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Validation: coming soon to a web site near you

Ben Buchanan got in touch a few weeks back, excited to let me know that after a long struggle over at News Digital Media, they’d got the Aus IT home page to validate. Other people over at NDM have written in the past about the long march between gathering together a team of enthusiastic and committed standards based developers and designers, and the reality of actually making web standards adoption happen across a massive site maintained by a large organisation, so I thought it was worth following up with Ben about how they’d finally reached this milestone.First a bit of background. Ben joined NDM (then News Interactive) in September 2006, starting as an “HTML Developer”. He’s now “Lead Frontend Developer (Mastheads)”.

Aus IT only validates reliably on the homepage right now and the third party video player isn’t included (that’s being replaced by the next version, not fixed; and it’s isolated in an iframe). Aus IT is the first NDM news(paper) website to validate, although NDM acquired last year which, as far as Ben knows, was the first production NDM site to validate.

Maxine: You’ve recently reached a bit of a milestone, with the validation of the Aus IT Homepage, which, among other things, makes the site eligible for the McFarlane Prize. Do you want to talk me through the major issues that have stopped this happening before now?

Ben: The biggest issues were the very old code base (it was a table-based site when I joined NDM), the advertisement code and other invalid third-party code like stats tracking and video players.To give an example, the default ad placement code we receive introduces about 14 validation errors per advertisement. So the ads alone ensured the site could never validate or be eligible for the McFarlane Prize.You can’t just blithely change that code, either. You have to remember that online media industry pays its bills using display ad revenue. Pages have to have ads and traffic statistics are critical to showing advertisers they got what they paid for. So people would really prefer you didn’t touch that code unless you really need to!As well as that, our CMS does require editorial and sales staff to handle raw HTML at times. That’s not their primary skillset, so we provide them with cheat sheets to make it easier. But it does mean it’s an uncontrolled environment.

Maxine: What did you do to overcome these issues?

Ben: Given the size of the site we couldn’t just roll up a new template and get rid of the tables. We had to wait for a major redevelopment, when we could rebuild to standards. The Australian and Australian IT were redeveloped in 2007, which got us part of the way.When we launched the redeveloped sites, they still didn’t validate due to third party code. However they did win a PANPA award; and over time it became clear the sites were much easier to maintain after a standards-based rebuild. Our backend guys started getting on board as well, since they could see the benefits to their workflow.All this built up trust and reassured the product manager that the site was in good hands. Plus it all started showing the business benefit of running clean, valid code.So when we proposed reformatting the ad code, the business let us do it. Our resident Javascript Ninja had already created a proof-of-concept and we were able to get that into production.With the ads cleaned up there were still lots of errors, but the validation reports became usable. We were able to work our way through the problems, including the ones that were actually our fault :) They’d been hidden in the noise of hundreds of ad code errors. That cleanup process is ongoing for the site.

Maxine: Were there also institutional stumbling blocks? Got any tips on strategy for standardistas in other organisations?

Ben: Some tips for standardistas out there would be… Be persistent. Be an opportunist. Gather allies. Pick your battles.I think persistence is the key. It took 15 months and an entire rebuild to get the Aus IT homepage to validate. Being a standardista in a large organisation is a long game, not a quick win. If you’re running a blog or a small project website, you should be able to make it validate since you’re in control. But when you don’t call the shots, it’s a whole different game.The ad code thing ultimately came down to building trust with the various stakeholders. I think it’s often the case that technology isn’t the biggest issue, it’s the human factor. You’ve got to get people to agree to things before you can do them.What’s interesting is the things which motivate people. We actually got some leverage from the 2007 McFarlane Prize – because the site didn’t get anywhere! It gave us the opportunity to explain why the validation issues meant the site just wasn’t a contender. Web standards aren’t exciting to the average person, but everyone understands the desire to compete for awards.We also had an accessibility win during The Australian’s redevelopment. Our User Experience team arranged an on-site presentation and screen reader demonstration by a blind person. After that the Project Manager truly understood what we meant about standards and accessibility, in fact he was fired up and talking about an accessibility testing budget by the time he left the room. You can talk about this stuff all you like, but nothing beats putting a human face on it.The sheer size of the operation comes into play as well. With so many people involved in maintenance you need everyone to know what they’re doing. While we have been lucky to find lots of standards-aware developers, it still requires vigilance to keep things on track.

Maxine: Ever onwards and upwards I’m sure. So, what’s next?

Ben:Absolutely, this is just the start. For Aus IT we still need to weed out the remaining errors. After that, we have an entire network of sites which are yet to validate. So the Australian IT homepage is a milestone, but it’s a long road.A really encouraging thing is that some of our third party vendors are getting the message that we want valid code. That hasn’t reached production yet, but we’ll keep pushing.

Maxine: What are some of the things you expect to see happening as more NDM sites do start to fully validate?

Ben:Valid markup is a really important base to work from – it makes it easier to maintain the sites, for one thing; which frees up time for Doing Cool Stuff. It also makes it easier to start considering things like widespread use of Microformats, running multiple stylesheets and so on. Multiple stylesheets may not be a new trick but it’s a really big one, particularly with the variety of web-enabled devices out there these days.

Maxine: Thanks Ben!

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