I’m not here to make fun of the proposal, anyone is welcome to suggest ideas for the web platform. I do want to give an overview of why the current state of things works satisfactorily. Because, as journalist Zeynep Tefepkçi said (source):
If you have something wonderful, if you do not defend it, you will lose it.
On a sidenote: the separation between structure, style and interactivity goes all the way back to the web’s first proposal. At the start, there was only structure. The platform was for scientists to exchange documents. After the initial idea, a bunch of smart minds worked years on making the platform to what it is and what it is used for today. This still goes on. Find out more about web history in my talk On the origin of cascades (video), or Jeremy Keith and Remy Sharpe’s awesome How we built the World Wide Web in 5 days.
Some user needs
Users need structure separated out
The interesting thing about the web is that you never know who you’re building stuff for exactly. Even if you keep statistics. There are so many different users consuming web content. They all have different devices, OSes, screen sizes, default languages, assistive technologies, user preferences… Because of this huge variety, having the structure of web pages (or apps) expressed in a language that is just for structure is essential.
We need shared structure so that:
- screen reader users can navigate web pages by heading (see headings are tables of contents).
- people with an attention disorder can turn on reader mode
- people with motor impairments can use autofill (see Identify Input Purpose)
- people who want to read a foreign language page in their mother tongue can stick a URL into Google Translate
All of these users rely on us writing HTML (headings, semantic structure,
lang attributes, respectively). Would we want to break the web for those users? Or, if we use the JSON abstraction suggested in the aforementioned proposal, and generate DOM from that, would it be worth breaking the way developers are currently used to making accessible experiences? This stuff is hard to teach as it is.
Even if we would time travel back to the nineties and could invent the web from scratch, we’d still need to express semantics. Abstracting semantics to JSON may solve some problems and make some people’s life easier, but having seen some attempts to that, it usually removes the simplicity and flexibility that HTML offers.
Users need style separated out
Like it is important to have structure separated out, users also need us to have style as a separate thing.
We need style separated out, so that:
- people with low vision can use high contrast mode; a WebAIM survey showed 51.4% do (see also Melanie Richard’excellent The Tailored Web: Effectively Honoring Visual Preferences)
- people who only have a mobile device can access the same website, but on a smaller screen (responsive design worked, because CSS allowed HTML to be device-agnostic)
- people with dyslexia may want to override some styles use a dyslexia friendly typeface (see Dyslexic Fonts by Seren Davies)
- people who (can) only use their keyboard can turn on browser plugins that force focus outlines
- users of Twitter may want to use a custom style sheet to turn off the Trending panel (it me 🙄)
Users need interactivity separated out
We need interactivity separated out, because:
- some people use a browser with advanced tracking protection, like Safari or Firefox (see my post On the importance of testing with content blockers)
- some people may be on low bandwidth
- some people may use an old device or operating system for valid reasons
- some people may be going to your site while you’ve just deployed a script that breaks in some browsers, but you’ve not found out during testing, because it is obscure
That’s right, all your users are non-JS while they’re downloading your JS.
On the markup end of things, there are solutions like Sanity’s Portable Text that defines content in JSON, so that it can be reused across many different “channels”. This is a format for storing and transferring data, not for displaying it on a site. Because before you display it anywhere, you’d write a template to do that, in HTML. In a government project I worked on years ago, the team abstracted form fields to JSON before converting them to HTML. I currently work on a project where we use XSLT to specify some stuff before generating HTML.
I don’t use any of these abstractions for this site, or most others I work on. Yet, many approaches are popular with teams building all sorts of websites. Choose any or no abstractions, whatever helps you serve the best HTML, CSS and JS to end users.
Could you benefit people in your abstractions? Maybe. The proposal mentions specific parameters for visual impairments and content that can trigger seizures. But it is better for users (including their privacy) to have such things in the main HTML and CSS, regardless of whether that was written by hand or outputted by some abstraction.
media were already taken into account). It’s exciting to abstract parts of the web and remodel things for your own use case, but I can’t emphasise enough that the web is for people. Well written and well separated HTML and CSS is important to their experience of it.
Thanks to Darius, Jen, Krijn, Thijs, Tim and Coralie for pointing out typos and mishaps.
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