A Conversation with Jeffrey Zeldman.
Containment life, accessibility and bringing the [web standards] band back together.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of our book, Web Redesign 2.0, I took the opportunity to catch up with some of the original industry leaders who contributed expert topics. Jeffrey Zeldman, a good friend and luminary, was the first person I wanted to talk to. He wrote about web standards in the first edition of the book, and the foreword to our second. Twenty years ago, when the book was released, the importance of web standards was just beginning to emerge.
Jeffrey’s mantra was quite succinct: Write once, publish everywhere. That’s the goal.
Part of Jeffrey’s genius was understanding early on the importance of web standards. He also had a knack for explaining it to others. Two decades later, the web has evolved into a closer vision of what Jeffrey Zeldman and others sought to create in the late 1990’s, with the The Web Standards Project (The WaSP)—an open, accessible web for all. Like many movements, change came through tireless efforts by a passionate few.
Many people consider Jeffrey’s word gospel. They are not wrong.
The following is an excerpt of our conversation edited for readability. The full audio recording can be found here.
I’ve been thinking about why web standards were important 20 years ago, and why they’re important again today. I’m thinking about all the connected products we have at our home. I’m thinking about aging in place. I’m thinking about how we deal with being a sandwich generation and set a world up for our kids and also take care of our parents at the same time. And (how) all the interoperability gets back to standards and all the pieces talking together for this to work. So, tell me what your current take is on web standards. You mentioned something about bringing the band back together.
So Jen Simmons, who’s a very brilliant designer/developer in the web standards area, was talking to me six months ago, saying it seems like we really need to put The Web Standards Project back together. I was like, yeah, somebody has to do that. And then Karl Groves, an accessibility consultant for the last 30 years, contacted me over Twitter. And he kind of said the same thing. And I said, this is great. Why don’t you write a little proposal, we’ll publish it on A List Apart? Let’s try to get The Web Standards Project going again, but not with the same people.
I’m perfectly willing to be in the background, but not (have it) run by old white men. There was Dori Smith and there was Molly Holzschlag. There were definitely women who contributed to The Web Standards Project, but it was a male profession mostly. And you know, men knew other men. And so those of us who put it together, not trying to be exclusionary jerks, but those were the times. I’m much more awake now and want new people and younger people, older people too, but who are new to this, or at least newer to this. So Karl Groves is going to put something together.
Karl said the reason accessibility sucks is because people are not learning about these basics. They’re not learning these fundamentals. They’re using very powerful tool chains that let them do a lot of stuff very quickly, but at great expense to the user and often with limited accessibility. And it’s really the same thing as when people were making websites using Dreamweaver. If people start with web standards, it’s hard to make an inaccessible site. If you basically just start with simple web standards, if you start with HTML, CSS, a little Java script as needed, you can make a very accessible website.
Lots of people who care about web standards are saying this but are not really being listened to, because some of the people that listened to this message twenty years ago have retired. Some of them have moved into management positions. They’re no longer at the front lines. So, I think it’s important to bring it [web standards] back in some form.
And I think also we wouldn’t be where we are now without the standards that got us to this point. But to get to the next point again, we’re going to have to use standards because otherwise you’ll have incompatible headsets and incompatible controllers, and people will be custom designing for a particular controller instead of for everyone. Once “publish everywhere” was the goal of the web standards project in 1998. And it’s really still the goal, right?
If we didn’t have “create once publish everywhere”, we wouldn’t have the responsive web. We wouldn’t be able to grab content and chunk it out in various ways if we hadn’t separated the content from the presentation like we did a long time ago. We need to remind everyone about these basic principles and then move forward rationally, and take it to the next level. So that’s what I am thinking about with regard to web standards, helping the next generation get moving.
That’s fantastic. It’s a hard hill to climb, but you set the original path and now you just need to clear it for the next generation. I’ve been talking about something that you just mentioned, which is accessibility and adaptive experiences—using the term adaptive carefully with respect to Aaron Gustafson who originally used the term. This is also under the umbrella of inclusive and universal design—designing something that most people can use in any given context. Right? So now you move into a situation where you’re using voice. And we look at gestures and other means of interaction with these interfaces, how do you see creating some kind of comprehensive plan to continue the standards project into this new context, into this new multi-model environment?
There are standards for accessibility. There are standards for gestures. There is the XR standard, which is like VR and AR and all the “Rs”, right? So there are standards being put in place. Things evolve through trial and error. So usually there’s a certain amount of work that gets done. It gets codified, they negotiate. It’s slow and boring. It takes a really brilliant person with tremendous patience—I’m not one of them—to figure this stuff out. And then they put it out in the world and people try it. And based on how it works for real people, they start to discuss it again and see what revisions need to be made. That’s the ideal way it works.
The other way it works is companies innovate. The companies now are much better at saying, “let’s make this a standard,” or proposing it as a standard. The thing is it’s tricky because Google, which has this tremendous power, sees itself as a champion of standards, but they have the power to make things the way they want to make them and kind of get everyone to go along. So that’s certainly tricky. There’s so many layers to this and you have to be really close to it. The Web Standards Project would be more about educating people to existing and emerging standards and persuading people.
I think the other thing that’s happening if we want to democratize not only inclusive design, accessible design, gestures, everything working for everybody. The more that falls into the hands of a few super powerful companies, the worse it is for the ecosystem. The more diverse it becomes amongst people, the better, even for the companies that have all kinds of blind spots.
So, I think standards are really good as a technical means of fighting part of the battle that we have to fight to keep this really precious invention, the web and the internet, and make it accessible to all. And not something that enriches only a few people, not something that empowers only a few people, but something that empowers everyone to use. So that’s why I think we need The Web Standards Project again.
“I think standards are really good as a technical means of fighting part of the battle that we have to fight to keep this really precious invention, the web and the internet, and make it accessible to all.”
“Not something that empowers only a few people, but something that empowers everyone to use. So that’s why I think we need the web standards project again.”
Well, you were one of the few that was writing content that people wanted to read. Also, that ended up bringing people into the fold. I was working with IEEE at one point—the Standards Association—and we were doing brainstorming in-person and we were kind of thinking, are people aware of the brand? They’re not aware of the importance. And I said, okay, let’s just pretend like we’re at a cocktail party. And I went ahead and poured drinks for everyone. I said, what are you telling me about at the cocktail party? It’s not even an elevator pitch. Well, what are standards? Why are they important?
One of my clients went up to a light switch and said, “See how the light turns on and off? We did that.”
So, everything that I know and hold important—universal design, accessibility, inclusive design—I want to relate it to people’s lives. And so how could we create an accessible, adaptable environment for ourselves? It could be a “smart home”. It could be health aides. It could be things so that we can kind of live as independently as we’re able to for as long as we’re able, because we all know with COVID no one wants to go into assisted living or move into elderly care right now. What can you imagine could all the designers and the people, what can we do to help people age successfully?
So, health apps already write things that monitor your heartbeat. We have networks that notify someone if your house is broken into, we could put these pieces together so that if my heart’s racing and I don’t even know it, my doctor gets notified or, or maybe a managed care nurse who comes in to see me once a week gets notified to give me a call, something like that. We’re basically talking “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” You know, that alarm that would go off when grandma fell down from like the 80’s and everyone sort of joked about, because the commercials were so horrible. But, basically everyone at all stages of life can have that. But because of COVID, there’s a lot of people who have long-term health issues now that didn’t used to, because that’s, you know, it’s something like a third of people who get it badly and, or not even that badly, sometimes end up with these long-haul symptoms.
Right? That’s right. (showing a ring on screen) This is my Oura Ring. Have you seen that? It monitors my body temperature, my heart rate and my sleep patterns. I want my devices to basically disappear.
The Apple watch is a prototype for rich people and that’s great. But in the future, hopefully assuming we survive as a species and we don’t kill each other or the planet we can make really low-cost devices and simple, low cost networks that are in every home that everyone can afford in every country. So that you would know if something happened to your grandmother will have to have robust privacy controls for all that too.
There’s a thing you can do with Alexa. I think it is where you can listen in on your father all day long. You can drop in. So, you’d hear if he broke his leg or you’d be notified if he got hurt, but you can also spy on his conversations and that’s obviously not what was intended. So, we need better controls. We need standards. And we need really clever inventors and designers and engineers that are going to figure this out. Hopefully they’ll work with a diverse group of people so that they don’t make stuff that has unintended consequences that none of them foresaw, but people from other groups would have clearly seen in advance.
You brought up a really good point. You brought up that the Apple watch is a prototype for rich people. I’m really interested in figuring out how to cross the digital divide and how right now the average cost of broadband is $60 per month. I think over 75, only 45% of the households [in the U.S.] have broadband. A lot of people with low income obviously are relying on broadband services. A lot of older people of the silent generation would go to libraries or public spaces to be social and have broadband access. With COVID, this has completely cut down.
In 1998 or 1999, I went to Stockholm to speak and I met my friend Peyo there for the first time. And he had high speed broadband in his apartment. That’s many times faster than what I have today, 2021 and that was free. That was set up by the government. The government put fiber optic cable to every home in Stockholm. And there, they will take their tax base or whatever wealth they have and go, “okay, how can we serve our people?” And it’s crazy that America, one of the richest countries in the world, doesn’t. We’re like behind in so many of these areas because, well, because of telecom, yeah. Telecom wants to make money. We shaped it 20 years ago. A lot of the social problems we have now are because we didn’t invest in green tech. We didn’t invest in broadband.
Yep. And as the population ages, they’re moving into communities that are being created outside of urban areas. And they’re wiring it and all that, but it’s again, happening for people that can afford it. So anyway, this is so great to catch up. And when you’re ready to share any of the information about The NEW Web Standards Project, I certainly can be a proponent and advocate for education and for moving it forward.
Signing it and telling your friends is a lot, that’s really 90% of what happened last time. What happened last time was people’s older colleagues and their friends and signed. And eventually the browser companies went “Oh, there’s a groundswell here. These are our customers.”
I totally understand and I agree. I want to see you make it [web standards] accessible for people who aren’t coders—the business people and the decision-makers—to understand about “turn on and off that light switch.”
Yes, those are the people I’ve always missed. I’ve always been able to speak to other creative people, craft people, people who made stuff because I make stuff and we have a shared understanding. But for these things to succeed, you really have to talk to business people. I still don’t really do that. I’m always more comfortable with the t-shirt crowd. Like people that look like roadies.
You were speaking to the masses because those are the people that are actually creating these things. So, I think it’s been very effective. Well, I hope that we can keep talking about this at some point in the future. I appreciate your time. Take care.