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Webstandards - Building metaphors

While hammering out a two day workshop training on web-accessibility and Cascading Stylesheets I tried to make up my mind how to explain webstandards and its benefits to a non web-savvy and non-technical audience. I figured it would be best to find something used in "real life" and then try to compare it to webstandards.

After a while of playing around with ideas this one came up my mind. Compare the delivery of a website to a browser to snail-mail transportation.

Take a look at the following picture. Which one of those two letters is more likely to be delivered properly and in-time?

Two letters, one handmade and -written with non-standardized format without stamp and a standard business letter in DIN format

Don't get me wrong. The individual character of the first letter is quite appealing and would stand-out in the mailbox. But this is all about transportation. The process of mail delivery is mostly automated these days, which means that your letter is sorted and distributed by machines. Therefore, the postal service invented some standardized envelope/letter formats. Positioning and proper labelling play important roles as well. If a letter is enclosed within a standard-format envelope, the address is (machine-)written and positioned at the bottom left all information can be accessed by a sorting maching. The letter is then pushed into the right direction so that it can be delivered promptly.

If on the other hand you failed to use the standard format, the sorting machine will most likely sort out your letter and hand it over to a "special/manual treatment" department, where your letter is checked by a person. However, what happens next is up to the person that checks your letter, but I believe this example makes it quite clear, that if you keep to formal standards you'd remain on the safe side, even the outcome is only a delay in delivery (the best-case scenario).

That being said, the same goes for web documents. The transportation of web documents is completely machine(software)-driven. If you keep to standards, use a proper DOCTYPE and valid syntax, chances are high that your message gets through to almost every recipient.

Well, I am quite aware that this comparison is neither a hundred percent perfect nor is it completely valid, but it has helped me several times to get through the general idea of why using web standards is so important. Do you use any metaphors, analogies or anecdotes to explain webstandards?

Okay, now this already came up several times, so I am going to comment it. It is right that this example might enhance the impression that webstandards based design is boring or ugly. This is not entirely true! Although the example is visible it represents an invisible process (the sorting process). Let's assume that you, as the recipient, are never going to see the envelope, because your secretary (browser) is unwrapping all your letters for you and stacks the letters unpacked on your desktop.

So what to do? You can either redesign the envelope pics, so that they are either both ugly or attractive, or you could create an image of a creative letter and make clear that this one and the same letter is inside both envelopes. I making any sense here?

Update part 2:
I have created a standard-envelope that carries the same look and feel than the non-standard envelope. The argument against it might now be that it wouldn't be wise to mix presentation and structure...well, it's just like I said, it is a metaphor, nothing more and nothing less.

The DIN format letter restyled.

Posted by Minz Meyer at November 25, 2004, 04:50 PM | To Top

Other ingredients

I like your comparison. A while back I was looking for some text on the Web that would explain the benefits of Web Standards to potential clients and clients. When I couldn't find any text the presented the benefits in plain language or in terms that organizations can relate to, I drafted my own. Check it out: Thanks for your post. J.

Posted by: Jason Gennaro at November 25, 2004 08:00 PM | Let Cool (this ingredient)

i see what your intention was with the comparison, but i'd be cautious: this may perpetuate the myth that standards-based design is boring and visually uninspired maybe have the "non standard" envelope still look similar to the standard one, but with rips, patches, bits of tesa film, a piece of string holding it all together. don't give them an angle of attack with regards to "but i prefer the look of the first one"

Posted by: patrick h. lauke at November 25, 2004 10:45 PM | Let Cool (this ingredient)

Yes Patrick,
that's obviously one of the weaknesses of this comparison. It has to be made clear that the content of the letter...what's inside both envelopes might be just the same bright colorful and creative thing.

Posted by: Minz Meyer at November 25, 2004 10:52 PM | Let Cool (this ingredient)

Good analogy Minz, could be a starting point for a larger discusion/presentation for web standards newbies. Explaining the benefits of good mark-up to business folk is still especially difficult.

Posted by: Jim Amos at November 27, 2004 09:55 AM | Let Cool (this ingredient)

That is actually a great analogy Minz! And with the second update, it shows that standards can be fun, beautiful and creative!

Then again, just look at this it boring?? NOT!

I may have to 'borrow' the analogy, just add it to my tab. ;-)

Posted by: Christine Hudnall at December 23, 2004 10:03 AM | Let Cool (this ingredient)