The Way It’s Supposed to Work

Warning: Experimental / controversial elements ahead.  Use caution.

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The history of science is crowded with stories about competitive researchers sprinting for new discoveries. First place gets patents, research money, and sometimes a Nobel. Second place gets a snarky note in the sidebar of junior-high science textbooks. While competition can foster innovation, scientific progress is retarded when researchers delay the publication of groundbreaking cancer research data in order to secure the most advantageous patents, or when research teams refuse to share information for fear of a licensing double-cross.

Happily, web development isn’t genome science. Your reputation may be solidified if you work out a zingy new CSS technique or write a persuasive article on standards-compliant bicycle sharpeners, but there’s not usually a lot of money or international acclaim available to the first person who gets that horizontal drop-over aligned correctly.

This is good, because it means that we’re free to collaborate. The amount of information on new and exciting web stuff is far too huge for anyone to keep track of, particularly with thousands of design and development weblogs thrown into the old-school mix of message boards, e-lists, and the occasional online magazine.

Sometimes ALA can help make this enormous amount of information and innovation more accessible to more people by providing a place for related ideas to interact.

One kind of success#section1

In one of our recent issues, we published an article that produced a design effect that we hadn’t seen on the web. The markup wasn’t ideal in anyone’s mind — certainly not the author’s — but we decided to run it anyway because it felt like a specialized instrument that many of our readers might like to have handy.

One of our readers left a comment about his own method of tackling the problem. With that helpful reader’s permission, the article’s original author developed a new technique that married the best points of both before pushing the technique further to see what he could do with it.

This is a particularly clear-cut example of the kind of collaboration we strive for, but it’s not unusual. This is the way it’s supposed to work.

Prescription vs. experimentation#section2

A lot of the articles we publish are intended to persuade people — designers, developers, content people, clients — to do the right thing. Some of these articles, thanks to the generosity, skill, and insight of our authors, have inspired really positive changes in the way people make websites.

This is also the way it’s supposed to work.

We also like to share experiments — articles that aren’t intended to persuade anyone to see the light and adopt CSS hacks. We publish them when we think they’re interesting and potentially useful to a sizable portion of our readership.

When we do, we know going in that while Method X could be the beginning of a series of exciting design and development conversations, it will almost certainly produce another batch of “ALA has really gone downhill” comments and arguments about purity vs. practicality. We still publish them because we think it’s worth it if some of them turn out to be useful.

We would, therefore, like to invite everyone involved to relax. We’re going to keep publishing articles on accessibility, usability, information architecture, client relations, project management, and — oh yeah, plug-and-play, standards-compliant XHTML, CSS, and scripting innovations. We’re also going to keep publishing articles that include CSS hacks and the occasional non-semantic element because we believe that our readers will have the good sense to know when to use them and when not to.

Introducing the ALA experimental / controversial content warning#section3

Warning: Experimental/controversial content. Proceed with caution.

Think of it as the soothing voice that announces, “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system” before you hear the earsplitting beep. Except without the beep.

It doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly forgotten that the web is not print or that we think everyone should stop worrying and learn to love the kludge.

It’s a warning that the article that it precedes uses experimental techniques to do cool things that we’d like to do more simply but haven’t managed to yet — or suggests better ways to do things that give a lot of people hives. If you see the icon, you’ll know that you should consider the implications and read the suggested alternatives or improvements in the forum before blithely implementing Method X on every site you work on.

It’s a chance to take what you can use, improve what you can, and leave the rest. We probably won’t publish experimental or controversial techniques any more frequently than we did before, but this way you’ll know what you’re getting into. We hope it helps.

60 Reader Comments

  1. Seeing how many ridiculous patents get granted that sometimes even cover well-published methods from ALA, I would suggest to design a “patent pending” sign.

    See, just as one example, the patent granted to google:

    http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=/netahtml/srchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=6,839,702.WKU.&OS=PN/6,839,702&RS=PN/6,839,702

    This is a patent on highlighting search terms, something coverd in

    http://www.alistapart.com/articles/searchhighlight/

    Well, IANAL, but I think that something is going wrong here.

    Kind rgeards

    Jan Wildeboer

  2. …and will hopefully stop hours of hopelessly pointless arguements in comments. I can think of a few other publications that should implement something similar.

  3. It’s a basic caveat before delving deeper into the article that, “hey, you may not want to do this, but this is really cool.” Not always necessarily “cool”, but the techniques are interesting enought to warrant an article, while at the same time, not necessarily “best practice”. At least it should reduce the number of flames received. I look forward to seeing this in practice.

  4. ALA has always given me what I wanted… I even wrote (a very simple) article and they clearly said “No way”. This made me feel good! From then on I knew, well sort of, that ALA’s articles are to be taken serious.

    However this never ment I would think of ALA as some God-Like on-line magazine… Thank ‘god’ I’ve never been a believer 😉

    Everything is to be taken with a grain of salt and I think most people know that. So next time, pleez give me an article telling me something I don’t know… (a part from that caution sign picture… sorry, there goes my point)

    Mathijs

  5. I’m digging this idea. I hope people can learn to take things at what they are. The “markup purist” mentality only goes so far – at the end of the day, there are just going to be things that need to get done, whether it can be done with perfectly semantic markup or not. That’s the nature of the beast.

    Good move. Keep publishing articles that push the envelope. When you run into a situation where you need the effect, it’s certainly nice to be able to come here for the solution!

  6. As a fresh college grad trying to absorb as much design knowledge as I can from sites like yours, I really appreciate the warning graphic. The same professors who steered us away from presentational HTML hacks are the ones who praised ALA and recommended we set it as our home page. This made sense until I saw these “hacky” solutions pop up every once in a while and I wondered, “what is this? Is this okay? Can I use this?”
    I’ve decided it IS okay to use these solutions, when necessary. The warning graphic is a good way to let us know that the practices that follow may be questionable. So thanks.

    Josh

  7. We need a venue for experimentation and collaboration, no doubt about it. At uni I was always amazed at what happened when diverse-discipline people got together to make things happen.

    Congrats on a great idea, looking forward to pushing the boundaies…

  8. This is a great idea. Hopefully this categorization will help clear out some of the antagonistic posts.

    The irony is that people were replying that these articles didn’t have a place for average Web usage. At the same time they were stating this they were also confirming the assumptions of the ALA editors/authors. The assumtion that people are smart enough not to read this article and blindly start using the techniques in in-appropriate ways.

  9. the warning is an excellent idea. far too often i come across designers/developers who take anything they see on ALA as *the law* without putting it into context…heck, without even reading the article, skipping straight to the bits of code. nice one!

  10. When someone reads the article he can decide himself whether to use this technique or not.

    Or you want to say that someone looking for some special solution of his problem won’t read the article marked with this sign??? But such articles are the most valuable among others.

    Of course this sign can help to avoid flame and argues in discussions. But you should publish what you think to be valuable, you are the authour of this ezine. And listening to a crowd telling not to publish articles with hacks – is to become a usual forum and not an famous ezine, recognized by all.

  11. This is a great idea Erin. One of the reasons I didn’t publish my original sIFR article on A List Apart was that I didn’t want the typical “this is a hack” rhetoric dominating the conversation and causing more criticism of A List Apart. Publishing to my own site instead allowed to create my own context for the piece without any preconceived nothings of what “standard” it should be held to.

    Now, with this latest ALA feature, I won’t have to worry about that. New stuff may be on the way…

  12. I think this is a great idea. It clearly establishes a differentiation between techniques that are “experimental” and those that are “tried and true”. And I love the icon with the little car. It would be sweet on a t-shirt. 😉

  13. In other words, if I attribute properly and don’t modify it, can I use it on a little academic site?

    Please?

  14. I suggest applying this retroactively, so people going through the older ALA articles to learn about CSS & standards can also be helped along by it.

  15. I’ve always proclaimed that the “web does it better.”

    It never seems like anyone is holding back on some technique so that they may be the one that wins the nobel prize. There is constant innovation and anyone who takes some piece of code or idea as truth just doesn’t know web very well.

    I like the idea of the warning. Very original. I think it’s good that ALA holds the standpoint of “we are not Gods.” I take what I can use and then go from there.

    A great example of watching the web evolve is Mike D’s sIFR. By no means was it perfect at 1.0, and seeing the improvements getting posted every so often is a testament that he’s not out for the prize. That’s why the idea of open source is so popular.

    When you have Doctor’s holding out on a possible cure for AIDS because they want to make the papers, it’s just slowing down their industry.

    That is why, web developers do it better.

  16. I’m really glad that so many of you think this will be useful. We hope so too.

    The icon is Jeffrey’s version of a delightful road sign I encountered a few years ago in Ireland…I’ll let him answer use / licensing questions.

    Nerkles, good point, but the time involved would be prohibitive for us — not to mention that some techniques that were experimental when we published them are now fairly standard (and others obsolete), so it would be difficult to select candidates for warnings.

  17. That this article was necessary is an unfortunate comment on people. This article (and the accompanying warning label) feels like the warning on the toilet brush that says ‘Not for oral hygiene’ (or something like that). I’d have thought folks would easily be able to use their judgement with respect to what items they think are good/useful for them and what isn’t. I don’t need a warning label to tell me the top step of the step ladder is a potentially dangerous place to be…and I didn’t have to fall off of one to know that. That said, it is not a reflection of ALA that the warning needs to be out there. I still love and respect ALA. I merely lament the addition of one more superfluous warning label.

    Thanks ALA! Keep doing everything you do!

  18. Is indeed a standard UK (and I guess Ireland) road sign:
    http://www.highwaycode.gov.uk/signs05.shtml

    (toward the bottom of the page). It’s pretty self-explanatory. You may also enjoy the following UK road signs:

    The classic: http://www.highwaycode.gov.uk/sign049.shtml

    And the rather startling:
    http://www.highwaycode.gov.uk/sign055.shtml

    We do like our pictographs (or pictograms if you prefer).

    Btw, I think the ALA warning sign is a fine idea, especially since the enormous amount of complaining after the most recent article.

  19. No matter what you do, it won’t prevent those who have deep, unshakable beliefs in whatever technology/technique/etc. from flaming you if you prevent the opposite view. Don’t feed the trolls, and you’ll be ok.

    That being said, it at least establishes a stronger editorial voice for your magazine, which is always good.

    j

  20. nerkles wrote:

    > in case you hadn’t thought of it…I suggest applying this retroactively, so people going through the older ALA articles to learn about CSS & standards can also be helped along by it.

    In case you hadn’t looked 😉 I already went back and applied it to Cross-Columns Pullout II.

    I haven’t gone back and applied to every experimental article. For one thing, as Erin points out, some things that were originally “experimental” have now become mainstream (and even in some cases, best practices).

    For another, most of the original “marginal” or experimental pieces were disclaimered with an editorial note at the top. (For instance, Cross-Columns I was disclaimered with an editorial comment at the top.)

  21. Quoting Erin: “The icon is Jeffrey’s version of a delightful road sign I encountered a few years ago in Ireland…I’ll let him answer use / licensing questions.”

    There’s a good reason for those signs:
    http://www.yayhooray.com/thread/19817/Funiest-Thing-I-ve-seen-today

    Clearly this one had been removed…. thinking about it, where *exactly* was it that you went? You didn’t bring back any souvenir signs did you?!
    ;-D

    Great article btw!

  22. My first thought as I read the article was, “Hey! I know that sign!” as I drive by them everyday in the midlands of Ireland here.

    …and, while I applaud ALA for taking action towards those who are too narrow-minded to realize a plug for an experiment when they see it, its really too bad. ALA is supposed to be a place for innovation as well as information on standard-compliance and the like. That they now have to blatantly identify which is which is kind of sad.

    I like the icon though!!!!!

  23. Is there really a set of eXXXperimental articles in the pipeline already? Or was this a kind of wishful thinking-cum-illocutionary act, whereby stating that you’re running eXXXperimental articles will prompt people to submit them?

  24. The caveat reminds of the “flammable” warning on certain chemistry lab sets.

    Nice move, it could give people a sense that methods/techniques aren’t cure-alls. But whatever happened to good old critical discernment?

  25. Jan Wildeboer said:
    > Well, IANAL, but I think that something is going wrong here.

    The ALA article was posted 4 years after the patent was granted, and besides: the patent covers a search “distributed over a network” which means that it wouldn’t apply to the article anyway.

    The ALA page says the idea came from Google… and nowadays, since anything is patentable, it is no surprise that Google would have a patent on it…

    PS: I’m all up for the experimental and theoretical articles, I find them much more interesting than the basic “how to” articles!

    Douglas

  26. Joe,

    Some of the articles in our publication queue will get the new icon when they go up. Several of the articles we’ve published in the last year would have gotten the warning if we’d had it then.

    While I can see how it might look like a stealthy attempt to change the topical balance of the magazine, it’s not. As I mentioned in the article, we don’t expect to publish more experimental than we have in the past.

    Although one consequence of adding the warning may be that we receive more experimental/controversial articles for review, it won’t change our evaluation process or make us more likely to publish any given sooper-extr33m submission.

    We’re seeking engaging, potentially helpful articles of all kinds, as always.

  27. I don’t like it. It seems too much like those “Beta” warnings that are getting popular on websites and software. Please, only use the sign on articles that are use code so obviously experimental/controversal it’s redundant. (Kind of like a sign of the road ending into a body of water.) People realize that things aren’t always perfect and updates will happen, new features will be added, and existing bugs be worked out.

  28. It is to bad Erin that you have to explain:
    C-o-n-t-e-x-t
    and
    S-c-o-p-e
    The second word or concept seems very hard for people to grasp. Please don’t pull any punches for me. I like getting hit between the eyes.

  29. It’s a great idea and the only reason ALA need to do it is because these boards get filled with argument for argument sake. Any developer who has any talent and lives by the standards mantra *obviously* knows that a small sacrifice of correct markup may be neccessary (and ultimately worth it) to achieve a slick effect on their site that may not be possible through other, standards-compliant methods.

    It’s the folks who read these articles who have made it neccessary for ALA to do this. I support their move so we can return to balanced discussion about the approach rather than the technique.

  30. I suspect the warning graphic is not intended so much as to give a warning that the content of the article is controversial and experimental, more as a plea to people not to post “this article is controversial and experimental” comments in the discussion pages!

    ALA is sensible enough to realise that the readers are sensible enough to know when to apply the techniques. The whole purpose is to stop the flames, not to give a content warning.

    Clever!

  31. Hi.
    I just want to notify that on my machine (winXP SP1, tft monitor) the font now used for the article is no more clearly legible. I had to disable css in order to properly read the text (in Times New Roman)…

    BTW, I often found that the comments to the articles are useful and interesting as the original article. I think they are the very “plus” offered by “A List Apart”.

  32. Good idea that will save a few fires and also help out those starting out in css design etc and come here for information and inspiration. I was one of those and probably still am, but the icon will help check enthusiasm v reality. Great site.

  33. I understand what you are trying to do with the graphic. I like the fact that as always you are reading users feedback and trying to provide a good solution to the problem.

    However, as a personal aside, i feel as if it seems people dont understand how to use a bit of common sense when needed. Just because an example of a new technique is published on here, doesnt mean we should all rush out tmrw and build every website using it. If the reader decides this is a viable option for them to use on an existing project, or one in the future, then they can apply it. If they dont think it viable then dont.

    The web is about variation and personal application of problems/solutions. Sharing them is how we move forward, but that doesnt mean i believe everything i read, that would make me pretty gullible…….

  34. You made an icon to warn of experimental techniques, and you made it a GIF?

    Surely it should be a PNG with alpha transparency to make it more semantically correct! 😉

  35. I think this idea is wonderful. I love to experiment, but I’m not the most creative person, so coming up with ideas with which to experiment is sometimes hard. This will definitely help me out in my bored times, and perhaps give me some new techniques as well.

    Great job ALA.

  36. Good points in this article and I like others above me look forward to more unity in our community and less ego grandstanding. The amount of talent/love and resources we have collectively is and has been enough to change the course of the web, and will continue if we roll together.

  37. >the font now used for the article is no more clearly legible.

    I agree with De Rosa, and in my opinion the new icon is funny and useful, I like it. 🙂

  38. Hopefully this will reduce needless coronary problems. I doubt it will reduce pontificating however, since pontificators tend to enjoy the sound of their own typing. I know I do.

  39. Yes, as of Issue 191. Just look at the style sheet:

    http://www.alistapart.com/c/ala.css

    The primary face is now Avenir (for those who have it).

    If you don’t have Avenir but do have Lucida Grande (which comes with all Mac OS X systems), that’s what you’ll see.

    Or you’ll see Lucida, which comes with some *Nix and Windows setups.

    Or you’ll see Verdana. Jeepers, just about everybody has Verdana. Verdana is also the closest match to Avenir. It comes later in the list, not because Lucida is more like Avenir than Verdana, but because Lucida is a fresher choice. Verdana is so widespread (and I’m one of 50,000 people who helped make it that way) that it almost disappears, as if no face was chosen. That’s why I put Lucida before it in the list.

    If you don’t have Avenir, Lucida, or Verdana, the next choices in order are Bitstream Vera Sans, Arial, Helvetica, and finally, generic sans.

    No one should have a bad reading experience given that list of fonts in that order. No one.

    I can imagine only one scenario to account for the problem two readers have reported.

    Namely, if those readers had a bad, cheap pressing of Avenir installed on a crappy system (a system with no antialiasing), or if they had bitmaps for Avenir but no Postscript or Truetype files for Avenir, then I guess they might have a bad viewing experience. (But what web professional would have bitmaps of Avenir but no Postscript or Truetype version?)

    The solution would be to use your font management software to turn off your bad copy of Avenir.

    Then you’ll see the site in Lucida or Verdana or some other very common font.

  40. In the ideal world I guess you wouldn’t need a warning because most people reading ALA would realize that the technique is experimental or a hack. But unfortunately we don’t live in the ideal world I guess. So, I guess the warning is a good idea.

  41. “We’re going to keep publishing articles on accessibility, usability, information architecture, client relations, project management, and – oh yeah, plug-and-play, standards-compliant XHTML, CSS, and scripting innovations.”

    THANK GOD

  42. Hear! Hear!

    Good collaboration involves debate, and therefore we should celebrate our differences in opinion. However, the Discuss forums on ALA often spiral out of control, losing sight of the article and instead focusing on whether or not we all agree.

    The fact of the matter is that we do not all agree, and we should not all agree. No technique is going to please every reader.

    Nice work, ALA.

  43. Refer to
    http://www.alistapart.com/discuss/wayitssupposedtowork/5/#c9900 .

    A reader reported that his new Dell system showed LUCIDA HANDWRITING instead of the specified font (LUCIDA SANS).

    Obviously most Windows users saw Lucida or Verdana, or we would have heard an outcry last week when we changed the text font. But clearly at least a few readers were stuck looking at a script font for the body face. That wasn’t acceptable, so we’ve deleted Lucida Sans from the list of fonts in ALA’s screen style sheet. Windows users who don’t have Avenir will see Verdana.

  44. It never hurts to make abundantly clear the aims of the ALA website – even though most of us users already know what ALA is all about. Great site, keep up the stimulation.

  45. ALA is brilliant, it has really helped me, and I have honestly found it the be the most useful resource on the net..
    ALA is taking steps forward with design – even if the technique is new or not fully understood yet, not stepping back because it isnt ‘safe’ yet
    Anyone who flames ALA doesnt understand that this is what its about..

    Long live ALA!

  46. If you’re showing that nifty warning icon using version 2.1c of Doug Farmerville’s sPTrF CSS background image replacement technique so I can still see it when I read ALA using the JAWS emulator on my Palm Pilot, then I’m all for it.

    But if you’re just going to use a regular IMG tag, I swear to God I’m out of here.

  47. A nice pretty iconic disclaimer i would say. And works fine for me too, as it will for every other ala frequent flyer! It’s been a pleasure returning to your site always. From the soothing background, breathable space, controllable text to the way comlicated stuff is made to sound easy, yep, you’ve got it all covered.

    Forgive me for saying this, but while i see the new icon a help for most Ala users, I am not sure whether it would really serve it’s purpose to intermediate or relatively new users (who obviously will keep coming back because it was love at frst sight!).

    I suppose the text on the right of the icon will be included and should help but in some cases (especially to new users), they might just not know what to make of it. Could be bit of a confusion. Probably a line of text below the icon should clear things out, but then again, it might defeat the purpose of having an icon. Or maybe the ‘alt’ tag could be more desriptive so as to convey the message clearly.

    Personally, i love the icon, but i’ve been reading so much about accessibility and usability recently ( thanx to you guys for the former!), i thought i should share my thought with you guys.

    Once again, thanx for being my favourite resource ever and even though it’s kinda late, a happy new year to all of ya!

  48. Yeah, what better way to show ALA’s always exquisite balance between a grounding on terra firma and being off the deep end! A quick and easy way to know we’re in for a brain stretch that may not validate now, but perhaps later from the sum total of ALA’s readers’ “collective conscience” feedback. And, since all life as we know it depends on water, I say “let’s take the plunge!” Great idea!

  49. this + the “invitation to relax” most definately = the “way it’s supposed to work”, in my book. fuck puritanism. word all that. thank you guys!

    -fish

  50. I’m in favor of providing as much as possible contextual information to readers. Your idea can work pretty well using a small icon with the attribute title set to “Warning – Experimental …”

    Extending your idea you could use a div with a slightly different background or border and the small icon. Labeling only parts of an article.

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