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"Pave The Cowpaths" Design Principle

From: Laura Carlson <laura.lee.carlson@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, 11 May 2007 12:27:57 -0500
Message-ID: <1c8dbcaa0705111027x665715c1w5deced094d8e506b@mail.gmail.com>
To: www-html@w3.org, public-html@w3.org
Cc: "Roger Johansson" <roger@456bereastreet.com>

In "Help keep accessibility and semantics in HTML" [1], Roger
Johansson comments that:

> The politically correct opinion seems to be that anything
> that is widely used should be adopted ('pave the cowpaths').
> And that leaves little or no room for semantics and
> accessibility. [2]

> On 7 maj 2007, at 17.09, Philip & Le Khanh wrote: [3]
>> Just because a practice is prevalent in the real
>> world doesn't mean we should necessarily sanction or
>> ratify it, IMHO.
> On 7 may 2007 Roger Johansson wrote:
> Thanks for saying that out loud. Pave the cowpaths is,
> in my opinion, a really bad design principle.

The proposed HTML 5 design principle "Pave The Cowpaths" [4] does
indeed seem to condone many practices that past specs  may have
frowned upon. "Pave the Cowpaths" is an underlying principle being
debated in many* of the recent semantics and accessibility threads on

Thus I don't think it's appropriate to include this in the official
design principles.

"The Calf Path" [5] by Sam Walter Foss (1895) was a "popular humorous
poem during the early days  of the good roads movement. In the poem,
Foss describes how a crooked path originally carved by a calf walking
home developed into a major road traveled by hundreds of thousands of
people." [6]  Foss talks of of blindly following a crooked cow path

> They followed still his crooked way,
> And lost one hundred years a day;
> For thus such reverence is lent,
> To well established precedent.
> A moral lesson this might teach,
> Were I ordained and called to preach;
> For men are prone to go it blind,
> Along the calf-paths of the mind;
> And work away from sun to sun,
> To do what other men have done.
> They follow in the beaten track,
> And out and in, and forth and back,
> And still their devious course pursue,
> To keep the path that others do.

More recently, in 'Don't Pave the Cowpaths' [7], Mike Arace discusses
why codifying bad practices may not be a good idea.

> I was attending a business analysis training session the
> other day, learning to flowchart my way to self-actualization
> and inner peace, when the trainer brought up that little gem.
> I am not usually one to fall prey to generic business
> analogies, but this one jumped out at me. He explained it
> like this:
>> When flying into Dallas-Fort Worth, the cities seem to
>> shoot up out of nowhere from a giant prairie. Looking
>> closely at the ground you will see many of the roads
>> leading into the cities curve and bend, following no
>> discernable logic at all. Why are they like this?
>> Because back when Dallas was primarily a ranching
>> town those were the paths the cattle would follow
>> as they were driven into town. They would walk the
>> long way around hills, cross rivers only at the low
>> points, and follow a path of least resistance the
>> whole way there. Over time people started following
>> the same paths, and eventually they paved them and
>> made them permanent. So now the town has a bunch
>> of inefficient roads just because that was the way
>> they had always been.
> When applied to the world of information technology, this
> analogy can be taken to mean that you shouldn't write new
> applications that codify bad practices already in place
> in a business or organization. New programs are a chance
> to get things right and should be used as an opportunity
> to ask the challenging questions about why things are
> the way they are and what can be done better.


[1] http://tinyurl.com/2h6k96
[2] http://tinyurl.com/yrhkgb
[3] http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-html/2007May/0822.html
[4] http://esw.w3.org/topic/HTML/ProposedDesignPrinciples
[5] http://www.mitcharf.com/mitcharf/art/poems/calfpath.html
[6] http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/summer96/p96su20.htm
[7] http://mikeomatic.net/?page_id=31

*Threads include:
   The Semantic Debate
   Cleaning House
   Rethinking HTML 5
   Support Existing Content
   Predefined Class Names Solution

Laura L. Carlson
Information Technology Systems and Services
University of Minnesota Duluth
Duluth, MN U.S.A. 55812-3009
Received on Friday, 11 May 2007 17:28:03 UTC

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