SXSW Day 1: Web design accessibility, Frog party

I almost skipped the accessibility panel but I’m glad I didn’t. As usual Jeffrey Veen did a great job of putting the current web practices into perspective with stories from the old school of web design. It used to be that every day was a battle with designers who were taking what they learned from the print or traditional multimedia worlds and trying to stamp it on to web design, whether it fit or not. But the new crop of designers look at building for the web as a craft. Veen says it’s about “designing for the web natively.” Exactly. He sees it now as a business case — that good design just tends to lead to degradable and accessible sites.

Ironically, just a year ago Veen shared the stage at SXSW with Kevin Lynch of Macromedia. Kevin was talking about rich Flash-based applications that often see the web as more of a networking infrastructure than a platform in its own right. Now we see other pieces of Macromedia’s strategy: their Central product by-passes the web browser entirely. Granted, they are doing some very interesting stuff, but it’s not entirely relevant to designing for the web. The new reality of web development that Veen spoke about is that designers are embracing what the web is about rather than fighting against it or trying to control it.

The next panel continued the accessibility discussion. James Craig brought up Veen’s “Business Value of Web Standards” essay, and Jim Allan mentioned the needs of Palm devices as another business case to help sell accessibility standards.

And then there’s usability. Why is it that many standards-based and accessible web sites are more usable than others? I think there are two reasons.

First, adhering to standards is not just conforming to the specification but also following the recommendation of those standards. For example, use the alt attribute on images to specify a text version. But as Jim Allan said in the session, “you can’t just blindly follow the guidelines.” The second part is the education of this new class of web people. What tools do they use? BBEdit and HomeSite. They are hand-coding this stuff which means they’ve built dozens or hundreds of web sites. You have to build up a level of experience with what works and what doesn’t to make progress on usability, and you have to be a veteran web user to know the existing best practices.

After dinner we went to the Frog party, where I met up with Mason Hale and even ran into Carl de Cordova, who was a co-founder of WebEdge, the Mac web developers conference I was a part of years ago. I have a bunch of old photos and archives of the old WebEdge site that I should post one of these days (the domain was unfortunately taken over by a car company). Also met Dan Cederholm, chatted with Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org, and received the Jakob Nielsen playing card (collect all 8) from the OK/Cancel folks. A good day.