5 questions to ask your web development team
Author: John Allsopp
As a client or manager responsible for a web development project you don't need to know anything about how a standards based web site is created. However you do need to know that your project is addressing these five important issues.
With IT spending finally forecast to grow strongly after several difficult years, many companies and organisations will be looking to invest in their web presence and services, after a period of neglect. If you are one of the decision makers, you will do well to make your decisions about your upgraded or new web site with the same kind of caution and thought as if you were buying a new car.
We all recognize that buying a car is a significant, long term investment. The costs don't simply stop once the purchase has been made. A poor decision can have long term repercussions.
When we purchase a car most of us aren't aware of the underlying technical issues. Double overhead camshafts, limited slip differential, inline 6 cylinder engine all mean little to most purchasers. But there are always a number of key issues to address. What's the mileage? How long is the warranty? How safe is it in an accident? How does the resale value hold up? Is there a new model due?
You should ask the same sort of questions before you invest in a new or improved web site. You doníYÙt need to understand the minutiae of the technology - XHTML, CSS, SVG, PNG, ECMAScript may mean little to most of you - however these underlying technologies do have an impact on a number of key issues.
It's your developers' job to build the site. But it is your job to understand enough that you make the right decisions about your investment. If you make the right choices it may be paying dividends several years down the track. Go down the wrong path and it may cost you a lot more than you think.
Here are five important questions to ask yourself, your development team or the web development company building your site.
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1. What devices and platforms will our site be accessible on?
Right now, when we think about the web, most of us think of a browser on a PC. Or even more specifically Internet Explorer on a Windows PC. However the growth of pervasive wireless access, 2.5G and 3G mobile phones and other handheld devices means the fastest growing sector for web growth in the coming decade will be handheld and other mobile devices.
If you build your site today with only PC based browsers in mind, using traditional web development techniques such as tables for layout, then your site will most likely be inaccessible on any small form factor device. And to enable such access you may well have to redevelop the site from scratch. Perhaps you can afford to exclude handheld users today, but what is the projected life-cycle for your site? Will you be able to turn those users away two or three years from now?
What can you do to ensure the broadest device independence for your site? Utilise web standards such as cascading style sheets (CSS) and valid xhtml, and ensure your developers are aware of the issues in device independence.
Web standards such as css and xhtml are designed for maximum backwards and forwards compatibility.
2. How much bandwidth will our site be wasting?
Real websites cost real money in terms of bandwidth. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Reducing the file size of web pages means faster loading pages, and lower bandwidth costs.
The experience of sites which have transitioned to modern development techniques such as CSS and XHTML, away from older purely HTML based designs, can save as much as half their bandwidth costs, and double their download speed.
3. Will our website expose us to the risk of legal action?
Australia has proved quite tardy in legislating for the accessibility rights of people with disabilities. In Europe, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, web sites must meet accessibility guidelines or face the threat of legal action. In Australia, anti-discrimination legislation affects government web sites, but the status of commercial web sites is less certain. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. Accessibility is perhaps the most growing concern in web development and use today.
Traditional web development approaches and technologies were not built from the ground up with accessibility in mind. Modern web standards were.
What can you do to help maximize the accessibility of your organisation's site?
- ensure your development team use the latest web standards
- ensure your team understands the key issues in web accessibility
- do accessibility audits
4. How upgradable will our web site be?
The software industry has long known that at least half the total cost of software over its full life-cycle is in the maintenance phase. This same rule of thumb applies equally to web sites.
To maximise the initial investment in a site, it needs to be as upgradable as possible. How easy will it be to keep the appearance of the site fresh, even after the original developers are no longer around to maintain the site? How easily will it be to add content, or functionality?
This is one of the slickest designed pieces of sofware I have ever heard of.
An additional benefit is that easily upgradable sites can more quickly and cheaply be adapted to meet business needs, bringing a competitive advantage over less agile designs.
Traditional web development approaches, such as the use of tables for layout, are very "one shot", producing sites which can be "very easy to assemble, but hard to take apart". It is often less expensive to simply discard a site and begin again, essentially discarding the initial investment. Modern development techniques and technologies, again such as the use of CSS and XHTML, guarantee much more useable, maintainable, upgradable code. Saving time and money, and ensuring an up to date site appearance, and functionality tailored to the changing needs of your customers.
5. How visible will our site be to search engines such as Google?
Google in particular, and search engines more generally are the single greatest source of traffic for most web sites. While there are many tricks and techniques for increasing search engine visibility, there are some basics that many sites simply don't get right. Using valid standard based code greatly increases the basic visibility of a site to Google and other engines in comparison with older development techniques.
Web site development focusses much of its effort on how a site appears on a browser. But your single most important visitor is blind. Google.
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Getting these five key issues right could save your organisation tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life-cycle of your site. Getting it wrong could cost you that, as well as fewer initial and repeat visitors, and even a legal settlement for discriminating against people with disabilities.
While all this seems to be a complex minefield of issues, there is a common thread when it comes to a solution. Recognising the importance of these issues, the World Wide Web Consortium, the standards body for the web, has for the last decade worked to develop standards, which browsers and web developers alike can utilise to reduce costs, increase accessibility and build a better web for all users. Make sure that your developers know about and use these standards. It's that simple.
John Allsopp is a director at westciv and the lead developer of Style Master CSS editor. He writes widely on web standards and software development issues and maintains the blog dog or higher.