Comic Update: Max Weir and the Beanicornupus (Web Standards and Foolish Assumptions)

December 03, 2009

This Monday was the third annual Blue Beanie Day, which promotes and celebrates the use of web standards to create accessible, semantic web content. Therefore, it provides a fitting backdrop to the Curious Tale of Max Weir. I’m not here to bash Max, as he’s received enough of that already. Rather, I’m spinning out a sort of parallel narrative that will cast a poorly timed comment into the light of folk lore for future web designers to consider.

On Monday one Andy Clarke, British rock star of the web design world, posted an open letter to Taylor Swift on his blog. This letter expressed his admiration for her as a musician and a gentle critique of a serious problem with her website: it is almost completely inaccessible to those with visual impairment or the inability to use a mouse. He details it quite thoroughly and politely, aware that as a musician (and not a web designer) she likely had no awareness of the issue or even touched the code of the site. This post provided a great example of the purpose of Blue Beanie Day, pushing web standards awareness to those who need it.

All was well until around comment #9 on Mr. Clarke’s post, by one Max Weir. You should read the linked comment for the full text, but the gist of his missive is summed up by the following line: This site is an interactive flash experience and thats all there is to it, there are designers who think accessibility, web standards etc and those who focus on creating a immersive experiences only.

This comment by a man who’s Twitter bio is “Design is form and function on equal level”, posted on an accessibility blog post on Blue Beanie Day, formed a nexus of baleful energy that summoned from the deep places one of the dreaded behemoths of nautical lore, the Beanicornupus. Identifiable by its massive blue beanie and gossamer spiral horn, this ravenous monster consumes the flesh of designers who think that “cool media experiences” are more important than ensuring a site can be used by impaired visitors and would consider that making a site this way is a valid business choice.

Poor Max didn’t stand a chance, suffering many grievous wounds at the hands of the commentators even after Andy tried to call them off. Like Captain Ahab, Max underestimated the beast. Today’s comic portrays his final moments, swallowed up by the Beanicornupus, calling out his defiance at the very end.

Max’s gruesome fate can provide a cautionary tale for us all. Web standards aren’t some sort of optional flavoring for some websites. They’re needed by every one of them. Those who choose to ignore that will face mockery from their website creator peers, and their clients will lose customers who aren’t able to access their sites. Although we’d like to think that only musicians, big uncaring media conglomerates, and our grandmothers don’t know the gospel truth of web standards, the fact is, as Andy said (when asking his commentators to stand down): It’s sobering that on Blue Beanie Day where we, who pride ourselves on our support for standards and accessibility, pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, must not forget that the job that Jeffrey started with Designing With Web Standards is far from done.

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15 Responses to “Comic Update: Max Weir and the Beanicornupus (Web Standards and Foolish Assumptions)”

  1. Haha, poor Max, I was going to join the mob but by the time I posted I realized he had more than enough. I hope he has learned the lesson, though :P Loved the Beanicornupus, btw :D

  2. I hadn’t actually seen any of this until reading this post. I miss all the fun.

    It’s scary to think that some people who know better still refuse to do even the basics of accessible sites. Even from a standpoint of search engines finding your stuff it’s a good idea (as Andy pointed out in the letter). So why not do it?

    One of the most annoying things about Flash sites is the inability to link to a page (depending on how they are made). There is no way to link to any specific thing on Taylor’s site. Yay! I have to re-navigate through the whole thing again…

    I’ve seen many sites that don’t have any accessibility features and sometimes it’s because the designer doesn’t know any better. But utter refusal to use it it just ridiculous.

    Anyhow looks like comment #26 gave you some kudos for making a nice easy CAPTCHA. Well done!

  3. @Stan – The amusing part is that it’s currently a broken CAPTCHA. I blame WordPress’ high-speed update schedule (and perhaps a touch of carelessness on my part in hitting the “auto-update” button.)

    I agree with you on all counts regarding Flash. It makes some amazing things, but at this point it usually annoys me more than anything else.

  4. Too bad Andy Clarke didn’t bother to actually test in on a screen reader to see how bad or good the site performs, since as I just posted in the comments section there, Flash Player 10 is compatible with several screen readers.

    But having worked for agencies who have made websites like that, it’s often a business decision on what kind of support there will be based on the size of the audience. The reality is that they unfortunately don’t see making the investment for smaller audiences. Because even with sites that don’t use plugins are generally only tested on a certain number of major browsers and that a certain number of browsers will render content improperly.

  5. Stan, creating Flash sites that don’t link to an individual URL is just bad and lazy design. There’s been a number of JavaScript libraries to enable this in Flash for a number of years now. Plus there’s a number of Flash frameworks like Gaia which do this automatically for the developer or designer. Adobe even provided their own very easy to implement solution for unique URLs with Flex 3 & Flash CS4.

  6. I’m curious about one thing: how much of the movement for Web Standards is really about the minority of users with disabilities, and not just a fanboyish obsession? I mean, most of the AJAX webapps out there suffer from many of the typical Flash annoyances, as well as accessibility issues, but no one is making such a big uproar about it.

    I get the feeling it is “fashionable” to be for standards, and if you dare to say anything else you get buried into a hole by an angry mob, no matter if there is at least a little truth in it.

    Let me make it clear, I dislike Flash as much as the rest of you, but truth be told, it is the best tool to bring an interactive experience online (forgetting about the accessibility issues for a moment). Many companies face the decision of either create an über-fancy interactive online brochure, as a lot of clients certainly demand, and, for budget reasons, just call it a day after that is done; or create “boring” ol’ HTML page (to get the accessibility for free), trying to spice it up a little bit with JavaScript, but of course, since that is a lot harder to do than Flash, just in a limited fashion. For many, the simple idea of create once, play everywhere is too appealing to be bothered with cross-browser compatibility issues. The extra work that then needs to be done to be accessible to minorities is just seen as that, extra work, and posponed for later or even ditched completely.

    Darn, if only HTML+CSS were not so limited, or Flash so closed and non-plain-text-ish.

  7. @Matthew – I’d say there’s a difference between rendering incorrectly and being completely inaccessible to certain segments. The former is unfortunate, the latter is a form of discrimination through laziness. I know that Flash can make accessible websites, so a failure to properly use it to do so is a sign of poor decision-making on the site’s creator’s part.

    @VeoSotano – Web standards isn’t just about the minority of users with disabilities. That’s one component of a larger movement towards making websites easier to maintain, display across browsers, and usable by all (all with a lower price tag).

    That said, it is a big deal. Regarding those AJAX web apps? That’s just another form of lazy website creation. There’s plenty of techniques that can be done to make the AJAX content accessible and usable across the board, and there’s advocates for that position. The amount of bad AJAX out there is a sign of the further education on the topic that is needed, rather than a satisfying status quo.

    Regardless of whether it’s ‘fashionable’ for standards to be followed, it’s also important in a way that has nothing to do with style. The web is the main platform for communication in the 21st century. Every person on the planet should have the ability to make use of it, just like any person should be able to get inside a business regardless of whether he can walk or has a wheelchair. It may seem like no big deal until it’s you with that experience. If you lost your site today, and suddenly couldn’t use a large number of sites, how would that feel for you?

  8. Hey hey hey… don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for accessibility, and it IS a big deal. All the cases I presented were just thinking about how a business probably would think. I, personally, would go the extra mile to make my pages accessible to everyone.

    What I’m saying is that I get the feeling that people tend to get behind something so fanatically that they start losing perception of what the real issues are. Because people do not associate “Web Standards” with making sure everybody get’s the equal treatment which is his/her right, they associate it with using HTML5 (the big buzzword), CSS and AJAX. They bash anything that is not the status quo.

    I see standards as a big deal. But a different big deal than the big deal of making each and any technology accessible to everyone. Having a platform where every user agent interprets your code in his own way, is a recipe for disaster, so there needs to be an agreement between everybody in the industry.

    That being said, you can do something else than what the W3C dictates, as long as you keep accessibility, security, ease of use and compatibility in mind.

  9. By the way, I noticed that you have two RSS feeds on your home page, and both point to the exact same location. I guess that’s more of a bug than a feature ;)

  10. @VeoSotano: “Because people do not associate “Web Standards” with making sure everybody get’s the equal treatment which is his/her right, they associate it with using HTML5 (the big buzzword), CSS and AJAX.”

    Whilst I totally agree with your general sentiment that we shouldn’t get all ‘fanboy-ish’ about ANY subject, I’d come back at you on the above statement: people associate HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript with Web Standards because they ARE standards. Flash, Silverlight, etc. are proprietary technologies, so don’t tend to get included in the ‘standards’ group. And those standard technologies are, on the whole, well-equipped for the production of accessible, usable content.

    I think it’s worth switching the angle on this from ‘how hard is it to be accessible using flash’ to ‘how easy is it to be inaccessible using flash’. It’s difficult, using plain HTML and CSS, to really screw around with basic elements like linking, UI controls, and standard behaviour of text. Flash, in my experience, makes it a lot easier. And some people choose to exploit that. And I’ve seen an awful lot of poorly produced flash content that appears evidence of ‘fanboyism’ (hey, cool, I can animate stuff!), more so than with the standard web technologies.

  11. [...] We’re sill sweeping up the confetti, and emptying the ashtrays after the last visitor left the party.  We still have some awards to give out, and a few books to give away.  Meanwhile, Andy Clark says  Taylor Swift is still recovering from the after party hangover, and Max Weir is trying to figure out if the CSS Squirrel is a nut case. [...]

  12. @Bobby Jack Hm… I agree. The sad thing, though, is that Web Standards is so much more than just HTML, CSS and Javascript, but remain largely unknown. I feel a little bit dissapointed with the fact that it seems that the grand plans the W3C had for the Semantic Web died off somehow, with the official death of XHTML. While the latter was misguided and out of touch with reality, I don’t like the direction HTML5 is going at all. My opinion is that they are tinkering around on a technology that is flawed from its base.

    “True semantics” should be used to markup content. A computer can do nothing with knowing that something is a list element, or a paragraph. Its the “about what” that is important. It is not at all the same to have a list of links or a shopping list, they mean different things, even if they can be visually represented as lists. Of course, one single language will be never be able to convey the meaning of all representable elements in the world, and that’s where XML and namespaces come in. The really big deal about XHTML is that it is extensible, and new things can be represented in the document even if at the time of the writing of the specification they were not known.

    Once you’ve got your document dripping of semantics, it can then be used with any other technology for representation/playback, which doesn’t necessarily have to know on its own how you want that data to be displayed. For example, how many times have you relied on default values of elements in your HTML page, and called it a day? Designers apply style information to almost any element in the page anyway, so why don’t throw ALL the presentational and behavioral stuff out of the window and just use the markup for information — pure data…? And I don’t mean just the “old” presentational stuff… I mean, lists, tables, forms, a’s…. everything! All the content of a web document should be human readable text, marked up with semantic structure, where parts of that structure are identified with namespaces to deambiguate its meaning. Use plain XML.

    After we do that, whe have a document that is by itself understandable by both humans and machines, but in a very raw form. This document does nothing to be displayed or represented in any form. We would need a language to define the appearance and behavior of any arbitrary data structure and its contained information. This would need to be new, and I want it to raise the bar to a whole new level: a complete vector graphics rendering engine that is able to display the information without depending at all on the (semantic) structure of the document to do presentation, all with unprecedented capabilities – fonts, gradients, effects, shapes, layout, behavior, etc. To improve accessibility even more, already existing technologies like aural-CSS could be used, but it wouldn’t be so complex, since the document would already be structured in a way that makes sense to the document itself, not the medium where it is finally displayed. Screen readers would have no problems.

    WOW, this was long… but coming back to the original topic: I think that there is the posibility for new technologies, that, although they are not Web Standards (yet), use plain-text files for content, where all the information is semantically defined. Then, the final display output mechanism can be the one that provides the best user experience without affecting the ability of search-engine-spiders, screen-readers, etc, to get hold of your content.

  13. Yes, it’s difficult, using plain HTML and CSS to screw up accessibility, although even then there’s some best practices to follow to make that content easier for screen readers. Also when you start putting in JavaScript, a web standard, you get into a grey area as different screen readers have different levels of JavaScript support. So I would say that web standards and accessibility are 2 different issues because it doesn’t matter if something (say a specific HTML tag) is a web standard if screen readers choose not to support it (example, will they support the new canvas tag? Or will they ignore it completely).

    Also a Flash site can have all sorts of animation, be a immersive experience (as Max Weir described it) and still be very accessible to users. It’s no harder than HTML following some best practices and give images, animations, names (similar to alt), descriptions (similar to longdesc) and a tab order.

  14. @Matthew – I think you’re beginning to mix terms a wee bit liberally. There’s “web standards” as in the website creation philosophy that involves semantic markup and accessibility and such. Then there’s specifications, such as JavaScript. Just because you’re using something that’s within a specification, it doesn’t mean you’re using web standards.

    @VeoSotano – It’s very easy, with HTML and CSS, to screw up accessibility. More so than most people think. The catch is that it’s much, much easier to do it with Flash.

  15. @Kyle That’s exactly what I meant with fanboyish obsession in my first post… people start to mix terms up (and I don’t mean Matthew). What we have here now is the same thing meaning two different things.

    I’m all for [quote] “web standards” as in the website creation philosophy that involves semantic markup and accessibility and such[/quote], but I think its something different than Web Standards as in ONLY using technologies that have come out of the W3C.