Google engineer and W3C TAG member Alex Russell talks about building bridges with devs and getting involved with web standards.
Let's start at the beginning – what's your background?
What did you learn from working on those projects?
That so much of building good UIs - good experiences - is working to do hard things that shouldn't be exposed to users: intelligent date formatting, giving people contextual options, tying actions to progress indicators and maintaining good performance. It's about ensuring you're not asking people to work on your behalf because your system isn't up to the job.
How did things change for you on joining Google?
I first worked on Chrome Frame. That was an attempt to solve the problem of having great new browsers that almost didn't matter because we still had to feed IE. We then put together a cross-functional team to discover what was still painful about building an app at the very edge of the web. We'd assume the legacy problem was solved and figure out what still hurt.
What did you discover?
What happened when you ditched the blanket?
Well, why can't I style a select element, replacing its UI with something different, like those iOS spinny things rather than a regular mouse dropdown? The browser can do that, so why can't I? Those important questions don't often get asked, because very often if you're sitting inside the web developer mentality and you don't have all of the pieces on the board in your hands, you're not going to build something that would let you solve the entire problem.
Should more devs get involved in browsers and web standards?
You need to ask what it means to get involved and the best way to do so. With standards, there's no immaculate conception. There's no moment where people sit in a room and say, "Great, let's solve a really important problem right now." And really, even writing a spec gets you nothing. You actually have to change the mind of someone who's shipping software - you need that leverage point.
So who should devs speak to? Who do they lobby?
What we see now is that the productive way for this to happen is that people have to be kind of 'super representatives' - representative of more than one community. They have to understand enough about the browser side and the web side, beyond 'this one thing really hurts right now'. They have to differentiate between 'this is a short-term issue that will go away' and 'this is an issue that, if we don't spend time and effort on, won't ever get addressed', to see cross-cutting concerns, and the right way to fix them.
I have hope that one thing the W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) can be reformed into is a much more listening organisation that can start to represent web developer interests more forcefully and in a more structured way to the Working Groups. We might not be the right eventual end point for those concerns, but I would say it's now our job to help channel them.
This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 246.
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