Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

Inspired by the Odeon debacle, former WaSP extraordinaire Jeffrey Zeldman holds forth on the value of good samaritans who build accessible, standards-compliant versions of popular web sites for free.

Zeldman also gives an excellent analysis of the accessibility and usability problems with Odeon’s official site and how samaritan Matthew Somerville addressed them.

I find Herr Zeldman’s explanation of Odeon’s stance somewhat less persuasive, however. The thrust of his argument is that it wasn’t that the ‘business dweebs’ were ‘clueless’, but that the powers-that-be at Odeon had no contract with Mr. Somerville, and therefore no assurance as to the real quality of the work, who actually owned the code and other issues that cause hair loss amongst the pinstripes-and-wingtips set. It’s all an exercise in CYA, in other words.

Well, duh. Of course that’s part of the problem. But don’t you suppose Odeon could have set their legal beagles to drafting a contract covering those points for Mr. Somerville to autograph, rather than having them fire off a boilerplate cease-and-desist? And if the problem is, as Jeffrey says, that the marketroids responsible for the site are unable to evaluate the quality of Mr. Somerville’s work, then isn’t that a case of, uh, ‘clueless business dweebs’? Is looking at the traffic numbers and the feedback emails really so much to ask?

More likely, the idea that a single individual could do better a the firm they paid six figures just set up too much cognitive dissonance for Odeon’s management to handle. Besides, they’re trying to sell the company. How good a buy is it if management is spending six figures for tasks that could be accomplished by one guy in his spare time?

This is where we come right back to ‘clueless business dweebs.’ The thing is, what Mr. Somerville did was, in many ways, the easy part. Making that nice, accessible front end work smoothly with all the back-end voodoo required of an ecommerce site like Odeon’s is far more challenging than it might seem at first (you’ll note that Mr. Somerville’s version didn’t allow ticket sales directly, so he hadn’t done all the integration work). Ditto the creative work in conceiving and executing a design that supports Odeon’s brand (though in this case, one might argue that they didn’t get their money’s worth there, either). And then one must make the back-end of the web site talk to Odeon’s legacy systems.

The reality is that there’s a reason for hiring those expensive firms: they have the in-house expertise to do far more than just make an accessible front end. And that expertise is expensive. The problem is that, like as not, the ‘suits’ know nothing of all that complexity. All they know is what they see on their PC, and what they see is the front end. To them, it probably did seem that Somerville was making their decision to hire the firm they did look far more foolish than it really was. Nobody likes to look foolish. Highly-paid executives least of all. And admitting they, with their six- or seven-figure salaries, had overlooked flaws that some maths major could both identify and fix in his spare time would have made them look exactly that.

I’m not privvy to the discussions that go on in Odeon’s executive suite, so I have no way of knowing the real reason for their change of heart regarding Mr. Somerville’s effort. Nonetheless, if I were to speculate, I would say it’s a case of corporate denial. Their organizational knowledge regading the web was all wrong, and wrong in ways that aren’t expensive or difficult to correct. But rather than admit that and cut their losses, they’d rather hire another six-figure-fee firm to tell them what they (now) already know. That way, they can pretend that they didn’t overlook the obvious, but were instead a victim of arcane forces knowable only to highly-paid experts. ‘DeNial’ isn’t just a river in Egypt.

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