Excessive Enhancement – Are we taking proper care of the web?

My Summary: Web developers are being seduced by modern web techniques to the extent that they sometimes forget the fundamental lessons that have been learnt over the past 20 years. It’s every web developers responsibility, as a professional, to use cutting edge techniques responsibly and take that little extra time to make sure our applications respect the web.

In the packed auditorium at the Full Frontal JavaScript conference in Brighton Phil Hawksworth took the stage to question if Modern Web Developers are taking care of our beloved web. The abstract, listed below, peeked my interest as it sounded like some controversy was in store… I wasn’t disappointed.

Phil HawksworthThe Abstract: “We all love to see exciting and innovative “interface shizzle” driven by JavaScript and the ever increasing rendering capabilities of modern browsers, but are we getting these at the expense of the Web? This talk will explore the good, the bad, and the fugly of rich interfaces, while examining how and why we should take care not to damage the Web.”

We now have the whole pantomime cow. JavaScript on the frontend and JavaScript on the backend, said Hawksworth, Whilst this was exciting it also reminded him of some thing Jeff Goldblum once said. 

Jeff Goldblum“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Phil noted that developers were so seduced by the shizzle and the possibilities that they often forgot about the foundations on which the web were built.

Many of the things that JavaScript developers sneer or look down on Flash developers for – Lack of Copy-Paste, No bookmarks, making content inaccessible or unsearchable. Are being repeated by developers today who are using standards based technologies.

In the past, whenever Phil would speak to flash developers, about those sorts of shortcomings, they’d always come back with the same response. Flash *can* do it, and with a little extra care and attention to detail those sorts of problems can be overcome.

The problem is when developers care more about the pixels rather than the web or to put it another way pixels > the web. People care more about the look rather than the web.

In many respects the choice between Pixels or the Web comes down to what is valued by the developer. In the flash world, developers often go through a journey of Photoshop > Adobe suite > Flash and therefore care more about the sex appeal than the web or the seductive power of what is possible.

If we look at how websites were, we now have increased sophistication in the features and users expectations.Take for example the McDonalds website 15 years ago:

McDonalds

With the site on screen Phil pointed out some of the sites deficiencies, such as the way they used a loading screen, how much instruction was required and how it catered for a less sophisticated audience.

Beetle.de

He then loaded beetle.de and went on to explain that although it has a richer experience, it takes 13 seconds to load, the user journey is different to the point that it also requires instructions and it seems like we haven’t come along way from the McDonalds website built 15 years ago. The beetle site has over 11mg images, with 251 http requests and is missing cache expiration on many of the elements.

Rather than using image sprites, all of the elements are separate images. Phil remarked “We know better than this” and went on to say it reminds him of a quote:

Jeff Goldblum Jeff Goldblum – “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Or if you really pushed Jeff he’d probably say:

Jeff Goldblum – “That’s really a lot of http requests for a site about a car”

The mobile experience was also used by by Phil to make another point “If you need a separate version of your site for mobile, it’s time to think, maybe the way we approached this website was wrong. “

Also the site doesn’t use the URL bar so elements of the website are not discoverable.

With all things considered, Hawksworth remarked, maybe it would have been better if it was built in flash. Phil then went on to demonstrate his rule of thumb to determine if a website respects the web: switch off JavaScript. If a site has no fall back content or just vomits a warning with a noscript tag then things aren’t great.

Phil used the example of twitter.com as a site that doesn’t work at all if you switch off JavaScript.

Phil was keen to point out that it’s not that he’s against new client side technologies but just that as professional developers we should take more care to be respectful of the web.

Things like URIs are what make the web the web.

Phil went on to talk about the usage of Hash Bangs # in URLs pointing out that these complicated hacks are making crawling the web really hard raising the question “When did it get so hard to crawl the web?”

All this client side shizzle doesn’t have to break the URL. Phil was keen to point out the great work GitHub have done to utilise the History API and pointed to the work that Google Advocate Paul Kinlan (and Michael Mahemoff incidentally) did on Levi Routes a routes framework for JS that hooks in to HTML5 history API.

Adobe WebsitePhil also showed Adobe expressive web (which rather oddly was removed from the internet last night. UPDATE: it was a temp DNS issue which Adobe fixed and the site is now online.) and showed that without JavaScript it was a whole lot less expressive.  The problem that Phil was articulating was he said well summed up by Bruce Lawson “The real worry is when the demo mentality sneaks into the production site”.

Phil admits that on occasion he’d have spent a little more time refining his own work so that it better respects the fundamentals of the web.

Phil spoke about his worry around tools like Adobe edge saying that by Automating things for us, they can sometime make it too easy for us to forget about the web. He showed an image of Microsoft Clippy suggesting that having a tool that’s always willing to help isn’t a great thing.

Fundamentally Phil’s talk could be reduced to this: As professional Developers and designers we should all look after the web a little more. It was a fantastic, well researched and insightful talk and if you get the chance to see Phil speak in future you should absolutely go.

Published by thebeebs

Thebeebs is a Canadian pop singer, songwriter, actor and HTML5 junkie. Throughout his rise to fame, Thebeebs has been nominated and awarded numerous accolades, winning Artist of the Year at the 2010 American Music Awards, and being nominated for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 53rd Grammy Awards. Thebeebs is considered a teen idol, and has been subject to acclaim from fans, as well as criticism and controversy from matters concerning his popularity and image.

6 Comments So Far, what do you think?

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  3. Jamus

    “That’s really a lot of http requests for a site about a car”

    The argument could be that in this instance the ‘experience’ created by the website outweighs everything else.

  4. malcolm@mjcpkwebdesign

    I think that part of the trouble is still the disconnect between client understanding and reality. As developers we’re constantly keeping up with the changes and attempting to understand them fully. Clients can have anything from an out-dated understanding of what the web can do to unrealistic expectations of desktop app type performance.

    The difficulty comes in getting clients to focus on what’s important: the purpose of the site, UI etc. without offending them. I’m sure we’ve all had a client that thinks they know best and, as long as they’re paying, we have to agree.

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