Did we lose track of the big picture?

This article was first published on CSS-101 (02-04-2012).

It seems to me that we are slowly switching from publishing content for the Web, to making content accessible to Screen-Readers (SR) - from targeting users, to focusing on devices and modern browsers.

We write about new techniques without considering fall back mechanisms, we use ARIA “hacks” that look like anti-patterns and we use frameworks that have chosen to ignore oldIE.

I’m afraid to say we’ve lost a few battles. As of today:

How did that happen?

New kids on the block

As soon as browsers supported some really cool stuff, many people started to forget the basics. Instead of thriving to build a decent user experience across the board first, they decided somehow that it was more important to spend time adding bells and whistles to their web pages and apps. They focused on new stylings and APIs, targetting modern browsers and devices, dropping users along the way…

“IE6 must die”

I think spreading that motto was a mistake; it sent the wrong message to developers and designers. Many seasoned authors jumped on the bandwagon to drop the ball while newcomers jumped on it to ignore old browsers altogether. So now, instead of educating our clients about the ultimate goal - which should be to make their web site usable by the largest possible audience - we simply tell them that supporting old browsers is a waste of time and money…

ARIA

ARIA received great PR in the last couple years. Unfortunately, instead of teaching people about basic accessibility, the press re-inforced the misguided idea that accessibility is a synonym for “making documents accessible to Screen Readers”. Engineers are now targeting Screen Readers instead of delivering real solutions.

What can we do?

We need to stick to old school techniques, things we used to call best practices.

Core support

We should still build apps with progressive enhancement (or at least graceful degradation) in mind.

The goal is not to give users the same experience, but to deliver a verified acceptable user experience across UAs and devices. What’s “acceptable” depends on your users and resources. In case you don’t have the resource or don’t want to bother, then at least make sure to withheld CSS and Javascript from browsers you choose to ignore.

As a side note, core support should be easy to achieve if you pick a decent framework. And as Nicolas Gallagher’s recent article shows, such approach is not incompatible with the latest trends (i.e. “mobile first”).

Plain old Semantic HTML

Even though PPK mentions Screen-Readers in his recent “Quick Siri note” article, issues like these are purely semantics. SR or not, authors need to expose content as the lowest level; because “designing for” text-based browsers benefits all users, including Search Engines!

Check Lynx if you want to get an idea of how your content is conveyed to bots and the like.

Wrap-up

A week after writing the first draft of this article, I ran into two tweets that summarize exactly what I’m trying to say here:

@vick08 it’s not “old tech” that you are supporting, it’s YOUR USERS that you are supporting - never lose sight of that! @codepo8 https://twitter.com/#!/johnfoliot/status/142677840855437312

Chrome the new IE6 j.mp/vYdrO3%0A Fears over future of Firefox due to end of Google deal j.mp/t5QUFI%0A Seeing a trend? https://twitter.com/#!/robinberjon/status/142711129976750080

The latter leads to an article on PCMag.com: Is Google Chrome the New IE6?

I think we should wear T-shirts with John’s words and make sure we do not make the same mistake with WebKit as we did with IE6. Embracing all browsers was a giant step in the right direction, so let’s make sure we move forward.

Let’s think Responsible Design before anything else.

(Note: In this article, I am talking about web sites people build for third parties, not personal web sites.)

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