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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

How could the CSS WG could improve matters?

Yesterday I vented my frustration with the CSS WG, claiming that I have found them to be out-of-touch, isolated, unhelpful, dismissive, largely irrelevant, and unable to engage designers. It’s not for a lack of designer interest, just Google any topic related to CSS and you’ll find dozens of designers talking about ideas, problems, solutions, etc. And it’s not just “small fry” players mouthing off, the big guns in our industry are at it just as often as everyone else Jeff Croft (many times), Andy Clarke who was on the working group itself, Jonathan Snook, Eric Meyer. Much of this dates back to 2007 and earlier; yet even now we’re in the same situation. Barely any progress has been made in engaging designers at the Working Group.

Despite the thousands of hours of effort spent by hundreds of designers all over the world, to try and improve the technologies we rely on daily, so very little has been achieved. And that’s because of the way the Working Group’s set-up.

As far as I’m aware and as far as I’ve experienced, the people making up the Working Group are doing their best with what they’ve got. And I admire them for it - I sure as hell couldn’t stick working in that environment, which is why I quit from the HTML5 working group. But despite their best intents - it still isn’t working well enough. Or at all. Depending on your pessimism level.

The crux of the issue

Let me ask you a question, imagining you to be an experienced designer/developer with a keen interest in CSS and Web Standards: where do you go to find out about new developments in CSS? Who’s looking after it? What’s their homepage? Can you navigate right now to the source of the development of CSS? Not reports in webzines; the actual place this stuff gets made. I bet bottom dollar you haven’t a clue. You’d go to the W3C site perhaps, and then get lost in the abysmal depths of an un-intuitive mess of a site. And even if you did manage to get to the CSS section: there’s no invitation for you to get involved. No clue how you might contribute. No place showing the discussions going on. Oh sure, click the link buried in the text called “CSS Working Group” and watch a log-in prompt appear. Dead end for you, my inquisitive friend. You could trawl through the mire of the mailing list if you found the link and knew what a mailing list meant in the context of this site; but really - would you? Would anyone not already involved know even where to begin in that fucking mess of a mailing archive? You know, assuming you found it in the first place.

So how would you get involved? Because writing on your own blog doesn’t cut it - they don’t notice. The W3C site doesn’t make it easy to even find out how to contribute - it most certainly doesn’t ask you. It doesn’t open the dialogue with you.

Let me ask you another question: Who’s on the CSS Working Group? Who could you call to mind as a representative of the design industry that’s sitting on the very group which controls the fundamental tools we use to do our job? They’d be like a union rep for us really. I bet you don’t know. Why? Because there isn’t one.

The CSS Working Group is an opaque and cloaked organisation despite the claims of openness and supposed “calls for participation”. If no one knows you’re making calls, then you’re not actually making any calls. You’re just going through the motions of democracy in an empty room while the general population’s over in another building entirely, not even aware of your existence. The meaning of your communication is the effect it has, not the intention you had. If there’s no effect then you’re not communicating anything at all.

How to improve things externally

  • Clean up your website, employ a designer, prioritize your message, make it obvious how people can contribute
  • Get a single point of contact between the group and the “public” - one website. One place for everyone to go. Focused on that one job. Not some piss boring text only page hidden away in a piss boring maze of a website.
  • Be open, don’t just say you are. Take some initiative and go ask some prominent designers to get involved directly. Even if they can’t, they can communicate the message to others.
  • Consolidate. There’s resources all over the place, but no one knows where they all are. Or that they exist at all.
  • Stop using fucking mailing lists as your primary communication tool. Seriously, it’s 2009 guys not 1999. This is archaic, confusing, hard to search, hard to navigate, hard to even find, un-intuitive, backward crap that’s hard even to join in with (I never did manage to post the the HTML5 WG because the mail-server set up didn’t let me!).

    Install a forum - people know how to use those and they offer far better functionality.

How to improve things internally

Not being a member of the group, this one’s a tough call, but there are a couple of obvious things:

  • Get some experienced industry heavyweight designers on the group. Your work will be used by designers. Your solutions to our problems show obvious ignorance of our needs and environment. Your work is ridiculed because of your continued ignorance, not because we don’t appreciate your trying (honestly, we love you for trying).
  • Employ someone to be the public face of the group while we wait (and wait) for the changes above to come to fruition
  • Less members. There’s too much waffle and in-fighting going on and not enough action: a direct function of the number of contributors (and their employers). Keep the guys and girls that have clear visions and a good track record, and ditch the rest.

Yes, I know

All most everything I’ve said above has been said before. Yes the reality is more complicated than this quick overview of my limited understanding.

I don’t care. Just engage the huge amount of people who want to help, leverage their efforts, and produce results. Preferably sooner rather than later.

Make me believe in this process, in the dreams and ideals of an open web, again.


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  1. Grant Lucas posted 12hrs, 52min, 8sec after the entry and said:

    I wish there was some other entity other than W3C that could help push the web developer's causes regarding CSS. Is there no way we can form our own "union"?

  2. Jonathan Snook posted 12hrs, 58min, 50sec after the entry and said:

    Some good points and some things I disagree with.

    I do think that just having a mailing list as being the primary way of communicating with the CSS WG isn't enough. A forum sounds like a more reasonable idea. There'd be a way to break discussion down by topics (like the different modules of the CSS3 draft), and for administrators to highlight relevant threads.

    With the mailing list, it's easy to present an idea but there's no way of knowing that these ideas are being followed up on or applied in any way whatsoever. Once a discussion fizzles out, it just disappears.

    Ultimately, ideas only seem to happen if implemented by browser developers. Therefore, pressure has to be put on them to implement specific features. What features are we looking for? Once we have a prioritized list, we need to be going after them to get these features implemented. They can use the W3C to garner consensus on HOW these things should be implemented.

    It is also up to us as the designers and developers to be able to present our cases. This is what I tried to do with the Matrix Layouts. It's not enough to come in and just say "hey, I'd really like this feature". There should be uses cases, demonstrated with diagrams. Think ideas through.

    We also need to, as a community, establish priority lists for browser developers. Acid tests have done this. A bunch of folks in the JavaScript community did this for Microsoft during IE7 and IE8 development. We need to band together and say, "Do this first and foremost. This is what we care about."

  3. Matt Wilcox posted 13hrs, 43min, 36sec after the entry and said:

    I agree Jonathan, it's the browser vendors that actually matter, the W3C at this point isn't actually all that relevant (last paragraph of my previous article). I also agree that it's up to us to present our cases; and many of us have tried, with well thought out criticisms, and quite a few well thought out ideas for solutions (your Matrix Layout being a prime example of a well considered solution orientated approach).

    The issue I'm flagging up here is that we don't know who to present our work to. There isn't any obvious (or even non-obvious 'looked for ages') channel to go through. No person to liaise with. So many designers have put in so much work, and are so willing to talk things through - but we don't know where to say our bit and know we'll get heard by the people that matter.

    If we as a community need to band together to form a priority list for browser vendors (and I think we do), we need first to talk to browser vendors to establish how to best provide them with our feedback, our list of problems, a showcase of those issues, a list of feature requests.

    We need a way to liaise with them as solutions are worked on so, for example, we don't just hand off "we need better layout" and end up with the Template System like the W3C offered. We need closer ties for longer periods at more points in the process…

    …but how? Who's there listening? Who's there to question about this? How do we get the ball rolling in a way that has browser vendors included right at the start?

    It's pretty clear that layout is the one huge thing we need. Eric Meyer's post got hundreds of replies for that topic. I'd love to see some dialogue on that matter if nothing else.

  4. Miles Carmany posted 1 days, 8hrs, 21mins after the entry and said:

    If we werre to "unionize" or organize in some other way, would we need to set up an actual organization? A domain? Would it look like the WHATWG did before HTML5 got annexed? Would we want it to?

    I would love to be a part of an organizing force that can help designers actually influence the tools they are attempting to use. I'm not an engineer and I don't have much business experience, even less when it comes to non-profits. Do we need something on that level or do we cross that bridge when we get to it?

  5. SiteArt posted 137 days, 10hrs, 55mins after the entry and said:

    "You’d go to the W3C site perhaps, and then get lost in the abysmal depths of an un-intuitive mess of a site."

    ^^ I’m glad someone think this too!

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