Web Standards in the Real World: An Interview with Molly Holzschlag

by Joshua Porter

Molly E. Holzschlag is a recognized expert in the area of Web Design, deemed one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web. We’re big fans of Molly E. Holzschlag’s books on cascading style sheets, in particular Cascading Style Sheets: The Designer’s Edge and Spring Into HTML and CSS. UIE’s Joshua Porter recently got a chance to chat with Molly about her work.

UIE’s Joshua Porter: When you first presented at the User Interface Conference in 2001, we didn’t hear many of our clients talking about CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). It seems lately we’ve hit a tipping point and getting tons of questions about CSS. What do you think caused this growing focus on CSS?

Molly E. Holzschlag: There are multiple reasons CSS is becoming so important. The bottom line for many large companies and organizations is financial, and we know that very large sums of money can be saved because of reduced bandwidth use. Add to that the fact that CSS is extremely useful as a document management tool, and you’ve got two things companies like: ROI and time savings.

Another very influential factor is legislation as it pertains to Accessibility worldwide: Using CSS assists a great deal in making pages more accessible.

Last but of course not least, the performance benefits gained are wonderful for the end-user, as savvy CSS results in faster-loading pages that render more effectively.

What are the most important issues for developers just starting out with CSS?

In order to use CSS effectively, developers must also understand markup (HTML, XHTML). Developers also need a solid understanding of browsers and how to manage them—this is perhaps the toughest part of the job. Finally, it’s essential for developers to understand how CSS itself works. It’s a far more complex language than people realize, and without a full understanding of it, and how browsers work, designers are immediately at a disadvantage. This is why proper training is so imperative at this time.

Now that the web has seen its fair share of fully implemented, standards-based web sites, are designers realizing the promised benefits of less development time and more flexible, cross-browser compatible implementations?

Yes, the benefits are being realized every day and in highly significant ways. Corporation, industry, government, education and charitable organizations all have seen the benefits from committing to standards-based design.

For businesses, benefits include lowered costs, improvement in time-to-launch, and greater overall satisfaction with the end product. For developers, web standards offer an almost extreme programming approach to workflow. Teamwork becomes easier and more efficient, morale is improved. For users, the experience improves because designs now display more quickly, and are accessible, flexible, and cross-platform: All the things the Web is meant to be.

Are there any caveats to standards-based design?

One caveat, and it’s a bit of a harsh one. The learning curve to develop for standards is very high and demands that people constantly learn. The sheer volume of knowledge required to work this way is humbling, and I am challenged every single day by it. I think that’s why it’s so interesting for many developers.

You’ve been helping companies learn and integrate standards into their production processes for several years now. In that time, what have you learned about teams who are moving to standards? What hurdles do teams have to get over?

Communication is always key, of course. Workflow is proving to be a tough challenge for development teams. Organization politics and opinions get in the way of visionary work sometimes. All of us have experienced that, and I don’t know that any of us know the best of dealing with it. Improved methods for Web project management and workflow help.

Another major problem is managing what I call “OGS”—Organic Growth Syndrome. We generate so many documents, for some teams, millions in a given day. We need to address server architecture, information architecture, and mass document management techniques as well as user experience and design. Standards help this in very specific ways, but it does mean going back and re-examining what we have and what needs to be done moving forward.

Speaking of workflow, we’ve spoken with many companies who have content management issues: their production workflow is a huge challenge for them. Do you see web standards as having any role to play in CMSs? Are some CMSs more standards-friendly than others?

Well, there you go—workflow again! Yes, standards are critical for CMSs. There are many reasons, primarily for improved performance all around.

There are a variety of CMSs working toward standards, and I think you’ll be hearing a lot about them in the next year or so. Conventional CMSs remain problematic in terms of standards support. Blog tools are becoming more sophisticated and can be seen as mini-CMSs, especially Movable Type and WordPress, both of which are strongly standards-oriented.

A growing requirement for many of our clients is accessibility compliance, usually with the 508 Accessibility Guidelines. How do web standards help or hinder 508 compliance?

Using CSS-based layouts and semantic documents helps go a long way toward accessible sites. I’ve anecdotally said about 80% of the way there, but I’ve had some very reputable accessibility folks say it’s more, so long as the authoring process includes markup specific to accessibility. After that, it’s about addressing functional and perceptual issues—more on the user experience side. Done right, a standards-based site is written with accessible features in mind, every step of the way.

You’re an integral member of the Web Standards Project, an independent watchdog group that promotes web standards by working with design tool and browser makers to better support them. Give us an idea of how that work is going, what challenges you’ve met and what things you’re continuing to focus on.

Acid2 is the biggest and most exciting news right now. It is a test written to help browser vendors make sure their products correctly support features that web designers would like to use. These features are part of existing standards but haven’t been fully supported by major browsers. Acid2 tries to change this by challenging browsers to render Acid2 correctly before shipping. Every known browser has failed the test.

Of course, that’s the point of the test. Browsers are supposed to fail, and then fix. I’m hearing really interesting stories about folks like Dave Hyatt from Safari who is fixing bugs line by line and blogging the entire experience. Mozilla Firefox tracks everything at their bug site, too. Hopefully, Opera and Microsoft will join the party and begin to openly use the test. What’s more, the test isn’t just for browsers, any technology testing rendering engines for XHTML, HTML, CSS and PNG support can benefit from Acid2.

You recently expressed concern over several concepts that are still struggles for designers. One concept you kept running into was that CSS was not ready for “prime time”. Why do you think that this is still a concern?

CSS is ready for prime time, but again, it’s a huge learning curve. That’s the challenge of standards-based design. The benefits are undeniable, and they will be here for the long-term. The difficulties in getting there have to be acknowledged, however, as equally challenging. I’m convinced that through education, networking with each other, and just keeping the conversations going, we’ll all get there.

Thanks, Molly.

About the Author

Joshua Porter is the brains behind the popular design blog,, and wrote the book Designing for the Social Web. Having worked as a Research Consultant at User Interface Engineering for five years, he started Bokardo Design in 2007, where he focuses exclusively on social web applications. His expertise on designing social experiences is sought by companies around the world.

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