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Interview | Lea Verou on Why Web Standards Matter and How You Can Help

Image: Lea Verou

This is the first in a coming series of interviews with web developers. We’re excited to start with Lea Verou, a front-end web developer from Greece who has not only made lots of cool stuff we’ve linked to, but also recently joined the W3C to help work on web standards.

Webmonkey: You joined the W3C Developer Relations last year, which is a relatively new thing at the W3C, actively reaching out to web designers and developers. What does the day to day work of a W3C Developer Relations person look like?

Lea Verou: You’re absolutely right Scott, it’s a new initiative that Doug Schepers started last year. W3C was interested in outreach for years, but there was no official Developer Relations activity before.

My role is pretty mixed. I help organize W3Conf, our conference for web designers and developers, I help develop and promote, presenting at conferences around the world, I write articles about web standards in industry media and many other things.

WM: You were interested in web standards very early on, what was it that made standards important to you?

Verou: When I started developing for the web, IE6 was the most widely used browser. As you probably remember, making websites that work cross-browser was way harder back then than it is today. We had to rely on browser detection, ugly hacks and whatnot. I wished browsers could just agree on some common ground and implement that. A couple years later, I discovered that this is actually a thing and it’s called web standards. Since then, I made it one of my personal goals to raise awareness in fellow web developers, get browsers to implement them and advance the standards themselves for the common good.

WM: Of course many of those ugly hacks remain, especially for developers still wrestling with IE7 (IE6 seems to have been put to rest for the most part). What’s your take on supporting older browsers? Is that an important thing to do or is it time we leave them behind because they’re holding back the web?

Verou: I’m a big supporter of progressive enhancement and graceful degradation. Websites should be usable, if possible, in older browsers, but they don’t need to have all the bling. However, graceful degradation is not black & white. Everyone seems to have a different definition of what is “graceful” and what is “enhancement”.

Is a solid color an acceptable fallback for a pattern? What if your lightbox has no overlay? What if your stripes become a solid color? What if your transitions are not there? What if your code has no syntax highlighting? I tend to lean towards being more permissive instead of looking for perfection in older browsers, especially on websites targeted to a more technical audience. I will provide fall-backs, but I will not go out of my way and use proprietary IE7-specific stuff to make something look good there. With a < 0.5% global market share, it’s just not worth it.

WM: A lot of the developers I know have a kind of love-hate relationship with the W3C. But you wrote on your site that working for the W3C was “a dream of mine ever since I learned what a web standard is.” Can you talk a little bit about what makes the W3C great and why you wanted to work there?

Verou: Like I said before, promoting web standards was something I was already doing for years anyway. I felt that working for W3C itself would enable me to do it more systematically and have a bigger impact. For instance, one of my main tasks has been helping organize W3Conf — happening this February in San Francisco — which is aimed at showing web professionals that web standards are not some utopian ideal but practical to adhere to in everyday work, as well as educate them about recent developments that they can use today. Connecting those two worlds is a fun challenge!

WM: Standards do at times feel less than practical, especially because they’ve been changing a lot lately — e.g. WebSockets got a rewrite after it had already shipped in multiple browsers, ditto CSS Flexbox. So there’s these seemingly rapid changes, and then on the other hand it seems like we’ve been waiting for other things forever. I know the W3C recently launched, for developers, but what other resources would you suggest for web professionals who’d like to educate themselves about web standards, and more importantly stay up-to-date?

Verou: W3C is well aware of the fact that sometimes we can be slow and we are trying to speed things up to meet developer needs. This is why we are encouraging implementors (like browser vendors) to implement earlier on in the process so we can get feedback by developers and we’re putting more emphasis on testing, which is going to improve interoperability.

All this means that experimental features will ship which still need work. Having shipped in browsers is not an indication of stability. Browsers often ship experimental features so that developers can play with them and give feedback. This doesn’t mean the feature is frozen — quite the opposite, it means we need feedback to make it better.

Regarding resources, I know I’m weird, but I often read about new features in specs. I search for a feature, come across the spec, take a look on what else is there and then see if it’s implemented anywhere. I also often find good information on Twitter and looking at others’ code. There are also some websites with good information like:

and many others.

WM: Now that you’re actually working for the W3C has your perspective on standards changed? Is there anything that looks different from the other side of the fence?

Verou: I was involved in standards before I joined W3C, so many things already looked different. For instance, many developers tend to blame W3C for being slow with standardization, whereas the reality is that often implementors are just busy with other things (we need multiple implementations for a spec to exit CR level) or spec editors are focusing their attention elsewhere.

Another common misconception is that spec editors and Working Group members are exclusively or mostly W3C staff. Whereas many W3C Team members do edit specs and participate in WGs, the majority of spec editors are employees of member companies, as evident in most specifications (you can see a list of the editors in the header). W3C is not some authority that dictates standards from up high, but merely a forum for interested parties to get together and collaborate on advancing the web.

WM: How can developers who aren’t (yet) well-known contribute to the process or give feedback about what works and what doesn’t?

Verou: Participating in web standards is a matter of joining the conversation. W3C is very open. Technical discussion happens in the public mailing lists and IRC, which you can join. Pragmatic feedback from anybody is welcome, especially from people who have tried using the feature in question. Experiment, try to make it work for you and share experiences — good or bad — about it. It might seem at first that you’re just one voice among many, but if your feedback is good, your voice is going to be heard. Technical arguments are judged on their merit and not their origin.

WM: I get tired just looking at your GitHub pagePattern Gallery, -prefix-free, Dabblet, Prism and a bunch of other useful tools — where do you find the time to build all this cool stuff? And are you going to be able to keep doing it now that you’re at the W3C?

Verou: I actually released another tool after I joined W3C: Contrast Ratio. W3C supports me in making tools to help developers use open web technologies more effectively. In fact, improving Prism and Dabblet is one of my tasks at W3C since we are going to be using them in, our vendor-neutral documentation effort, where all the big players of the Web are working in harmony to create a valuable resource. However, I plan to slow down on releasing new things, so I can maintain the existing ones. Nobody likes to use abandoned scripts and tools, right? :)

WM: The first time I recall landing on your blog was for a post about CSS abuses, like making the Mona Lisa in pure CSS. Which is of course silly, but what caught my eye was that you wrote about how people should be using SVG, which is an awesome tool that almost no one seems to use (despite the fact that it often has better browser support than most CSS 3 features and works great on every screen resolution). Why is SVG still the neglected stepchild of the web stack and do you think that’s ever going to change?

Verou: SVG was significantly held back by a number of different factors. One was the lack of proper support in browsers for many years. Internet Explorer was promoting VML (a proprietary technology that influenced SVG) until IE8 and only implemented SVG in IE9, which is not that long ago. In addition, there are far more browser bugs in SVG implementations across browsers, since fewer people use it, so fewer of them get reported and fixed.

Last but not least, there just aren’t many extensive resources for SVG documentation, a gap that is trying to cover (and since it’s a wiki, you can help too!).
However, SVG is certainly picking up in the last few years, either directly by people using the format, or indirectly, through many of its features getting added in CSS. For example, CSS Transforms, CSS Filter Effects, Blending and Compositing, as well as CSS Masking, are all basically SVG applied to HTML with a simpler syntax.

WM: Everyone has their pet standard, personally I’d like to see CSS Flexbox get better browser support and end the float insanity — what’s at the top of your web standards wish list?

Verou: As an editor of CSS Backgrounds & Borders Level 4 I can’t wait for it to get more attention. Regarding other specs however, I’m very interested in the new SVG-inspired specs like Filter Effects, Compositing and Masking. They allow us to do things we badly needed for years and for the most part, they degrade pretty gracefully, unlike the new Layout modules or the syntax improvements.

To keep up with Verou’s latest projects and musings on web standards, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter and GitHub.