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2007-02-25: browser configuration for better web development

The way you configure your primary browser effects the way you see the web. Using a suite of browsers during your test rounds is one thing, but it's not the same as using a particular browser and configuration on a daily basis.

To see what I mean, spend a day with Javascript and plugins disabled: it's amazing how many sites fail completely without them. While browsing with Javascript disabled all the time is a bit impractical, there are some things I do recommend to catch basic errors:

  1. Set your system/browser's default background to something other than white
  2. Disable plugins by default (enable them on demand)
  3. Disable meta refresh

These three tips will catch a huge number of sites which make assumptions about browsers. The errors you catch with these settings aren't necessarily the end of the world, but they are a sort of litmus test for site build quality. Plus, many sites do in fact fail completely under these simple-sounding conditions.

non-white background

On a Windows PC (not sure about Macs), a web page with no explicitly stated background colour will be rendered with the Windows default background colour. Since the default Windows background is white, many developers forget to actually set the background when they want it to be white. However to reduce eye strain I set the Windows background to a light grey or off white, so I get to see which sites haven't set a background colour.

It really is quite astonishing how many sites don't actually set their white backgrounds! There are some very popular sites (by large companies) and even a couple of A list bloggers who have forgotten this one.

While it's not the worst error out there, it can certainly be a problem if a user has a black system background and you've got black text. I know someone who has grey on black as their system default; and they regularly have to highlight websites just to read them.

I think Firefox has started overriding the system background and inserting white as a default, but that's not really a solution.

To change your Windows background: click Start → Settings → Control Panel → Display → Appearance → Advanced. Click on the diagram or select Window from the Item dropdown. Change that item's colour and apply the change.

[If someone knows the MacOS equivalent to change the default background in web browsers, feel free to comment or let me know :)]

disable plugins

You should regularly browse with plugins disabled. It's interesting to see how many sites use flash for critical content yet have no fallback at all. Many all-Flash sites don't even have a warning message telling you to install Flash - they just load as a blank screen.

I use Opera and go a bit further, disabling animated graphics and Java. It's trivially simple to switch them back on a for a site, so why not. With Opera's site preferences I can enable plugins for those few sites where I do want the plugins to work (eg. YouTube). To toggle these settings, use the Quick Preferences menu to disable plugins then use Edit Site Preferences to enable them for chosen sites.

I'm not sure if Firefox can disable plugins once they are installed, however there are various extensions (eg. Flashblock) which can disable Flash. It's buried in IE as well but to be honest I don't recommend using IE as your daily browser anyway - it encourages complacency, since you don't notice all the sites out there that don't work in anything other than IE.

disable meta refresh

Meta refresh is particularly problematic for users with screen readers, since the uncontrolled refreshes create confusing and unpredictable experiences. For this and many other reasons, browsers are now making it a lot easier to block meta refreshes.

The thing is, many sites use these to forward the user from one page to another - but they don't include a manual, clickable link. Many people assumed that browsers would never be able to switch off refreshes I guess!

To disable meta refresh:

  • Opera: browse to opera:config#UserPrefs|ClientRefresh, then deselect the option and restart Opera.
  • Firefox: you can wait for version three, or install the Web Developer's Toolbar and click Disable → Disable Meta Redirects.
  • In Internet Explorer: go to Tools → Internet options → Security tab → Custom Level button → Miscellaneous category → set "Allow META REFRESH" to Disable.

[Feel free to comment if you know instructions for other browsers.]

...and that's it

These tips should help remind you to provide fallback content if you're using plugins, scripts or modifying standard page load behaviour in any way. If nothing else, it should remind you that white backgrounds don't magically happen :)

2007-02-24: when the web ran out of e

Web 2.0 is suffering, friends. There is a tragic shortage of desperately needed "e"s. Through bad planning and massive overuse of "e-" as a prefix, Web 2.0 has had to make do without the letter e and simply contract their names.

You've seen them on the street, with names like Flickr, Zoomr, Tumblr, Frappr, Talkr, Soonr, Rel8r... the list goes on.

Let's not be fooled here, Web 1.0 is to blame for this problem. Web 1.0 used "e" like there was an unlimited supply, with no thought for sustainability or future generations' need for e. The term "email" was an innocuous and relatively logical start, but sadly it was followed by eCommerce, eBook, eCard, eZines, eBusiness and even eEducation. Thankfully "cyber" can be synthesised cleanly in lab conditions and - despite heavy use - web 1.0 did not plunder natural stock for future generations.

But there is hope. Some applications have overcome great challenges and used e for its intended purpose. Feedburner and Twitter are two services which managed to conserve enough e to avoid the terrible fate of unnecessary contraction.

You can help. Sponsor a web 2.0 startup today and spare as much e as you can. Together, we can save the web.

2007-02-14: twitter - not perfect, just ubiquitous

So debate continues about Twitter. Is it great? Is it awful? Is it a chat tool? Is it a status updater and damn it you chatters are ruining it for everyone? :)

I've come to the conclusion that ultimately it's not really the format that really gets people hooked. Twitter doesn't do anything that we couldn't already do. We already have chat, we already have blogs, we already have post-by-SMS and so forth. sure, Twitter rolls it into a neat package but I don't think that's the key factor.

Personally I think the real reason that people love Twitter so much - the Killer App if you will - is that it's ubiquitous. Twitter pretty much goes wherever you want it to go.

If you're on the web, you can be on Twitter. If you're signed into IM, you can be on Twitter. If you've got your phone in your pocket, you can be on Twitter... ok, you get the point! Twitter followed us home and we want to keep it.


So what Twitter really does is puts your (Twitter-)friends within easy reach. You can always let them know what you're doing. You can always hear from them. If you're travelling, you can read about the little moments of important people back home. If you find yourself walking home unexpectedly, you can tweet about it.

You don't have to have ground-shaking news. You don't really have to have any justification, Twitter doesn't demand formality or deep and meaningful thoughts. Twitter is basically like hanging out with a big group of friends. You can wander in and out and nobody minds; but they're happy to see you when you are there. You can be pretty sure someone's always around.


I had to mention it. I think Twitter feeds into Mark Pesce's concept of youbiquity. It can provide a timeline - some people tweet when they post a blog article or a particularly interesting photo on Flickr. Twitter can also fill in the gaps on services like Jaiku which attempt to track your 'presence stream'. Blogs, bookmarks and photos still feel a bit disconnected... but twitter adds a certain je ne sais quoi and the sensation that you really are seeing a picture of what you've been up to online.

ubiquitous or intrusive?

If it starts getting intrusive, you can close the window/app, or text OFF... and that's it. It'll leave you alone until you feel like dropping back in. Whether we have that willpower is not really Twitter's fault, nor is it unique - we don't close our email down much either, and emails usually take a lot longer to read than a tweet.

So, sure... it can be just as intrusive as any of the communications channels it uses. Mobiles, web and IM can all be intrusive. That's not new to Twitter either :)

the medium is not the message

...but the medium shapes the message. I write longer text messages via USB (ie. on a proper keyboard) than direct on my mobile's keypad. There's no reason to expect anything different when I post to Twitter.

Khoi Vinh observes that the different interfaces subtly encourage different writing styles - that the input mode changes content. I do believe that people using mobiles will post less and be more focussed on 'what am I doing?' tweets than people using the web or IM interface. After all, they're out and about doing it.


So there's another theory: Twitter's addictive quality is ubiquity. It uses technology which is mundane in our worlds, but it achieves a sort of magic. We can stay connected even when the computer is off. We can post by mobile and friends get it via chat.

Twitter pulls together three of the most successful communications methods of the modern world. Then it's interested in what you're doing. Then it tells your friends.

Go-anywhere technology that connects people. No wonder it's popular!

n minutes ago from web... ;)

2007-02-13: web directions south podcast

It's very weird to hear your own voice as others hear it, but curiosity won out: webdirections | september 26-29 2006 » Cheryl Lead and Ben Buchanan - Moving your organisation to web standards.

It's funny how I love public speaking, but I feel embarrassed listening to a recording of it later! :) But that's the nature of things I guess... most of us don't hear our own voices played back too often, so it always comes as a bit of a surprise.

Still, people seemed to enjoy the session and I think we covered some good stuff. The questions were great, too! ...and we remembered to repeat nearly all of them for the podcast :)

One visual thing that didn't really come across... when I said "may geek out without warning" I was referring to the shirt I was wearing :)

So anyway, check it out...

meta refresh gets the popup treatment

It seems that Firefox 3 will include an option to treat meta refreshes much the same way as popups - blocking them and alerting the user what the page wants to do. It's another step forwards in letting the user take control.

Of course, Opera users already have this option; using opera:config#UserPrefs|ClientRefresh. Neat, although an alert would be good; as would site-specific settings. Hopefully the feature will be refined in future versions.

Really though, either way is good as it gives the user a little more control over their browser. Automatic refreshes and redirects break accessibility recommendations. They're one of those things which gets written up as "until browsers provide a way to control...".

As these features become more widespread, the importance of fallback options will become even more critical. Just like scripts need a <noscript>, meta refreshes need a link in the document. Many pages don't have them, though; so no accessibility or SEO juice for them!

It serves as a good reminder that we should provide alternatives any time we modify the behaviour of a page. I have had people say in the past that meta refresh was so simple nothing could go wrong. Well, that assumption will bite them on the arse...! :)

We should always assume that somehow, somewhere such features will be disabled. It's not hard to provide an alternative, so it should remain our habit to do so.

how to disable meta-refresh

  • In Opera 9 (Win/Mac): browse to opera:config#UserPrefs|ClientRefresh, then deselect the option and restart Opera.
  • Firefox 2 (Win/Mac): install the Web Developer's Toolbar and click Disable → Disable Meta Redirects.
  • In Internet Explorer 6 and 7: go to Tools → Internet options → Security tab → Custom Level button → Miscellaneous category → set "Allow META REFRESH" to Disable.
  • Safari 2: currently I don't know of a way to disable it in Safari.

2007-02-06: questions for google

There's an SEO conference coming up shortly which will feature several Google employees. Russ is calling for your input on questions you'd like asked; and Scott has further thoughts:

I've already commented fairly heavily at both sites, so I guess this is a meta post :) For reference, my questions (in no particular order):

  • Since 301 redirections get you bombed (and longevity is a big factor in pagerank, so new URLs are effectively bombed), is there a way to move a site without losing your pagerank?
  • Will Google ever produce valid pages for their own sites? Many standardistas have produced proof of concept versions of Google search for example - standards compliant AND lightweight. Why not use them?
  • Do they think Flash will ever be seriously searchable, in a useful manner? Do they think it will be possible? Would they rank Flash content higher or lower than text content?
  • Does Google give equal weight to ABBR contents versus spelled-out terms?
  • Does Google give additional weight to tags/tagged pages? (...which leads to the next point...)
  • Will Google be indexing/weighting microformatted content? What is Google’s view of microformats and their potential benefits to search? If they did support microformats would that also suggest they’d need to pay more attention to semantics?
  • I’d also question their views on whether validation is a "signal of quality". In short, if a page validates surely that is an indication that the author/developer has paid close attention to the construction of the site… which would be a signal of quality in my book!

Then from my comments on Standardzilla:

Google: so few websites validate that it isn’t a signal of quality

...incredibly bad logic there. If a site validates at this point in time, it indicates that someone has paid serious attention to the quality of the page. Surely a signal of quality! Maybe they don’t want to open that door since they’d then be admitting that their own pages suck.

Their interest in accessibility is minimal at best. Accessible search is treated as a bit of a curiosity, as far as I can tell. A neat toy produced by someone’s 20%, but that’s about it.

The thing I’ve come to realise about Google is that they do not consider inaction be "doing evil". Despite the tremendous influence they have, they don’t use it to "do good". Personally I think their inaction is a form of doing evil, but that’s just me.

Do you have questions of your own? Head over to Max Design - standards based web design, development and training » Our chance to ask Google and make yourself heard!

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