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Life Without Modern Development Techniques

Most of us can parrot web development best practices until we’re blue in the face. Design with CSS, take advantage of inheritance, use semantic markup, separate design from content, etc. Last week we took on a new project that made the importance of these recommendations sink in – by stripping them all away.

Our department has several mass-email jobs that are sent out on a regular basis. Thus far they have all been standard plain-text messages. It has been decided, though, that we should make the move to putting them into a web template and sending out the message as HTML.

As I started pulling everything together one thing became immediately clear – as much as we bemoan the inconsistencies between web browsers, they don’t compare to the differences in how email clients render HTML code. In order to make the display work across even the most common clients you have to throw out the last five years of web development and go back to the basics. This means layer upon layer upon layer of nested tables, untold numbers of colspans and rowspans, style elements applied to every paragraph, and being careful to minimize the number of images and their file size.

After being neck-deep in these templates for a few days, with one more to go, I’ll never again take proper techniques and procedures for granted. It also means don’t bring me a tables-based design and ask for my honest appraisal of it… 🙂

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Monday, January 31st, 2011 HTML No Comments

Upcoming Retirement of Service

As a word of forewarning, with the upcoming move to the new www.tamu.edu machine, all support for and access to the mailto.pl script currently installed will be eliminated.  Right now it is disabled from off-campus use and is generally deemed officially unsupported and “use at your own discretion,” but we will not be moving it to the new server and will not make it available through other channels.  We encourage anyone still using  it on their pages to find a different  (and better) solution. This script is quite old and there are many better alternatives available for download on the internet.

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Friday, June 4th, 2010 www.tamu.edu 2 Comments

More tough decisions

In light of my last post about the purpose of a university website, is the most-used link on your home page important just because it is popular, or should it be removed if it really doesn’t (under our new model of the site’s purpose) belong there?

On the Texas A&M home page, the most popular link, by far, is  the link to student email.  Thousands of people per day type “www.tamu.edu” and then click the link rather than simply typing “email.tamu.edu” and going there directly.  If the university web site is truly to be centered on an external audience, though, this link really should be removed.  It belongs on a campus intranet, or the Howdy! portal, or perhaps in a list of student services – but it does not need to be a prominent feature on the home page.  So if we are serious about reshaping the purpose of the university website we need to remove it in our next maintenance release, knowing and accepting that there will be a huge backlash and cry to add it back on.

The key, then, is how to handle that backlash.  The problem is that the pressure to put it back won’t come just from students, but also from administrators who honestly think they are acting in the student’s interests, but who do not understand the reasoning for why we made the change.  Paradigm shifts are hard to explain, and harder to understand.  Our best chance is to start releasing bits and pieces of or plans well ahead of time, giving everyone time to digest it so that when the change comes it won’t be such a surprise.

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Friday, December 18th, 2009 www.tamu.edu 3 Comments

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