Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Why Your Client Cares About Web Standards

Don’t bury the client with the technical jargon of standards-based design. Focus on the cost effective traits and market advantages of standards and you will have their full attention.

The current sea change in web development toward standards compliance is amazing to witness. Within only a few years, hundreds of designers now understand concepts like semantic markup, accessibility, contingency design and the advantages of separating presentation from structure.

In fact, the web community devoted to standards has grown steadily in the last two years alone. Dan Cederholm’s nitpicking garners dozens of posts from people arguing the semantic use of <ul> over <dl> while Eric Meyer’s groundbreaking CSS work demonstrates how far plain HTML can be stretched. 37signals has managed to write a whole book on contingency design, and several developers have turned accessibility into a new religion.

While this constant roundtable of ideas fosters new techniques, best practices and hacks, just remember your clients don’t care. Just mention “separating presentation from structure using CSS and standards-compliant markup” and watch your prospect’s eyes glaze over like a four-year-old in church. When communicating with the everyday world, we need to lift our heads from the web standards circle jerk and start communicating with clients on their level.

All clients — from the mom-and-pop flower shop all the way up to The Man — are fluent in the language of business. They care about three things — money, time and money. Don’t offer services you cannot put into those terms. You will lose every contract to Captain FrontPage or l33t 9th Grade Flash Nerd the second you fail to illustrate the cost benefits of your standards-based process.

“So what am I supposed to say?” you ask. First and foremost, learn to eloquently describe your methodologies without evangelizing the W3C or people named Zeldman. You never even have to mention the word “standards.” (Remember the part about the client not caring?) Simply describe the end product. The perfect website. Why it will benefit the client. If you can spin semantics and accessibility into the Holy Grail of ROI, you will quickly put said Captain out of business. Mike Davidson, one of the developers when redesigned using standards, understood this perfectly in a letter to management. He wrote,

“The section about moving from table-based layouts to standards-based layouts was relatively short and used language like “accessibility,” “load time improvement,” and “economies of scale.” I could have written 10 pages on browsers and standards and bored all of our suits to death, but I found that speaking to them in terms they understood and already appreciated was the best way to educate everyone on why we needed to do this.”

Below is a list of key talking points for standards-based design methods. This is what the client wants to hear. This is why they care about web standards.

Short-Term Cost Savings

  • Less development hours
  • Potentially avoid hiring additional JavaScript programmer

All things considered, an experienced designer adhering to a CSS / XHTML approach will most likely bill less development hours than one stuck nesting tables. With one all-controlling style sheet, dramatic changes both aesthetic and structural can be made in minutes. A designer competent in CSS can also steer clear of complicated JavaScript hacks, potentially avoiding the need for hiring a second developer. This is the money your client will save before the site even goes live.

Long-Term Cost Savings

  • Dramatically lower bandwidth costs
  • Simplified, fast maintenance
  • Any knowledgeable developer can understand and alter code

First and most obvious, lower bandwidth costs. Using less code and images can easily cut bandwidth bills in half, and if you recall the three things clients care about, this is an easy win. The developer of states the following after their switch to a CSS-controlled layout:

“ serves 4 million pages a day. On average, the HTML of the old site weighed in at 65kb per page. The new site pages are half that at 35Kb. That’s a saving of 40,000 Gb of bandwidth per year … the move to Web standards paid for itself within a month.”

Another long-term cost benefit is the lower maintenance expenses. Visual and structural changes can be made fast and efficiently with CSS. In addition, because HTML and CSS are comparatively simple languages, the client can have any experienced web developer make changes; they are not locked into having the original designer on call if the CEO’s wife decides that the buttons should be red, not blue. You may not want to hear that, but the client sure does.

Marketing Advantages

  • Fast to market
  • Rapid, site-wide changes for re-branding efforts
  • Tremendous search engine optimization

Beyond the cash saving described above, the client benefits on several marketing levels. Because using standards enables rapid development, you can not only launch your client’s site quicker, but also quickly update content. The ability to swiftly add new pages with new products, switch color schemes to fit the latest trends or remove outdated or time-sensitive material is a competitive advantage that should be mentioned in every proposal you send out.

And if there’s one thing clients everywhere understand, it’s search engines. Natural search engine optimization (SEO) occurs as semantic markup eliminates frivolous table tags, font declarations and spacer images that are not part of the page’s content. Search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN, not interested in anything except the content anyway, quickly index and favorably rank these pages.

Smart SEO professionals have already picked up on the value of semantic markup, but so many people are still producing code-heavy, table-driven pages that it remains amazingly effective even in saturated markets.

Customer Advantages

  • Pages load quicker and are more responsive
  • Cross-browser and cross-platform compatibility
  • Future-proof
  • Increased accessibility for disabled users

Standards-based markup streamlines the user experience. These are your client’s customers, so you should clearly outline the enhancements their bread and butter will receive with no additional development cost.

Because pages load quicker and are more responsive, users are likely to spend more on the site. The second a layout breaks or takes too long to render, the visitor could click to another site. This is especially relevant to the crowd still on high-speed connections whose attention spans have a two second threshold.

A standards-compliant site also enjoys wide compatibility. It will render correctly in every modern browser on any platform, and degrade gracefully in older software. In addition, XHTML sites are not only future-proof against upcoming browser versions, but can accommodate other devices, such as PDAs. Site-wide redesigns will not be needed down the road.

Last but equally important, semantic markup facilitates accessibility for disabled web users. While it is not a complete solution, it alleviates a huge number of accessibility problems present in non-standard sites, and is the first step toward meeting government guidelines for accessibility. This is a peripheral benefit that costs your client nothing.


At the end of the day, a designer subscribing to a standards-based process will be able to deliver a site far more cost effective and cost efficient than a competitor still crunching tables together. The client may not know what “standards” you’re talking about or what a W3C is, but they will end up with an online presence that not only works faster and is easier to maintain, but organically aids their marketing efforts.

That is what they want to read in your proposal. Focus on ROI and cost benefits, and you will soon find yourself surrounded by satisfied customers.