Tableless Design, CSS, and W3C Compliance is Not the End Goal

The following opinion has made me unpopular with more than one web designer.  My primary focus is not web design, while I do fulfill that role at times, I find myself working with and around web designers and developers more often than competing with them.  When looking at a web designer’s work, it is very common to have people promote themselves because they use CSS and W3C compliant code, not tables for layout.  While I have no problem with that at all and am quick to compliment designers for taking an active role in a new form of web layout, I do resent the growing belief that it is the only way of doing things and anything else is inferior.  Furthermore, many designers focus solely on this aspect of their work and often ignore the real site goals.  At the end of the day, most people and companies don’t care about how a site is constructed, they care about the results it achieves. 

If a designer or developer is only focused on their tableless designs, be wary.  Chances are they are focused on a web professional’s ideal, not about what results you want to achieve with your site.  There are more and more sites being built focusing more on tableless layouts rather than sales or lead conversion.  While that makes the web designer proud, it rarely satisfies the site owner.  Remember to have goals for your site and if the designer or developer is forgetting those to fulfill their own ideals, it’s time to abandon those ideals and refocus.

So what’s the difference?  Traditionally websites have been built on a table system with images or text or both inserted into the table fields.  A new method of building a site has arrived that puts all the layout and text styles into a separate CSS file.  All that exists on the actual webpage is the content.  All layout information is referenced from the CSS file.  As I see it, the biggest benefit to using tableless design is that the designer can separate the content of the page from the layout.  The advantage here is that it opens up many possibilities for content changes without changing any layout files which can be leveraged for easier updates and maintenance.  The other benefit is that there is an attempt to make web code more standardized and adhering to W3C compliance should allow some future proofing to a newly built site.  Meaning the site won’t need redone within several years because of outdated code.

Having said that, I’d like to lay out several reasons I think designers make it a focus and why the average person doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, care how the site is laid out.

  • Table design is not going to be outdated anytime soon. 
  • Tableless design seems to limit layout
  • Tableless design can be problematic across browsers
  • Tableless design doesn’t effect search engine rank
  • Tableless design doesn’t change site conversion
  • Tableless design is an excuse to raise rates (sounds official)

In my coming posts I will deal with each topic and provide some insight into discovering whether someone looking to build a site should or shouldn’t be concerned with tableless layout and W3C code compliance.

Beware Website Templates

It’s a common idea to have a site designed and then take over the maintenance.  Usually the request is pretty simple.  Create a design and leave a system for updating text.  At times this is a reasonable solution.  Most of the time I encounter it, it was a disaster waiting to happen.  Why?  The answer typically comes down to a lack of qualification either from the site designer or the site owner.

Most potential clients are skeptical when I advise they don’t use a template.  The thought is usually that I am trying to get an unnecessary maintenance agreement.  So I thought I’d use my criteria for deciding if a template is a good idea or not into a written outline here:

  • Is it a Free-bee or add-on from the web hosting company?
    I can’t tell you how many people have become clients after getting into some kind of web template product.  Many simply don’t work.  The most common ones that fail come free with a website hosting package.  Usually they have a handful of templates which are customizable (meaning you can upload a logo somewhere).  I have yet to find one that actually lays the page out usefully and gives enough flexibility to update any content and expand the site.  Most of the time it won’t even render tect edits where the user intended.  Doing simple things like form submissions is usually out of the question.  It either isn’t an option at all or doesn’t actually function.  Remember, you get what you pay for and free templating is often as valuable as the price-tag.
  • Can the designer/developer set up a usable site template?
    Unfortunately in the web world people are quick to make promises and slow to deliver.  If a designer or developer is putting in some kind of template that is editable by the client, do they understand it.  There are a lot of good designer/developers and good template services.  Unfortunately there seem to be more bad ones.  Make sure when hiring the person that they can tell you what platform they will build on and how you will have access to it.  I recently got a client who had to scrap an entire site template system because it was set up so strictly to initial demands and had absolutely no room for growth.  Understand what you are getting and how it can adapt to you or your organization’s needs.
  • Who is responsible for updating the content?
    Many times the failure is not with the designer or developer but with the site owner.  They place demands on what should be editable but never get to the editing.  If I speak with a potential client and they can’t provide one or two names of dedicated people within the organization that will be responsible for the site, I always recommend not setting up a template.  The reason is it won’t get changed.  People are busy and unless someone has volunteered or been assigned the responsibility, it will fall through the cracks.  That means wasted money on the setup for something that won’t get used. 
  • Is the assigned person technically competent?
    When a person has been chosen, is it realistic that they can manage the process?  The most common platforms used for templates can usually be set up with a simple interface.  It isn’t uncommon to do an hour  tutorial and have the user comfortable with the interface and features.  However, this assumes that the individual responsible for site updates is relatively proficient on a computer.  I once struggled through a tutorial with an administrative assistant at a small organization and told her the editing features were much like Microsoft Word.  She let me know she didn’t know how to use that either.  That site never got updated because the poor woman didn’t know the basics of computer use.  It’s not her fault, the task never should have been given to her until she learned some basic competency skills.

So if you are contemplating having a site set up that you can edit yourself, think through these 4 questions.  If you find that you are uncomfortable with your or the designer/developers ability to execute, rethink the idea.  You’re likely just putting off the inevitable and handling the problem initially can save a lot of money and effort down the line.  Having an editable feature almost always costs additional set up fees and if set up poorly will increase the cost of getting it transferred to another platform or technology.  Often times a small maintenance agreement or a la carte change pricing is far less expensive and much less of a headache.  Don’t assume in this case that handling it yourself is less expensive.  Figure out what is most realistic and is most cost effective.