Meryl K. Evans was a Web Standards Project (WaSP) member, and has worked with and interviewed many of the leading people in the web standards movement. Her story begins with promoting standards based design during the first browser war, and continue to promoting more accessible media today.
Evans explained to me that she had built her own website at meryl.net in 1994/95, and could still remember the bulleted list of resources.
“The bullets were in the form of Texas flags as I lived in Washington, DC at the time. I was a proud Native Texan who missed home.”
With a start in the industry that resonates with my own, Evans began studying web design while on maternity leave in 1999, taking classes to receive a certificate in Internet Technologies at New York University's School of Continuing Professional Studies (NYU SCPS). After completing the program, she worked with the professors at NYU SCPS. One of them had her working on web design projects and helping him with classes.
Evans' initial goal was to follow a career in web design, however she told me that after a few projects she realized that it wasn't where her skills lay.
“I discovered I had no patience for it and a terrible eye for design. Then I found myself involved with web design in a different way ... as a writer.
It all started with submitting an article to Webreference.com Newsletter with Andy King as its editor. I won a copy of Photoshop. The article was a hit that led to a few more. Eventually, I landed an incredible opportunity to write for Molly Holzschlag in which I interviewed the WaSP folks: Jeffrey Zeldman and Steven Champeon.”
Evans mentions that she conducted several interviews which are linked from Zeldman's blog, the interviews themselves long gone. There are numerous dead links to long vanished interviews conducted by Evans, frustrating my research for this article. It's sad how much of our history is disappearing.
By 2003, she was working as a web design guide for InformIT, along other places. There is a short list of articles listed with her bio at Peachpit, including a lovely 2003 interview with Zeldman. Evans also interviewed a number of the web celebrities of the day for Nick Finck's Digital Web Magazine.
“It was like writing for a TV Guide where you interview the famous people and creators behind the TV shows. Except replace TV with web design stars.”
As an early adopter of WordPress since V0.7, she was happy to interview Matt Mullenweg.
“One of my favorite interviews was with Bruce Lawson. He cracks me up every time we have a conversation. And he's still going strong today!
Molly was the person I looked up to because she did more of what I enjoyed. And of course, being another woman in the tech world was a bonus.”
The Web Standards Project permalink
Evans is an alumni of The Web Standards Project (WaSP). She told me that being part of such a group led to imposter syndrome.
“I didn't have the talent for design like Zeldman, knowledge of CSS like Eric Meyer, or the ability to write about it deeply like Molly. I felt like a minor league player on a major leagueteam.”
She believed in the mission of WaSP, and that following web standards often leads to creating usable, cleaner, faster loading websites. At WaSP she was able to use her talent for writing on a topic that interested her. She knew enough about web design to be able to write about the topics for a professional audience.
Involvement with WaSP led to new opportunities with publishers including New Riders and O'Reilly. Evans contributed a chapter to Adapting to Web Standards, alongside co-authors Christopher Schmitt, Kimberly Blessing, Rob Cherny, Kevin Lawver, and Mark Trammell.
Tableless websites permalink
Readers who began their web design careers in the last decade or so will not remember a time when the big web design debate was “Tables or CSS?” As the web was trying to move away from nested tables to CSS for layout, there was a real need for examples of how to design using these new techniques.
Donimo Shriver created a list of tableless websites at webnouveau.net, which was taken offline when the domain was bought by someone else. Evans located Domino and got permission to repost and add to the collection. Eric Meyer mentioned the rescue of the site in his post A rescued resource. Evans hosted the collection at a new domain CSS Collection, and it still remains online today.
“I learn from examples. And that's why I thought it was important to have this collection. Based on the visitors and feedback I received, people valued these examples as they wanted to adopt standards and move away from tables. It grew to the point that people who weren't familiar with WaSP or web standards found it and were inspired to create tableless websites that followed Web standards.”
I wondered if this history, the history of the browser wars and web standards even mattered to modern day developers. Was it worth them knowing about the past? Evans noted just how much web designers and developers have to learn today. Then said,
“At the very least, they need to understand and accept their design isn't going to look identical on every screen—now that they have mobile on top of everything else. Once you accept that, it's easier to design.”
Will the day ever come where we don't need to explain that websites don't need to look the same in every browser? Evans went on to outline what she believes is really important.
“What's important is designing inclusive websites that create a great user experience for everyone. Inclusivity goes beyond accessibility. To give a simple example, if a website contains photos of all caucasian males. Then women, transgender people, people of color, and people with disabilities will not feel included when they visit the website.”
Old friends and new connections permalink
It is within this field of accessibility and inclusivity that Evans continues her work on the web. Recently making a connection with Shawn Henry, who has also been involved in the industry since the early days. Shawn Henry was a co-author of a book on web accessibility in 2002, and is now involved with W3C WAI. Evans knew of her work but had never met her personally.
While attending a WordPress Accessibility San Fernando Valley meetup Evans learned about the W3C's web accessibility course. Wanting to improve her knowledge of web accessibility, she began to take the course. As a deaf person who uses captions she was surprised that you could not customize the closed-captions. They were small and the text yellow instead of the default white.
Evans has significant expertize in the area of closed-captions and while discussing this issue with friends was recommended to chat to Shawn.
“Samantha "Sam" Evans of IAAP, one of my dearest friends who knows SO much about accessibility and the people in it, recommended I contact Shawn about it. And I did. Immediately, Shawn connected with me on LinkedIn and we exchanged a few emails. I was fangirling!”
Through this connection, Evans was able to make contact with EdXOnline, who run the course, and W3C WAI. Offering her first-hand knowledge and expertise to help guide solutions.
“It felt like I was channeling the early 2000s when I was in the web design world and pushing for web standards. They were proposing complex solutions that the average user would have no idea how to do. You can make the font size larger using keyboard shortcuts, but really most people who rely on captions won't know this shortcut.”
Working on WebVTT permalink
Evans now feels she has traded writing and speaking about web design and standards for writing and speaking about captioning and accessibility. She has been digging into support for WebVTT captions. Discovering that browser support and interoperability isn't what it could be. She says,
“Adding captions to a video and audio is only half the equation. The other half is quality. Don't waste all that hard work in adding captions by using bad captioning design practices. The No. 1 rule for great captions is readability. If no one can read it, then the captions are useless.”
CSS Collection was all about examples, and with this work on captions Evans returns to examples. Showing rather than telling.
“My focus on captions has helped me get back into accessibility with fervor and meet some new people like Thomas Logan of Equal Entry and run into long-timers like Shawn Henry and Sharron Rush of Knowbility. I hope to continue expanding on that. It has already morphed into sharing my experience in living life as a person born hearing-free aka profoundly deaf. When we don't understand something, we fear it, and we treat it negatively. Ironically and coincidentally, I found a Helen Keller quote that explains it well: “The highest result of education is tolerance.”
Sharing my experience, I'm helping people understand what it's like and to see I'm a human being with the same goals, hopes, and desires as anyone else. We tend to click with people most like ourselves and hire them or become friends with them. It's my hope it'll help people be more inclusive and hire people different from themselves.
Diversity and inclusion make everything better. When we all think and act the same, we don't innovate. We don't create. We don't make great discoveries.”
Meryl K. Evans interviewed by Rachel Andrew. Published