Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

WaSP Interviews Tim Hannigan

On Queen's University's Conversion to Web Standards

Interview Conducted for 13th March 2006

After leaving Web design work in the 1990's, Tim Hannigan's interest was renewed by the increased discussion, awareness, and use of standards in Web technologies in 2003. How have Web Standards, accessibility, and content management systems become integral to the success of the Queen's site? We talked with Tim to find out.


Hi Tim. It's a pleasure to talk with you once again. To begin, could you tell us about yourself and how you came to be Manager of Electronic Communications at Queen's University in Canada?


I started working in Web design back in the mid-1990's in the days of image slicing, transparent positioning gifs, and full-on table layouts. I ran a small Web design firm until I became disillusioned and left the field. Proprietary HTML extensions made Web design a non-sustainable business model. So, I went off to do a Bachelor's degree in Economics and Computer Science at Queen's University.

In 2003 I was turned onto the state of XML/CSS/Web Standards at Apple's WorldWide Developer's conference. This became a sort-of “renaissance” for me, and I joined a team of developers as the “CSS guru” at Queen's in creating a student portal based on HTML, CSS (loose 2.0), and PHP (using Smarty for templating and RSS for syndication). The success of the student portal project led to me being brought on as the Manager of Electronic Communications.

A regular reader of Jeffrey Zeldman and AListApart, CSS ZenGarden, Eric Meyer, Dave Shea, and Douglas Bowman of Stopdesign, the "Sliding Doors" technique was really the “kicker” for me. Being so simple, so innovative, and so powerful, it was great inspiration for what potential CSS holds.


When you first contacted the Web Standards Project Education Task Force, you mentioned that you were the lone voice for Web Standards at Queen's. You have since formed the Web Consulting Group. Could you tell us about the group and are you still the lone voice for Web Standards at Queen's?


Officially, the Queen's Web Consulting Group (WCG) is a partnership between IT Services and the Department of Marketing & Communications. The partnership really grew out of the acknowledgement that both IT and Marketing & Communications have vested interests in our University Web presence, and that there is a need for both parties to work together to realize those interests.

The group's first initiative was the re-design and launch of the new Queen's homepage and second level pages. Out of this has come a common understanding of the importance of Web Standards, and the WCG has become the voice for these standards at Queen's. The group now sits on our Web Directions Steering Committee to provide recommendations, insight and representation of both the interests of stakeholders and Web Standards within web-related projects that grow out of the Committee.

I find Web Standards to be far more of a culture than a particular technique; sort of a philosophy that incorporates collective benefits, while encouraging distributed innovation.

I find Web Standards to be far more of a culture than a particular technique; sort of a philosophy that incorporates collective benefits, while encouraging distributed innovation.


In September of 2005, the new standards compliant version of the Queen's site launched. What was the reaction to the new site?


The reaction on campus has been nothing short of acceptance of an unofficial standard. Some departments have taken slight issue with certain design elements, but all acknowledge the accessibility platform we've built into the design. To start, people are intrigued by the better Google ranking the top level pages (redesigned) that has resulted from this separation of presentation and content. The acknowledgment that Google sees the Web much like an alternative browser brings home the connection of what accessibility in our design means.

The Marketing Services Department has been swamped by the amount of requests we have received since the launch of the new standards compliant version of the Queen's site. While initially working towards a “templating package”, it was clear that we had no way of ensuring that other pages following the new design would be up to spec with standards. As such, we're currently integrating the standards compliant template into the Lenya Content Management System. Departments will be given the opportunity to add their content to the CMS, allowing as many as possible to come on board with Web Standards.

It's important to remember that our initial groundwork on the home and top level pages was not only a redesign but the start of unveiling an infrastructure platform for the campus. Far from “policing” the campus on Web Standards and accessibility, we're building a platform to enable groups to come on board in a partnership fashion. Already, sites such as the Queen's News Centre, Advancement Application Framework, the International Directory, and Queen's At a Glance have used our platform. The knowledge base we've established in this area will complement the Content Management System, the design templates, and ongoing work with website production on campus. As we educate and work with the campus on our Web Standards inspired platform, we hope to continue using the WaSP EduTF as a valuable resource.

We're building a platform to enable groups to come on board in a partnership fashion.


After visiting the Queen's site and browsing through the “About the New Queen's Web site” section, it is quite apparent that your group has actively solicited feedback from the Queen's community and stakeholders, even including a “Redesign Blog”. In what way has the feedback from the Queen's community and stakeholders affected the further development and design of the site?


Feedback and community involvement are the only ways we'll bring the Web Standards philosophy to Queen's campus. The Web Consulting Group is working to instill a sense of ownership of Web best-practices on campus (e.g., valid code and accessibility guidelines), and we've shaped our usability directions from feedback. We're also hearing some fantastic new ideas on usage of XML in syndication.

Since the launch of the new main site in early September, the standards-cooperative/community-sharing concept is shaping major initiatives such as a campus-wide portal, a campus-wide content management system, and work on a syndication layer.

The “redesign blog” we employed was highly used by the community following initial redesign, and has spurred cross-campus communication regarding Web technology that had never existed previously.


Accessibility is a key component of the new Queen's site. What steps did you take to ensure your site met the provisions of the Ontario Accessibility Act?


Accessibility is a core component for the Queen's website. The Ontario Accessibility Act is currently in the process of being re-written, and refers to “Information and communications” which could include publications, software applications, and Web sites.

Without extensive details on guidelines, we looked to the U.S. Section 508 and the W3C Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Given the similarities between Section 508 and the WAI, we see the ODA following suit.

At Queen’s, we have an Accessibility Committee and adaptive technology specialist. Through the Accessibility Committee, the WCG was able to secure a grant to hire Accessibility experts Derek Featherstone (WaSP member) and John Foliot to come in and help us develop an Accessibility guide. They helped us interpret the Section 508 and the WAI to create Queen’s campus standards for accessibility.

We've initiated a campus-wide Content Management System that will crank out Web-Standards code, incorporating accessibility features and the Queen's Accessibility guide. When we roll out the CMS in the first quarter of 2006, these development guides will be released concurrently.

We've initiated a campus-wide Content Management System that will crank out Web-Standards code…


When we spoke with you at the HighEdWebDev conference in November, you mentioned that you and others were in the process of forming a group of Canadian web professionals involved in higher education. How is that effort developing and what are the groups' goals?


Running into representatives from other Canadian Universities at HighEdWebDev, it was apparent that there is distributed national interest up here in Web Standards. However, there doesn't seem to be a Canadian association setup to assist in the process. As a result, many schools here have been attempting this on their own.

At current count, there are only two Canadian schools (Queen's and Waterloo) on the WaSP EduTF list of use cases. Given the leadership WaSP has taken in the area of Web Standards, I think the WaSP EduTF would provide a good springboard to forward a Canadian association of Web Professionals in higher education, both to educate and collaborate.


Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Tim. It's been a pleasure.

Tim Hannigan is the Manager of Electronic Communications at Queen's University (Canada). His responsibilities include the development, design, policy, and maintenance of the Queen's Web site.

Referenced Links:

  1. Queen's University
  2. HighEdWebDev
  3. Jeffrey Zeldman Presents the Daily Report
  4. A List Apart
  5. css Zen Garden: The Beauty in CSS Design
  6. Eric Meyer
  7. Dave Shea
  8. Stopdesign
  9. Sliding Doors of CSS
  10. Lenya Content Management System

Related Reading:

  1. Section 508
  2. W3C Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

All of the entries posted in WaSP Buzz express the opinions of their individual authors. They do not necessarily reflect the plans or positions of the Web Standards Project as a group.

This site is valid XHTML 1.0 Strict, CSS | Get Buzz via RSS or Atom | Colophon | Legal