Inclusive Web Design for the Future

Steven Champeon
South by Southwest Interactive Festival 2003

by Steven Champeon and Nick Finck


Web design must mature and accept the developments of the past several years, abandon the exclusionary attitudes formed in the rough and tumble dotcom era, realize the coming future of a wide variety of devices and platforms, and separate semantic markup from presentation logic and behavior.

The goal of Web design is not merely to dazzle, but to deliver information to the widest audience possible.

Compromise is possible and desirable, but such compromise should not come at the expense of the user, but rather in terms of the native capabilities of the user's choice of device.

Given the powerful capabilities of modern graphical desktop browsers, it is now possible to provide a progressive, gradually enhanced experience across a wide array of browsers, using one markup document and a variety of different stylesheets, not selectively delivered to the user through browser sniffing, but rather requested by the client itself.

Leave no one behind.

A Brief History of Web Technologies

SGML becomes ISO standard
CERN linemode browser
NCSA Mosaic et al.
Netscape Navigator released, W3C Founded
Microsoft Internet Explorer
The Browser Wars, CSS1, JavaScript, DHTML
HTML 3.2, CSS2, HTML 4.0

Obsolescence of Browsers

  • graphics support (Mosaic 1.0)
  • tables support (Navigator 1.1, Mosaic 2)
  • scripting (Navigator 2)
  • embedded components (ActiveX, Java, Flash, et al.)
  • HTTP Host: header and virtual hosting
  • DHTML and Web “apps”

“graceful degradation”

Dates back to 1994 WRT the Web, earlier in computer science, other fields. Basic idea is that so long as less capable browsers can handle documents containing newer, perhaps unsupported technologies, and still get at the basic information and/or functionality, everything is fine.

In recent years, though, this has come to mean producing one version of the site without designing in support for less capable browsers, on the assumption that a few alt or title attributes are enough.

Mostly, this is because visual designers and others rightly believe that graphical desktop browsers are what most people use, and so the judgement is made on the basis of economics. But this ignores some basic realities:

  1. browsers, even modern browsers, have widely varying capabilities
  2. accessibility is for everyone, not just the disabled
  3. it is possible to support all browsers with X/HTML and CSS

The Rise of Baseline Standards

  • HTML 3.0 from W3C (poor adoption, Arena, Amaya)
  • HTML 3.2
  • HTML 4.01
  • XHTML 1.0
  • alternate devices (WAP, XHTML Basic, etc.)
  • CSS 1 (IE3, NS4 somewhat, IE4+)
  • CSS 2 (IE5.5/6, NS6/Mozilla, Opera, Safari/Konqueror)
  • ECMAScript (JavaScript/JScript)