Microsoft Expression Web: Room for Improvement

After reading a good deal of favorable press about Microsoft Expression Web (EW), I decided to give it a look. Although Microsoft has made several improvements over FrontPage 2003, almost nothing has been done to improve accessibility, and the improvements that have been made offer little to get excited about.

Note: This is not a guide to Microsoft Expression Web, but some of my opinions how Microsoft should have improved Expression Web. If you would like to learn more about using this tool, read the WebAIM article on using MS Expression Web.

Concessions

Let’s start with the concessions:

  • EW does create cleaner, more compliant code and has much better CSS support. This is no small thing, and for this they should be congratulated.
  • I spent most of my time evaluating the tool for ease of creating accessible content, and I undoubtedly skipped over several wonderful new features that are not related to accessibility.
  • I am a Dreamweaver user, so I am never as comfortable using Microsoft’s web design tools.

Images: Fine if you understand alt text

Probably the most significant improvement in Expression Web is the addition of a dialog box that prompts you to enter alt text for every new image. I am glad to see that this feature is available by default, but it could be handled even better:

  • The image is not visible until after you enter alt text. That may make it difficult to describe alt text for an image if you do not remember exactly what image you’re inserting.
  • If the user simply hits Enter when this prompt appears, Expression Web automatically enters empty alt text (alt=""). I don’t think this should be the default behavior. I can see developers unfamiliar with this prompt creating a page where every image has null alt text. In EW’s defense, Dreamweaver does this too.
  • The dialog box also includes an option to link to a long description. Again, in my opinion, this option should not be available by default. A developer who understands the proper (and more often improper) use of the longdesc attribute should easily be able to link to a long description in the code. Someone who does not, probably should not be using longdesc.

But it has an accessibility checker!

Most of the ads or information for Expression Web highlight the "Accessibility checker" as proof of Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility.

First, this feature isn’t even new; it was introduced in FrontPage 2003. Second, if you have followed WebAIM for a while, then you probably know that we feel that automated accessibility validators are of limited value, especially for page-by-page evaluation. This is one of the reasons we have been devoted to the development of WAVE. Validators like this Accessibility checker are of limited value if you do not understand accessibility, and you probably won’t bother using them if you do. Still, there is nothing wrong with creating an accessibility report, as long as you recognize that it is not a substitute for creating inaccessible content.

Still layout table-centric

Even though CSS is at the heart of this new tool (I don’t know if that specific claim was ever made, but that seemed to be the general rhetoric) it is clear that Microsoft still has a special place for layout tables. As a matter of fact, you can create/edit layout tables using an icon in the main toolbar, a Table subheading in the main menu, and an additional (although hidden by default) toolbar dedicated to layout tables.

But what if you want to create a data table? It’s a simple matter of creating a header-less table, selecting the cells that should be headers, choosing Cell Properties, selecting the Header cell checkbox, and manually assigning scope to the headers. I would like to have seen something similar to Dreamweaver’s approach to adding tables.

I expected more

This is Microsoft’s replacement for FrontPage, so it will be the tool that countless developers will use to create web content for the next couple of years. That is why I am a disappointed that EW doesn’t make it easier to create accessible content. Although it is possible to add alt text, table headers and form labels, these tasks should be much easier. On the other hand, it does create cleaner, more standards-compliant code, so a user who is not afraid to get into the code should be able to add accessibility features with minimal difficulty.

Comments

  1. Marshall

    I totally disagree with your assessment of Expression Web. First, just because layout tables don’t conform to accessibility doesn’t necessarily equate to the need to remove the tool from the design options. Expression Web does allow for easy building of a tableless site if you elect to build a such a site via css. Like FrontPage, Expression Web comes with some ready made site templates and if you try some of them out you will see sites created via css without tables. I have taken non-designers and have already been able to get them up to speed with editing site layout via css. As someone who uses Dreamweaver daily for my own site design for our college, I also have to support a full staff of college instructors who use FrontPage 2003 because it is part of the state’s Microsoft Office agreement. I will contend that EW is a huge improvement over FP2003. It has been shared that this version of Expression Web is a transitional version and virtually all similarities to FP2003 will be non-existant in future releases. I think this product has a future and as it evolves it could one day in the not so distant future find itself a worthy competitor for Dreamweaver. I hope so because I see adobe making some product decisions that feel more like Microsoft than the old Macromedia.

  2. DayTradersWin

    OK guys, here is my plight and my question.

    I used Publisher (2007 Office Professional – Vista) to design my website: http://www.DayTradersWin.com

    As you can see, I had to trick the software to come up with a navigation area accross the top – awful I’m sure you will agree.

    Publisher limitations are limitless, and design problems do not get address upon request. So it’s dead-ended for the future development of my site. Waste

    Now, if you will please, what site development software do you recommend I use to completely start over with – full functionality, effectiveness (SEO optimize), and reasonable ease of use?

    Keep in mind, I’m code handicapped, heh heh

    Thanks,

    John

  3. Marshall

    I feel that either Expression Web or Dream Weaver are very good tools to use for web design. Dream Weaver is a far more mature product than Expression Web and has such is still the tool of choice for web designers. Micrsooft with Expression Web has made significant improvements over the FrontPage product and it too has some powerful features. If you have never used either one of these tools then you will likely have to go through a learning curve with either one of these tool. Expression Web comes with a sample training DVD from Total Training. Total Training offers some nice DVD based training for both Microsof Expression Web and Adobe Dream Weaver. The sample training DVD that comes with Expression Web will get you off to a good start and also help you to begin to overcome your code handicap and that is good thing. :)

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