How to influence a web design team.
May 28, 2007 5:16 PM   Subscribe

I've been invited to join a project team to redesign our website, as a technical resource. How best can I help the team ?

My background is a technical manager, before that; systems, servers, operations, etc. I think I have a reasonable understanding of web server tech.

The other team members are from marketing, communications and senior management.

Our last website was done on the cheap, and everyone disliked it from the start, the cms was horrid and the general look and feel was cheap. we got what we paid for.

Due to changes in senior management, good growth, and and an altogether different attitude towards website value, I think this one will be different.

The actual design and host will be outsourced.

How critical is strict html and css ?
Where can I find typical SLAs regarding website availability and performance ?
What's normal regarding backing up of content ?
What about security patching ?
Which browsers must be supported ?
Do I need to stipulate anything regarding url rewriting, permalinks, and integrated syndication tech.
RSS or Atom ?

I have searched metafilter and theres a lot of interesting information, but I wanted to ask for current opinions.

Thanks all.
posted by matholio to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an attempt at answering your questions:

1) How critical is strict html and css?

I wouldn't call it critical, but I'd definitely call it a should have. Truth is it doesn't really make sense to develop for the web if you're not going to abide with the standards. I would say most of the people doing good work online these days do strive for standards compliance at all time, so make sure you pick a vendor that does. It does say a lot about who you're dealing with. Good people obsess with quality, and compliance is a good sign.

2, 3, 4) SLA, Backups, security

A good hosting provider will take care of all of this for you. There are several out there who provide solutions where you only have to deal with the content and not infrastructure. Aim for getting a hosting provider that takes a personal stance when it comes to supporting your online properties. Our own example at my company is we got a few agreements with hosting providers and make sure we always have them at on the other side of the phone line if necessary. They take pride in taking care of us, and we recommend them to our clients. Everyone wins - they take care of our business and we bring them new business.

5) Browser support

Aim for what Yahoo calls grade A browsers. Firefox 1.0 and above, IE 6 and above, Safari.

6) URLs, Permalinks, RSS

Make sure the system you implement has meaningful URLs, as that makes a difference when it comes to user experience (not directly, but there's a sense of cleanliness when users look at a URL and can "see" what it means). Permalinks should be a given. If possible, provide both RSS or Atom. I do RSS myself, but opinions vary - newsreaders support both anyway, so don't let that restrict you in any way.

Hope that helps.
posted by fredoliveira at 6:32 PM on May 28, 2007

Fred's answer is basically what I would say. Depending on your audience, you may want to aim for degrading nicely on Grade-C browsers, too.

Yahoo's attitudes about browser handling are quite excellent, and the article fred is referring to can be found here. It might be worth passing around when the discussion about browser support comes up.

My attitude about strict html/css is that it's for your own benefit. Markup benefits from the rigor as writing good code. Understand your abstractions and stick to them. While this isn't technically the same as writing compliant HTML/CSS, striving for compliance will often end up forcing you to write good code.

Don't beat compliance into the ground, though. If there's not a nice way to do something compliantly (embedding movies, for isntance) it's not the end of the world to do some non-standard but well understood hacks to get around it. Same goes for using IE's conditional commenting stuff. It's not technically HTML compliant, but it can save you from some other, even worse and less compliant hacks.

It sounds like you won't be working on that level, though. I would trust the people you're hiring to create the site. Hire good people who care about their code and you'll probably get compliant/strict code back, and you get the added benefits of accessibility and easy restyling.
posted by heresiarch at 6:57 PM on May 28, 2007

I've had too much wine to really get into it, but this is a great resource for browser support and web ui in general:
posted by feloniousmonk at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2007

Response by poster:
Thanks, all responses are interesting and useful.

Regarding compliance, I suppose I'm after a way to measure quality for non technical people (other team members).
They will no doubt have strong opinions about look and feel, (though I'm not sure to what degree they understand usability), and I'm happy to defer to their judgment on aesthetics, but they will almost certainly not consider the quality of the code.

Would it be appropriate to ask the developers to strive for compliance and to explain deviations ?
I notice ask metafilter does not validate.

Is wc3 validation unreasonable, or does that last few percent tend to cost too much in terms of time ?

As for using good people, that seems like an after the fact judgment.

One thing that troubles me, and I didn't mention it before, was that this project is being done for us pro-bono, due to our non-profit status.

Sometimes service are offered, and things can get messy when later down the track quality becomes an issue.

Regarding the CMS, is it common to ask for Contributer/Editor/Publisher roles ?

posted by matholio at 7:42 PM on May 28, 2007

There are a variety of CMS' that have enough features to support 90% of what most sites need. If you see yourself providing technical options and frameworks for the visual and information design people, then you can focus on choosing one well-rounded one to repurpose in different capacities and let the package handle the code quality and rss choices.

I'm reading a lot into your question, but I figure this is the direction you're looking. Drupal, Scoop, Slashcode, Geeklog are all examples of full-featured packages each of which are capable of satisfying a huge range of site designs and architectures.
posted by rhizome at 8:12 PM on May 28, 2007

Asking for W3C validation isn't unreasonable at all - as I said earlier, people should aim for it at all times. It isn't always easy, but it should be kept high on the priority list. AskMeFi is a good example where full compliance would be really easy to get to (looking at the validation results, it's only a few changes in document structure).

The balance between price (or no price at all given the situation) and quality is really a non-issue in my opinion. Really good people will do really good work on any situation. Quality only goes down under pressure, and motive (money) sort of balances that out, but there's no reason why you should think that because you're not paying, you will (or should) be getting a half-assed job.

About the CMS - it depends on what you want to do with the site itself. If there really is a need for those roles and people to fill them, I guess it would make sense. But that largely varies with scope.
posted by fredoliveira at 8:19 PM on May 28, 2007

Response by poster:

Although I have had experience of Drupal, (installing and configuring, not developing), I'm not expecting to be choosing a framework.

That will be left up to the designers.
I imagine they have a framework/platform they already use and I think any decision not to go with what they know will impact the bro-pono aspect.
posted by matholio at 10:24 PM on May 28, 2007

How critical is strict html and css ?
It's well worth having as an aim and, as others have said, it's an indicator of overall quality. If a web developer tries to wriggle out of it you'll know there's something iffy about either their skills or the CMS they'd like to use.
CSS validation is less important than using valid XHTML; in fact, it's sometimes worth using non-standard bits of CSS to achieve certain effects.

Which browsers must be supported ?
You'll certainly want everything to be spot-on in IE6+, Firefox 1.5+, and recent versions of Safari/Opera; depending upon your business, audience and the site design, it may be worth extending that list.
If the semantics of the HTML are good, and it all works without JavaScript, then you'll have a solid foundation to build on and can adjust the styling to extend support post-launch.

Do I need to stipulate anything regarding url rewriting, permalinks, and integrated syndication tech.
I think clean URLs are a must-have nowadays; you want your About Us page to be /about-us/ , not something like /system/pages/handler.aspx?template=3&content=27
If a CMS can't do that then it's not good enough.

Regarding the CMS, is it common to ask for Contributer/Editor/Publisher roles ?
Yes, that's a common set of roles to use.
posted by malevolent at 12:22 AM on May 29, 2007

Validation is by no means any kind of quality assurance - code-wise. I could write a tag soup page - littered with font tags and tables for layout that would validate perfectly - it wouldnt make it good or right. On the otherhand, metafilter is mostly written with semantic code in XHTML - it doesnt validate (it send the wrong doctype - HTML4 transitional but for the most part uses xhtml)

Validation is a useful debugging tool at best. You shouldnt follow web standards just because they w3c says they're the web standards - you should follow them because well written semantic code will make your site more accessible to non-standard browsers eg. screen readers for the blind.
If you think your site just isnt for blind people, remember googlebot is blind. She sees no styles or colours, she doesnt know what an image means unless you provide an alt attrbute.

The site code should flow in the logical order of content and the rendering should make sense without styles, colour or images. The fancy styles and pictures are all well and good for us using browsers that the site was tested in and see it 'as intended' but you cant dictate who can visit your site and with what devices.
My basic rule is - if its usable in lynx (text browser) then you're on to a good thing.
If you cant sell the accessiblity angle to the higher ups then remember this - semantic code not only makes sites more accessible it makes them easier to maintain, easier for search engines to pick up on important text (eg headers, title, emphasis and strong tags) and easier to maintain - especially if you have a design change. Less code is better, its easier to write and less bandwidth on the page downloads.
If you want to change your design, you shouldnt have to change the html.
posted by missmagenta at 2:00 AM on May 29, 2007

One horror story to share:

My mother asked me to help her spec out a website for her company. Her company ended up making the decision without her input, but the biggest problem she had was with the CMS.

It had been specified that she would be able to add new products, specifications, etc. She was told that she would be given access to the CMS after launch. It was a horrible, unusable (to the layman), taped-together mess.

That said, specify the workflow for common actions. Or, at least, approve the methods before it's too late.
posted by jmevius at 7:16 AM on May 29, 2007

Please remember that not everyone has broadband, and that even those of us who do sometimes find ourselves trapped in the wilderness of dialup-speed connections. I suppose that's more of an issue for marketing/communications people than for yourself, but there are plenty of sites out there with no alternative to huge, hideous, slow-loading Flash animations, because nobody thought to put in a way round them.
posted by Lebannen at 8:37 AM on May 29, 2007

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