Stories by Craig Horrocks and Malcom Swan

Recommended best practices for Web developers to follow

Recently there have been a number of failed Web design contracts, some resulting in litigation. Much of the litigation could have been avoided if the developer had taken the time to follow some basic principles in planning.
It might be thought that because Web development is a relatively new profession there are no standards. There are standards, and IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) standards at that.
Over the past two years the Computer Society’s Best Practices working group has been developing "IEEE standard 2001: Recommended Practices for Web Page Engineering". The standard is designed to provide best practice guidelines for developers designing their sites. The standard is available for purchase from the IEEE. While too lengthy to be reviewed in full in TechLaw, there are a few aspects that provide a useful starting point in thinking about best practice in Web design.
Do you know your users? It may sound basic but to develop an effective Web site developers will need to consider their target audience carefully. The standard offers suggested considerations to ensure the developed Web pages meet the needs of the intended audience. Some consideration may include, assessing the dominant computing environment clients will be using, provisions for bandwidth and how and when to apply specific advances in technology.
Developers may also wish to consider the location of the target audience as this could impact on full designation of phone numbers, and information provision in various time zones. The standard also gives some guidance on selecting international and software engineering standards that can be important for sites with global reach and for sites that are managed as "complex software" projects.
What is a lifecycle? Web pages, sites and projects each have their own life expectancies that the developer should try to estimate early on in the scoping of the development.
The standard recommends considering the Web site’s life cycle in detail during the planning process to assess the Web site’s requirements for definition, design, testing, maintenance and termination.
Some pages will contain permanent archival material that should be designed to require minimal maintenance and to be independent from vendor specific or immature technologies. Moreover, most pages will be valid and useful for a limited time. The standard recommends that the developer estimate a page’s active life span and include an appropriate "expiration date".
By providing an expiration date on all site pages the developer provides a mechanism for mechanically purging old data.
Failure to estimate a page’s active life span and include an appropriate expiration date could open the door to legal liability or at, the least, frustrated users.
Should Web sites be globally standardised? The Web is worldwide so it is imperative that sites conform to internationally recognised standards to enable data to be instantly recognisable by both human and automated readers. The standard recognises this and encourages using formats that are meaningful to a global audience.
The suggested format is ISO 8601 which has implications for the formatting of dates and time. For example, if time of day is important for the information it should be expressed in 24-hour format and developers should include the time zone so that users worldwide can get the most from the page. The US tradition is to express dates as MM-DD-YYYY whereas the European format and the ISO standard is DD-MM-YYYY.
This shouldn’t affect too many New Zealand developers unless their target audience is primarily US based.
The standard is aimed at trying to provide a foundation for the long-term investment in the Web by creating a solid foundation for good Web page engineering.
Standards also have legal implications. The IEEE says this standard is the distillation of best practice then if a project fails the developer can in the absence of very specific contractual terms to the contrary, be expected to have its services measured against the standard.
Previous TechLaw columns (available at www.clendons.co.nz) have canvassed how standards can be implied into contracts. This standard is no exception and should be understood in detail by all Web developers.
Craig Horrocks is the managing partner of Clendon Feeney and is part of Clendon Feeney’s technology law team. This article, together with further background comments and links to other Web sites, can be downloaded from www.clendons.co.nz. Send email to techlaw@clendons.co.nz.

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