Kimberly Blessing Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Before she rocked An Event Apart in Boston, Kimberly Blessing was at South by Southwest like everyone else was in the Web design and development crowd. While there the publisher of our book, Adapting to Web Standards, asked her if she would do an interview with fellow New Riders author, Richard Harrington.

Below is the video the publisher made of the interview along with the transcript I’ve recently produced to go along with it.

Richard Harrington: Hi. My name is Richard Harrington. I am a blogger as well as an author and we are here today at South by Southwest, taking look at some of the things happening over in the interactive space. We have joined by Kimberly Blessing, who is a co-author of a new book called Adapting to Web Standards.

Why is there the need for this book? What was really the motivation behind it?

Kimberly Blessing: Oh, so, I think, what happened was a number of different authors, who have worked on really large sites that have made successful conversions to Web standards came together and said, “we need a document of what we have done, because there are other large companies out there where perhaps there are standards evangelists that are having trouble convincing their companies that they need to make this leap.” 

I also think there are some companies out there that are kind of struggling. They need to know that there is success. You know there is a light at the end of tunnel, more or less. So, kind of bringing together people who have been successful at this and documenting those experiences as a way to educate, encourage and just document for others. 

RH: Now, many people when they hear standards think of it as a negative thing. What are some of the benefits of putting in good standards that are usable, effective? Describe some best practices or why I can’t be should doing this.

KB: I think the biggest benefit especially when you are in the enterprise the most company see are the dollar signs. The fact that there is lot of savings that come from utilization of standards. 

If you take a Web site with about a thosand Web pages and each page has been developed by a different coder, has been designed by a different designer, and none of them are hearing to any common set of those practices or standards, like you said, then you are essentially spending money for one-offs every single time you create a new product or a new page. 

And, so, utlimately to the big business there is a lot of savings by establishing a set of standards, ensuring that your teams are following them and kind of having review process to ensure that and then reaping the savings from that. 

Of course there are benefits to the user on the opposite end. 

Once they access a website that has been consistently designed and coded, they are going to have how much better user experience. It becomes much more simple to upgrade the website, to ensure that other standards are supported on an ongoing fashion. 

Sojust for example you mentioned accessibility. You know if today your Web site is coded in one common fashion, even if it has no accessibility features to go back and add those it should be relatively simple because you are not looking at upgrading a completely different codebase. You are looking at one common set of code then just need some couple of fixes. 

RH: Now, you’ve been in the trenches when it comes to standards for some very large companies. Why do you think there is a resistance to standards? Not necessarily the companies you’ve worked with, but. you have seen this. Why do people resist this?

KB: I think folks typically resist this for one or two reasons. 

Either they think it’s going to limit their creativity or it kind of means that, you know, The Man is—and I hate to use that term, but— you know, the man is kind of holding them and telling them what to do.

But I think that if you take a look at some of what those large companies are doing, in particular the technology based companies. They have realized that they need to have this process, they need to have this documentation and it becomes an essential part of being a quality technology company or producing a quality Web site. 

And on the design front when people feel like its kind of boxing them in, you know, I kind of put it in the way that you have to design a better box set. If this particular box is too constraining, in the next revision of those design standards of those design patterns, what should the box should look like like next?

RH: So, do you really see that, I guess, for standards to be effective, it is not just top down standardization. How does the whole team or what should a company be doing to involve others in the creation of standards? 

KB: So, I am typically used to more of a gross roots, a kind of bottom up approach, to standards where people who know about our web standards typically come together first and say, “hey, lets’ try to get the company on the same page.” 

So, when you start with that model, I think first of all, you get very passionate people who want to collaborate. So right there a kind of removing any of the barriers because the people know they want to achieve success and they want to do something together. 

So, I think that really helps in terms of making for a very successful process. 

And then what those folks typically have to do is evangelize and outreach and look for those key executives who they can then sell that message to. And then one those executives latch on then they can really become top down process change and then enforces standards throughout. 

If you start it out with an executive or with some kind of top-down mandate to achieve standards, I think that’s great, sometimes what I have seen happen though is that is kind of like forcing teams together, “you have to come up with standards.” 

You don’t always get the same level of passion and commitment, you know, and wanting to break down the boundaries, but if you can find the right team and the right leader for that team, really there shouldn’t be much of a problem. 

RH: Now, we talked about large companies. Is there room for using standards for small developers, smaller teams and, if so, how is that help out?

KB: I actually think that there is a place for standards for small teams. I say in the agency environment especially with some of the smaller consultancies that are out there where you may be only have three to five people on a design or a development team, typically what you want to do is still ensure that everybody is coding in the same manner. 

Just because you create a site today for a client doesn’t mean that somebody else in the future won’t have to comeback and maintain it. And that typically it won’t be you, it could be somebody either with the company today or somebody who is not even yet with the company. 

So, if you are all working against one common set of standards or set of principles for your designing and development work it should be really easy than to go back in later on, make changes, ensure that something new is being developed is in line with the design aesthetic or with the coding structure thus making it that much easier to share.

RH: Last question for you. What’s the one thing you have learn that really drives the standards? If a group is having trouble getting in place, what can they do to turn the corner to really get standards accepted?

KB: I guess I would say its really is that comes down to people. Its all about the people there involved. 

And I guess I can say that I have seen teams that really do struggle where these some more of dead weight on the team, somebody who isn’t fully bought into the idea, isn’t towing their part of the overall package and that can be really difficult for a team. I think what has to happen in those cases, you have to have an honest conversation. 

And when it comes into evangelism the best thing to do is to have that one-to-one conversation and convert each person one at a time rather than trying to talk to a big audience and not being able to customize. 

RH: Thank you Kimberly for joining us. The book is Adapting to Web Standards with Kimberly Blessing. Hope you guys enjoyed it.

KB: Thanks, Rich.

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