The scruples of a web developer


Gov.uk rendered on an iPhone with a Macbook in the background.

As a web developer, I have responsibilities. I am contributing to an open Internet. A website I create can potentially be visited by anyone in the world. Creating something that serves a purpose and provides value is a matter of respect.

I have a simple philosophy when it comes to developing a website: it must be content first, user first and mobile first. And these core principles are all interlinked.

A good website starts with good content. If you haven’t got it, a website is useless – it pollutes the web. A valuable website also keeps the end user front of mind at all times. You must consider the needs of your audience: what are they interested in? What do they do? What’s their accessibility level – can they see and use the website properly?

Considering mobile is intrinsically linked to putting the user first. A quarter of global internet traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets and this is only set to rise as developing nations adopt mobile devices as their primary method of getting online. Ultimately, we want to design websites that automatically work on any device in the future, be it a smartphone, a tablet – or even a fridge.

Mobile challenges

Developing responsive, mobile-first websites is still a relatively new concept and presents challenges. For example, some web designers still design with static tools, which of course doesn’t show how the website responds to different devices with different screen sizes or input methods.

That’s why we increasingly design in-browser. The web by its very nature is fluid. But it’s lost a lot of that flexibility over the years. The newspaper and magazine industries came online and started implementing their print guidelines, designing websites with fixed width pages, and it’s remained that way for the last 15 years. Now, the web is reverting back to its fluid roots and design should embrace this.

Designing in the browser also cuts costs, making it easier to develop products that place content, mobile and the user first. Less costly production is also a win for clients. But it doesn’t mean we can cut corners. I’ve experienced ill thought-out, cheap websites that claim to be responsive, but while they may look “OK” on mobile, they’ve just been adapted from desktop templates with content that has no logical order and is hard to access.

Open to all

Accessibility is so important when developing websites. Developers work to a global set of standards, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which ensure that the experience is a rewarding one for audiences – whatever their ability.

There are many simple ways that you can ensure your website is accessible, from considering background/foreground colour contrast and font size to ensuring images have descriptive alternate text and content is laid out in a logical order. Factoring these concerns in at the very core of the design and development process is crucial if you want to create a product that is valuable to everyone.

Leading the way

There are a number of organisations that have clearly placed the user, mobile and content first in their website design. One of the best in the UK in terms of accessibility is gov.uk. While it could probably be described as “dull” in terms of design (and it’s unlikely the UK Government would disagree), it is responsive and places the content front and centre – a crucial tactic for a website accessed by millions of Britons every day for information on everything from driving licences to immigration. It even offers a public page that lays bare its design principles and provides tips on how to replicate its direct, responsive style.

As one of the leading newspapers in the UK, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Guardian is another good example of a website that treats content as king – and renders seamlessly across devices. Better still, the company is publicly testing the website as it develops, with consumers accessing the live beta version. This iterative process reinforces the forward-thinking strategy of the Guardian’s digital team.

Finally, tech giant Microsoft revealed a new website along with its refreshed look and feel in 2012 and the results are pleasing. It’s a much clearer, more modern website, which is fast to load and easy to navigate.

These examples are proof that by adopting the right principles and disciplines, websites can not only drive successful outcomes for a business or organisation, they can do so more effectively by giving site visitors a consistently rewarding experience. It's our duty as web developers – and responsible netizens – to ensure that every site we produce does exactly the same.

Categories

  • Web development
  • Design
  • Content
  • Responsive design