a product that was illegal, so why should web designers be any different?

Of course, there are some excellent web designers who produce competently designed sites that comply with the relevant law, who refuse to build sites that don't comply and who use best practice and the latest technical standards, but did you use one of them to build your site?

I think part of the problem is the public perception that building web sites is easy. Certainly, putting together a simple web page is extremely easy, but there is far more to it than meets the eye if your aim is to produce a good web site.

This notion that web sites are some how easy to construct has led to large numbers of would be entrepreneurs flooding the market. The competition in this segment is fierce and the weapon of choice is to undercut the competitor. The result is that things that the buyer is unaware of are pushed aside in order to cut costs, including laws and standards that should be the bedrock of good design.

I think the advent of the British Computer Society’s push for professionalism marks the turning point towards a greater degree of professionalism within Information Technology as a whole; although I believe that we have barely started this journey.

The British Computer Society is raising the profile of its professional qualifications, including that of Chartered Information Technology Professional (CITP), which is the new benchmark within the profession. The status of a Chartered IT Professional (CITP) is equivalent to that of a Chartered Accountant or Chartered Surveyor and is recognised as such by the British Government.

Chartered IT Professionals may practice in one or more of the disciplines within the IT profession, which includes web design; although that obviously does not mean that all CITPs are web designers. Chartered IT Professionals are bound by rules of professional conduct and are subject to the disciplinary procedures of the society, so they should never produce web sites that do not comply with the relevant law and should not undertake such work unless they are competent.

I believe that in the not too distant future, many businesses will look to only engage Chartered IT Professionals in the United Kingdom because they will be assured that their work will be at least to the minimum standards prescribed by law. It would certainly help businesses assess whether their prospective web designer would abide by the law.

So are there tools I can use to check my web site?

I started this article by asking if you had a good web site. There are a couple of very useful, public tools that you can use to assess whether your site meets the internationally agreed technical standards. (You should check their individual terms of use before using them.)

W3C Markup Validation Service
http://validator.w3.org/

HTML or XHTML markup is one of the fundamental building blocks of any web page.

You can simply test any page by cutting and pasting its web address (it's easier than typing it!) into the address box on the page and clicking “Check”. If it complies, you get a green page. If it fails, you get a red page with a list of its failings.

The beauty of this particular validator is that it is designed and built by the people who authorise the web standards. It is from the “horse’s mouth”!


W3C CSS Validation Service
http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/

Although Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are not used in all web sites, it is becoming the preferred method of stipulating the “look and feel” of a web site. If a web site uses CSS, it should be compliant.

You use it exactly like the W3C’s Markup Validation Service and it provides similar feedback.

What about accessibility?

There are also several free, online tools that will assess compliance against the W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). It should be understood that not all of the guidelines can be tested automatically and some require a degree of subjective interpretation. These rules are also under revision because the web has moved on since they were first devised. However, web sites that comply with these rules are likely to have a reasonable defence that they have been built with the Disability Discrimination Act in mind. Watchfire's WebXACT tool is one such free tool.

Problems with Quality Assurance or ... ?

Incidentally, you should not rely on the fact that a web site states that it is compliant with the W3C standards. Research conducted by Revell Research Systems suggests that many sites claim compliance, but in fact fail miserably. I have little doubt that all web designers are fallible (including ourselves!), so the odd page that has somehow mistakenly been overlooked in quality assurance prior to publishing might be forgivable, but our research highlights that most of the pages on many of the sites claiming compliance fail.

At best, this is a clear failing in the quality standards of the web designers concerned. At worst, I leave you to draw your own conclusions about their professionalism.

And what about the legal requirements?

There are no automated checks to test compliance with the law, but you should ensure that your site complies. For instance, if you are a limited company, you must state the country in which your company is registered, its registration number and your registered address.

Pinsent Masons Outlaw web site provides some good general advice, but you should remember that it is always best to consult an expert when in doubt, both for legal matters and on the technical matters discussed above.

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Monday, 05 November 2007 17:43:17 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #
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