Designing With Web Standards

Yeah, it’s basically a textbook. But I’ve read them before and I’ll probably read them again. Lately I’ve become infatuated with web design and I think that people in the occupations of finance and controllership need to become more familiar with the associated concepts. I certainly see plenty of applications for my clients. I think the future is bountiful for finance people who can quickly build a user interface to access, utilize, and present financial data on the web.

So that about summarizes my motivation for reading this stuff, besides the fact that I’m kind of a dork. I’m guessing though, that you’re begging for more insight into my motivation.

Let’s talk about what financial people are doing today. They analyze a bunch of data that they’ve pulled out of a financial system (SAP, Oracle, Hyperion) and gussy it up using any number tools (Excel, Powerpoint) so that it’s usable by management. Even in this day and age I see people (finance people, CEO’s, and middle management) printing huge documents every month and hauling them around so they can use them to run their business. We are trying, but we can’t completely wean ourselves off paper.

That 8.5 x 11 piece of white paper (at least in the USA) is a great unifier. Any type of data can be presented on it, nothing special is required to consume it, it can be copied and passed on with notes, and it can be easily filed and retrieved when needed. A little more advanced than this simple sheet of paper is the PDF file, which is like a piece of paper, just digital. With a PDF someone can print it or file it electronically (in their email program for example) and access it on the road. It’s still somewhat unified because a PDF can be read with any number of free software programs and it remains very convertible to the classic white sheet of paper just by clicking the print icon.

It would be nice to just send management a darn spreadsheet, but when financial people start sending spreadsheets or presentations, the unification I’ve been talking about starts to degrade. I’ve seen even tech-savvy managers crumble in the face of navigating a multi-tabbed spreadsheet, let alone try to print it. Then there are those who think that giving management an ID to the operating system and telling them to log on and print their own reports is actually an option. Even the most tech-savvy, non-financial managers are revolted by the idea of pulling up the company’s operating system, so this option rarely works.

But the web browser – now there’s a unifier. Just tell the CEO to fire up the internet and click on monthly financial reports, problem solved! Well, not really I guess, because to do that the financial and IT staffs have to build a bunch of infrastructure with tools they may not be familiar with. For example, building a table on the web is much different from building a pivot table in Excel. And formatting some nice bullet points on the web is a little different from typing them into Powerpoint.

But think about the possibilities – what if the tool you extracted and analyzed the data with was tightly integrated with the tool you present and review the data with? That’s unification. That’s the web browser! Management already knows how to use the web browser, so the ball is in finance’s and IT’s court.

So what’s going to happen? All this development in information management is happening in the web browser space, but it hasn’t made much of a dent in the day-to-day operations in the finance departments that I’ve seen. Microsoft Office is still the tool of choice for just about every finance person on the globe.

But this can’t last. All of this stuff is moving to the web browser and we’re going to have to adjust accordingly. That means learning new tools (MySQL, PHP, HTML, CSS) so that we can do old fashioned things, like distribute financial reports, on the web. Designing web pages, or at least being familiar with designing web pages, is one of these skill sets that financial departments will find within their purview shortly, whether they like it or not. So I’m getting on top of it, it’s a matter of survival.

That’s why I bought this book. It’s a damn fine overview of the web design space, and it even includes a lot of practical applications and detailed directions. Plus, the writer throws in a ton of dork humor, I love it.

Here’s a main point from the book (pg 155):

A logical outline structure, when applied correctly, helps search engines find your content; its absence helps search engines find someone else’s content instead. I’ll make this point over and over in this book, but it can’t be overstated. If you want people to find your content, the first thing you must do is write great content, and the second thing you must do is mark up that content semantically. There is no third thing to do, although fiddling with page titles can help.

If I may, the content is the input. The markup translates that input so it looks nice on the page and can be consumed by the reader. Semantic markup makes the consumption easier for people and processes that don’t necessarily read your words on the screen (search bots, blind people). In my mind, this translates nicely into presenting financial data via a web browser. Stay with me.

The financial data is the input (the content). It needs to be relevant and accurate data (great content) that can be used for decision making. The next question is how to “mark it up” so that it can be used by management? Historically it was Excel and Powerpoint. It is transitioning somewhat to Hyperion and Access. In the future it’s going to be MySQL and PHP or some other database and retrieval methodology that works in the web browser. And those who can semantically mark this stuff up to make retrieval and presentation easy by those other than skilled analysts are going to be the rock star financial people of the future. They are going to combine skills throughout the range of the process; pulling data from the operating systems, analyzing and summarizing it using technical tools, marking it up so that it can be presented to management, and designing the user interface so that management can navigate the information to answer real questions quickly.

Those are the skills I’m going to work on in 2010. In fact, I’ve purchased PHP & MySQL for Dummies to keep my momentum on this topic. I have a lot of stuff to flush out on this issue.