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[HDP] Pave the Cowpaths

From: Robert Burns <rob@robburns.com>
Date: Wed, 22 Aug 2007 19:39:07 -0500
Message-Id: <E917D546-C3E6-4A91-9F91-52E36F211254@robburns.com>
Cc: "Lachlan Hunt" <lachlan.hunt@lachy.id.au>, public-html <public-html@w3.org>
To: Magnus Kristiansen <magnusrk+elektrans@pvv.org>

Hello all,

I've already  written some about the cowpath principle in response to  
the questionnaire. However, I thought I'd respond to some of the  
issues raised since then. I think that the cowpath principle, like  
many of the principles currently has the wrong elaboration. That is  
it elaborates a principle that has little to do with its title.  
Lachlan suggested some new language for the principle and I'd like to  
take that further by suggesting some more changes.

Current wording
"When a practice is already widespread among authors, consider  
adopting it rather than forbidding it or inventing something new.

Authors already use the <br/> syntax as opposed to <br> in HTML and  
there is no harm done by allowing that to be used."

Lachlan's wording
"Investigate existing practices and design or adopt| features that  
meet the desires of authors. Where possible, solutions should  
leverage the existing techniques and skill sets of authors which will  
help promote the adoption of new features."

My suggestion:
"Investigate existing designs and practices to identify the needs of  
authors and users and design features that meet those needs."

As that is reworded I think it is much better than the current draft.  
In particular it takes into account the needs of users as well as  
authors. Also it promotes cow paths as a mechanism to identify those  
needs and not necessarily to adopt the practices identified. The  
second sentence belongs more in the principle "Evolution, not  

       "Where possible, solutions should leverage the existing  
techniques and skill sets of authors which will help promote the  
adoption of new features."

By focussing on both authors and users (two of our primary  
constituencies), this makes for a better design principle. Also it is  
a design principle that is less likely to be misunderstood and lead  
to a misguided application of the principle. For example, the HTML5  
draft was recently changed to say:

"A key part of the content that has no textual alternative

In certain rare cases, the image is simply a critical part of the  
content, and there is no alternative text available. This could be  
the case, for instance, in a photo gallery, where a user has uploaded  
3000 photos from a vacation trip, without providing any descriptions  
of the images. The images are the whole point of the pages containing  

In such cases, the alt attribute must be omitted."

This proposed change to the draft was guided by the sorts of mis- 
application of the pave the cowpaths principle that I am worried  
about (and I've heard others express concerns over). Here the draft  
identifies a common practice of omitting alt text. And I would add  
this is a difficult situation for authors to meet the HTML 4.01  
recommendation. However, while it may pave a cowpath to turn that  
unfortunate situation into the norm, "In such cases, the alt  
attribute must be omitted.", that is not the kind of cowpath we want  
to pave (most of us I think).

The question then becomes how should the HTML5 recommendation address  
this issue. I'm not going to address that here, but in this case the  
pave the cowpath principle should not be the one that comes to mind.  
There are many ways to address it than requiring authors to do what  
they already do (in violation of the last recommendation).

Take care,
Received on Thursday, 23 August 2007 00:39:20 UTC

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