‘Carthage must be destroyed’

(2004.11.09 – Now with response!)  
And the award for Most Expensive, Least Compliant, Most Inaccessible Web Redesign of the Year goes to… Heather Reisman!

Chapters is a near-monopolist chain of large and small bookstores in Canada formed from amalgamating its own stores with those of Indigo, Coles, and other acquisitions and former subsidiaries. Their Web site, Chapters.ca (sorry, chapters.indigo.ca), is perennially second to Amazon.ca and was always a vastly worst case of inaccessible tag soup even than Amazon was. (Amazon was and is a reliable low-water mark; remember, its homepage has been recoded in Web standards not once or twice but thrice!)

Last week, Chapters.ca was relaunched. We had the pleasure of reading a rewritten press release by Dana Flavelle in the Toronto Star (emphasis added):

Indigo says it already competes effectively on the basics, such as price, product and service. To provide extra features that could distinguish it in the marketplace… [t]he online service has struck a deal with Apple that will see Indigo offer deals on things like Apple’s hot iPod [and] a subscription to another new Indigo feature – downloadable audio books from audible.com. […]

Indigo has also redesigned some of its pages so that customers can see whether a book is also available used, how many copies are stocked by the nearest store, readers’ reviews and other related materials…. “We have a lot of other things coming that we can’t tell you about yet,” says [Jonathan Ehrlich, senior vice-president of Indigo’s online group], who… was one of the consultants at Cyberplex Interactive Media who worked on Chapters.ca….

Ehrlich says Indigo’s SAP implementation has gone so well “they’re now using it as their poster child for the system.”

I knew Cyberplex when it was run out of ramshackle offices above Colby’s and Northbound Leather. I really haven’t kept up, except to note that their ground-floor reception desk next to the Paramount has an actual Æron chair. Has any site they’ve ever developed had valid code and met the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines? At all? Ever?

En tout cas, last Wednesday I sent Ehrlich an E-mail posing the following questions.

  1. What business case did you use to decide that the site should not be developed with Web standards? How was that business case able to argue against the smaller, easier-to-maintain, accessible code used in standards-compliant sites?
  2. Why does the site use tables for layout? Are you aware that, even if Netscape 4 support were, for some reason, required, there are several alternatives to layout tables in that case, including a set of NN4-compatible CSS layouts devised right here in Toronto?
  3. Why does the homepage show the following comments?

    <!-- Banner Timeout 11/2/2004 11:59:35 AM-->

    What’s a “banner timeout”?

    <!--TODO: what to do here for Kiosk ???-->

    Indeed, what to do for kiosk?

  4. You were quoted in a curiously-underresearched article in the Star as saying “Indigo’s SAP implementation has gone so well ‘they’re now using it as their poster child for the system.’ ” But the Web site has 1,474 errors when you run it through the validator (which is only possible if you override some features you didn’t specify). [Today it’s 1,500.] What is the reason for that avalanche of errors?
  5. Given the invalid HTML, why does the stylesheet validate?
  6. Are you aware of how many of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines the site violates?
  7. What testing was done with browsers other than Internet Explorer for Windows?
  8. What user testing was done on the site with, for example, people with disabilities?
  9. Why are the site tabs [made with] low-contrast and illegible graphics instead of CSS tabs made with, for example, the sliding-doors technique?
  10. To return to the Star article, among the “other things coming that [you] can’t tell [the newspaper] about,” do valid code and accessibility play any part at all?

I have received no response thus far, nor do I expect to.

Elsewhere, we learn that Chapters’s SAP implementation alone cost $20 million. Would you buy a system that expensive that can’t output valid HTML? Chapters plans to spend “millions and millions” more on the site; might it just be possible to bring its code up to the level of personal hobbyist blogs?

Corporate Web professionals labour under the delusion that they can stay insulated from trends in Web development. They feel free to create expensive new sites whose guts are no different from something published in, say, 1999. They’re like baby boomers who cannot stand any music released after 1979. The way they made Web sites while they were growing up works fine and dandy for them. Not only are no improvements necessary, as far as they’re concerned there are no improvements available to make, save for this Flash thing their kids keep telling them about. Their way is the state of the art – but, unbeknownst to them, back when they were learning to build Web sites we had no idea what the art actually was.

What will be the downfall of Chapters’s new site – its outrageous bandwidth costs, the complexity (and price tag) associated with maintaining its tag soup, or Canada’s first successful human-rights complaint concerning inaccessible Web sites?

Whatever. I’m not picky.


Response from Indigo

Well, guess what arrived in my snatchmail today!

  • From: Indigo – Juvy <service[commercial-at]chapters.indigo.ca>
  • To: joeclark[commercial-at]joeclark.org
  • Subject: Site Redesign <<#206090-519691#>>

Dear Dear Mr. Clark,

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of our new site design. We
appreciate your feedback and questions.”

Sincerely,

Chapters Indigo Online

—— Please do not remove your unique tracking number! ——

<<#206090-519691#>>

I’m so glad this went straight to the top!

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2004.11.08 16:27. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2004/11/08/chapters/

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