The Web Has No Design Standards

A reader recently complained to me about the hyperlinks on this blog. The reader thought the links were too hard to distinguish from the rest of the text. And the reader’s right. The Swedish Greys desktop theme that I thought looked cool eight years ago, while attractive in an aesthetic sense (to me at least), is not the most usable or accessible. I’ll be looking for another theme.

I was able to style my blog however I wanted to and it looks the same in all browsers. That’s the flexibility of good HTML/CSS standards. Every site can look and behave exactly as the creator envisioned. It’s also why the Web’s a usability nightmare. We have to learn to use every site we visit because every site is designed differently. How come when we talk about Web standards the focus is almost entirely on technical standards? Where is the worry about design standards?

I recently finished reading the classic book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and it talks about standards. Normans says “When all else fails, standardize.” Basically when you have no other way of implementing good design, you turn to standardization so at least every user only needs to learn how to use the similar things (in this case web pages) once. And I think we have no other way, because if we did, we would have figured it out in the past 30 years.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember using the pre-CSS and pre-JavaScript Web as a little kid on Mosaic. You knew there that the blue underlined text was always a hyperlink. And you knew that the back button always took you back a page. And you didn’t have to worry what different actions buttons did, because there was no JavaScript. I’m not saying we should go back there, but in many ways having the constraints made pages easier to use. There was no need to think. Now we have no constraints, but that’s why we need standards.

Every other major consumer computing platform but the Web has design standards. Apple’s platforms are famous for their Human Interface Guidelines. They are an attempt to ensure all apps follow some standard design conventions. Not every app does, but Apple has some ability to enforce them through its app stores, and some users even demand developers follow them. So, they are at least kinda sorta followed by most major apps. If the Web had design standards, maybe users would demand developers follow them too. Google and Microsoft have design suggestions and guidelines for their developers. This is why a good app for each platform feels “at home.”

But we have no design guidelines for the Web that are widely accepted. Sure, people have tried. But the only way we’re going to get something that’s actually followed is if we have a standard. And a standard needs to come from a standards body (Apple, Microsoft, and Google are the standards bodies for their respective platforms). W3C, please put some focus on a design standard. Not everybody will be forced to follow it, but it could do a lot of good in terms of usability.

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