Selecting a Website Design Firm: Part 2

When looking for a website design firm, make sure they address accessibility and adhere to Web-Standards.

In the first part of this series, we discussed some of the basic considerations for tracking down a great website design firm. Beyond these foundational ideals, the technical abilities of the firm are also very important.

Web-Standards

It’s not possible to stress this enough. An article like this could be filled with just the benefits for using web-standards. So, what the heck are they? There is a non-profit organization called the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) which is made up of individuals and groups that care about the direction of the web. They create specifications for the code used to create websites, like HTML, XHTML, XML & CSS. These documents act as a “standard” for browser manufacturers and website developers to strive toward.

All modern browsers use these specifications to determine how to interpret and display the code that website developers write. However, these browsers are also very good at taking ugly, non-standard code and making it look pretty good. What this means is that you typically can’t tell if a website is built with these standards just from browsing to it. You have to look at the source code. Alternatively, you can use the W3C’s validation service (or any number of other validators) to get a feel for how the website design firm in question values standards. This is a quick and free way to test if a site meets a given standard. Simply go to http://validator.w3.org and enter a domain name to test. This is by no means a perfect solution. Just because a site doesn’t validate does not mean that it wasn’t build in the spirit of web-standards. Many times, a site will start out validating and the maintenance performed by a client through their Content Management System (CMS) causes errors.

There are three quick items to note when using the W3C validation service. Firstly, ensure that a DOCTYPE is declared. If it’s not, you’ll see an error on the page that says: “No DOCTYPE found!” No DOCTYPE means that the organization that built this site does not understand what they are doing. Secondly, note which standard the site is being validated against. This is listed in the top section, and should say something like “HTML 4.01 Transitional,” “XHTML 1.0 Strict,” or “HTML5.” If it doesn’t, you need to explore this further with the web design firm. Finally, a quick look at the number of errors should give you a good idea of how seriously this firm takes standards. As a general rule, anything over ten or twelve should raise a warning flag. Obviously, just looking at the number of errors without an understanding of the causes for them is not a perfect way to do this evaluation. This should only be used as a precursory check. A further conversation with the firm in question is always the next step.

For more information on web-standards, check out http://www.webstandards.org/ and http://w3.org.

Accessibility

There will come a time when your organization’s website will be required to adhere to certain accessibility guidelines. If you work for or with the government, that time is now. There have already been several high-profile law suits indicating that an organization can be held liable for not providing the same level of access to all individuals. If you’re building a website, accessibility should be a key concern.

Luckily, if you find an organization that understands web-standards, you’re a good portion of the way there. There are two major guidelines released by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI, a branch of the W3C) that provide a measuring stick for website accessibility. These documents are the Web Content Accessibility Guide 1 (WCAG 1) and the WCAG 2. While the intent behind these documents is good, they are far-from-easy to interpret. The first document is a list of fourteen recommendations, each with sub-points and examples, to help in the process of making a website accessible. The second is a list of four general concerns for accessibility to all content on the web. Most people still use WCAG 1 as a primary guide.

As a business, you first need to determine how far along the accessibility spectrum your organization needs to be. Only then will you be able to determine if the website development firm you’re working with can get you there. For more information about the legal requirements for accessibility visit http://section508.gov.

Browser Support

There are a lot of web browsers in use by your potential customers. The general opinion of most professional website developers today is that your website does not have to look the same in all of them. This is a significant shift away from the pixel-perfect mentality of the last generation. The truth is the web is a dynamic medium––it’s not like print. The content on a website changes all the time and it’s viewed in an infinite combination of browsers and operating systems. This makes it next to impossible to test every possible situation in which someone could see your site, and thus interact with your brand.

Generally speaking, you need to understand what browsers your customers use. Install Google Analytics for free to start capturing this information. Knowing this will allow you to provide a list of the minimum browsers to support to the firm you select. If you are curious how your current site looks on other browsers, you can use a web service like http://www.browsercam.com to find out.

There has recently been a move toward responsive website design which means that  a given site tries to determine the kind of environment in which it’s being viewed and adjust itself accordingly. Some firms are also moving toward a “mobile first” approach to design based on the increasing number of mobile devices showing up in traffic reports.

Additionally, there are some technologies that require certain browser plug-ins or settings. Flash requires the “Flash Player Plug-In” and JavaScript is great, but you have to have it enabled in your browser. In most cases, you’re looking at a very small portion of the population that doesn’t have these technologies installed or enabled. However, you’ll want to ensure that the firm you work with generates alternative content for use when these technologies are not available. This is called “progressive enhancement” and it’s critical to making your site’s content available to the widest possible audience.

Site Layout (Tables vs. CSS)

There is no excuse for any web designer or developer to layout your site with tables. CSS has been around and supported for a long time and the benefits of separating content from style are well-documented. Use the “View Source” function of your browser to look at the code behind the website development firm’s homepage. If you see that all of their content is within TABLE tags, run the other direction.

Conclusion

Finding an organization with the technical skill to manage your project can be difficult, especially if you don’t have a technical background. The field of website development is constantly changing and growing. Taking the time to find a trustworthy and technically savvy firm will pay it’s dividends many times over.

The next article in this series will ask and answer several key questions you should ask every firm you consider.