HTML Literacy vs. "WYSIWYG" for Clients

Our methodology here at Chapter Three calls upon us to work ourselves out of a job. This is a shift from the olden-days of website professionals -- call it the "Razorfish Model" -- wherein a consultant or firm relied on strong design skills and a working knowledge of HTML to set up a client with something that looked slick, make a bundle on that, and then charge a high hourly rate to make content changes or additions.

Content Management Systems (CMSs) changed all that, first by allowing firms to build rough tools that could be used internally to drive down the cost of maintaining a site, then by granting this power to the client-administrator, and now to the client's customers/community. This has changed the rules of how websites are run, and so much for the better. Since the advent of CMSs more of the potential of the internet as a democratic media has been reached, and more of the promise of "markets as conversations" has been realized. The trend is good.

One question that still remains is how clients enter content to their sites. Most of these folks are doing this for the first time (though if they're successful online, not the last), and don't have any real experience or understanding of how the whole system works. They're unfamiliar with the concepts and syntax of HTML, generally having grown up on MS Word or some equivalent for text-editing.

In response to this there's a temptation to deliver some kind of faux-"WYSIWYG" solution to provide a similar experience for editing content online. It seems like the right thing to do, and at first clients are excited and impressed that they have the power to format text at the touch of a button.

However, I put the prefix "faux" and those "scare-quotes" around "WYSIWIG" for a reason. The simple truth is that most implementations of javascript-based editors in complex content environments -- e.g. more going on than a simple wordpress blog -- create more frustration than they resolve, as clients quickly discover all the quirks and problems that come along with them. We of course still implement these tools (carefully, and in a limited way) for clients that want them -- the customer is always right -- but in the long run I think our objectives and those of our clients are better served by encouraging HTML-literacy.

One of our buzzwords around here is "Capacity Building." By that we mean, essentially, education. We believe strongly that raising the base level of capability among our clients, among our competitors, and the public at large is key to our long-term success. It's also a sort of civic duty for internet people, key to a fun and eventful future life online. Working with clients to teach them basic HTML concepts and syntax serves this goal very well.

HTML literacy is also a highly portable and valuable skill online. After years of people mucking about with HTML-alternatives like BBcode and worrying if users would break pages, more and more websites and services are allowing people increasing freedom to use HTML to communicate. Learning the lingo isn't just going to help you post on your own site; it's something that will make you a more powerful netizen all around.

For instance, MySpace made itself a smash in part by letting you do whatever the heck you wanted with your profile. By opening up the "real" language of HTML and CSS, they grew and deepened the connection with their user-base, inspiring a small cottage-industry in in profile-theming tools as well as some truly, uhh... unique, designs. But you can't argue with results.

Certainly no one can force people to learn, and often times in a business or organization people have more important things to do in the short-run than puzzle out hypertext markup. That's understandable, but our practice is build around working with people and on projects that truly come to life through the web. Sooner or later, that means speaking the native language, and it's easier than you think to learn how to make links, lists, and turn text bold or italic.

Taking that fist step into HTML literacy is about more than moving beyond plain text. It opens a door to a deeper level of conceptual understanding as to how the internet works, which is really what we drive at with our clients: not just competence with HTML, but a more comprehensive procedural literacy for life online.