.net/november2007 article The artisan and the mass-producer

here's the full text of my little rant / opinion piece in this month's .net magazine:

The artisan and the mass producer

Creating web pages is not the exclusive domain of those hardcore enough to hand-code anymore. WYSIWYG editors, blogging tools, content management systems and CSS frameworks have helped lower some of the technological entry barriers. Does this spell the end for the traditional craft of the web "artisan"?

In my day job, I work as Web Editor for the University of Salford, managing a small central web team directly responsible for the institution's core site. The management of all other sites that make up the domain is devolved, with individual web authors in faculties, schools and research institutes looking after their own web presence - though centrally we still strive to ensure the overall consistency and adherence to standards and requirements. The knowledge and skill of these authors can vary quite considerably, ranging from grizzled techies with a penchant for hand-coding in a text editor to complete novices who have been handed a copy of Dreamweaver.

Over the last few years, we've been looking for a simple content management system to roll out across these various sub-sites, in order to level the playing field for the whole gamut of web authors. This led to interesting discussions with some of the more technically-minded individuals, who were bemoaning the fact that they "liked to hand-code" their pages, that they took great pride in the skill and expertise required to craft appropriate markup and style sheets, and that a CMS would take away that level of control, potentially making them redundant in the process.

It's certainly true that building each individual page - perhaps starting from scratch, or with nothing more than a very basic template structure - provides a lot of scope for "clever" HTML/CSS constructs, oozing with plus-parfait semantics. When page content is known in advance, an author can optimise and tweak how this content is marked up in fine detail.

However, when moving to a "mass production" model, some of this detailing needs to be sacrificed. Compared to the elegance of a lovingly hand-crafted page, even the output of a "standards-compliant" CMS can appear crude. Templates need to work in a variety of situations, adapting to a diverse range of content that may not be known in advance, through the use of generic constructs - a few extra DIV containers, a plethora of ready-made style rules tied to specific class names, placeholder elements, decorative images dropped into the markup as IMG elements, rather than by virtue of CSS trickery. And often that obscure, seldom used HTML element that would be just right for a particular piece of content is not given as an option in the CMS' built-in page editor, forcing authors to opt for something more generic.

As an accessibilista and web standards evangelist, I admit that this prospect seems anathema to the ideology I've been advocating for years. However, the pragmatist in me is willing to make certain small concessions when it comes to the purity and finesse of markup and styling if these are outweighed by increased production capacity and faster turnaround times, which ultimately aid in keeping a large content-driven site accurate and up-to-date.

If a web author's role consisted solely of writing HTML/CSS, I could understand how this "revolution" may threaten their monopoly on web page production. However, there's more to creating and maintaining sites than the mere technical act of coding and markup. Rather than taking a Luddite stance and decrying the devaluation of their technical skills, web authors should see content management systems as opportunities. Just as CSS frameworks and JavaScript libraries, they are simply tools that, when judiciously applied, can greatly enhance productivity by automating repetitive and mundane tasks. The creative act of crafting appropriate templates still requires technical expertise. Industrialisation and mass production did not eliminate the need for skilled designers - just not at every single step of the production process. By not having to constantly focus on the microscopic level, web authors are free to concentrate on the bigger picture: information architecture, quality assurance of the content, usability and accessibility.

Certainly, even in a content-managed environment there is still the occasional microsite that calls for a hand-crafted, cleverly optimised bit of bespoke development, just as there's still a market for small sites where a CMS would be overkill.

But particularly in organisations where "anything to do with the web" is dumped onto the lap of a single individual or very small team, any tool which can enable us to work smarter, not harder, should be seen in a positive light.

a PDF version of my article is also available.

19/10/2007 at 02:05:49
.net article