Tips for reading web standards

People have written a fair amount about how to contribute to web and web-adjacent standards, but before you can contribute to them, there’s an essential first step: you have to be able to read them. Before I worked on a web browser for a living, standards intimidated me, and I would steer clear of them in favor of friendlier documentation like MDN. But as I began to work on Chrome, I found that I needed to be able to read standards, and eventually write and edit them as well. Nowadays, I’ll typically go to a standard as my preferred form of documentation; sometimes it can be more efficient than reading other documentation that can be more out of date or imprecise. (Just as sometimes it can be more efficient to read the code than the documentation!)

Here are some tips that I find helpful when navigating the web standards world.

A little bit of context helps

Most standards development that is relevant to web development happens in either the W3C, the WHATWG, or the IETF. (I’m ignoring the ECMAScript standard that underlies JavaScript because I’ve never had to deal with it and have nothing helpful to say about it.) These venues have different scopes and conventions, and I think this context can help make their documents more comprehensible:

  • The IETF deals with the internet as a whole, whereas W3C and WHATWG are particularly focused on the web. There is some overlap between these areas, of course. The IETF would typically standardize something like a transport protocol, whereas the W3C would typically standardize something like a CSS feature. An HTTP header, for example, could show up in either group, depending on its meaning and usage. The WHATWG tends to focus on core browser technologies like HTML and the algorithms by which browsers fetch HTTP resources.
    • Corollary: When a W3C/WHATWG document talks about a user agent, it’s usually referring to a web browser like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. When an IETF document talks about a user agent, it is usually referring to any HTTP client, which might be a web browser or might be something quite different from a web browser like curl.
  • You might also encounter the WICG, a W3C group where standards ideas are documented and iterated upon before they graduate to being real grown-up specs. For the most part, you can read WICG documents just like any other W3C spec, though they might be less polished, less precise, or changing more rapidly.

Always read the editor’s/latest draft

Many standards are living documents, updated frequently as browsers evolve. It’s usually best to read the latest version, which is sometimes called the editor’s draft. For example, Googling for “Service Workers spec” might get you to https://www.w3.org/TR/service-workers/, but you’ll want to click on the Editor’s Draft link on that page to get to the latest version.

[W3C] Read the explainer cover-to-cover.

W3C standards often come with a less formal document called an explainer. The explainer details the motivations, what problems it’s trying to solve, example use cases, design decisions, and privacy/security considerations, all at a higher level than how that standard itself is written. For example, the paymentRequest explainer includes example client code and a number of design considerations. The explainer often contains useful context that makes the spec itself more approachable.

Rarely read the spec cover-to-cover.

I like to think of specs more like code than prose. When I need to figure out how a part of a system works, I don’t typically sit down and read the relevant source file from beginning to end. Instead, I’ll find an entry point – maybe a particular function that looks relevant to what I’m trying to understand – and follow the control flow from there as needed. When I finish reading the function, I usually won’t keep reading to the next function below it; instead, I might need to read functions that this function calls, or see what code calls this function.

This is how I read specs, too. Indeed, many specs are written as a collection of algorithms written in a very high-level pseudocode with some expository text around them. Reading the algorithms top to bottom rarely makes any sense. Instead, you should look for the algorithm that looks most relevant and start there; “step out” to its entrypoints or “step in” to other algorithms that it calls as needed. Note that stepping out/in may involve jumping in to a different spec.

For example, suppose that I want to know whether Subresource Integrity applies to 404 responses. Subresource Integrity is a web browser feature that allows developers to include external subresources while guaranteeing that they are the expected resources. The spec adds an integrity attribute to a few HTML elements that fetch resources. The attribute’s value is a hash of the expected resource, and the browser verifies that the resource matches the hash as it is loaded.

So, my question is whether browsers are supposed to check the integrity attribute when the resource request results in a 404 response. I start with the Subresource Integrity editor’s draft; a quick search reveals that this spec doesn’t say anything about 404s specifically (or 200s, for that matter). Scanning the Table of Contents, I scan through the names of algorithms in the Response verification algorithms section, and see that 3.3.5 Do bytes match metadataList? looks like the main algorithm that checks the integrity attribute. It doesn’t say anything about 404s. From there I hop over to the Fetch spec and search for SRI to see where Fetch calls into SRI. (There’s a little bit of institutional knowledge here – I already know that Fetch is often the right place to look when I’m looking for something that happens while a resource is being loaded from the network.) In Step 22 of Main Fetch, I see that network errors are exempted from SRI checks, but 404s probably wouldn’t be considered a network error, so I conclude that SRI is indeed applied to 404 responses.

The general point is that I answered this question by following references within and among standards, not by reading any one particular standard straight through.

(Update March 16, 2021: This hypothetical example query actually led to an interesting discussion on Twitter; it’s not entirely clear whether it’s intentional and/or desired behavior that SRI is enforced for non-200 responses. The discussion very nicely illustrates my concluding point below that spec authors are friendly humans who don’t bite! Brian Smith’s additional takeaways from this discussion: “There are frequently errors in specs, and not every error gets fixed. And maybe sometimes ignorance is bliss.”)

Make a mental glossary

Like many types of technical writing, standards often use fancy language for simple concepts. I gave an example above: you can often substitute a simple phrase like “web browser” for “user agent”. Another example is “browsing context” in HTML, which (as the spec notes) you can often think of as a frame, either top-level or embedded, within a browser window or tab. Usually, I find that making these substitutions as I read improves my comprehension. (Thanks to Nasko Oskov for a correction in this paragraph.)

One final tip: spec editors usually don’t bite, and their documents aren’t set in stone. If you find a problem with a spec, whether it’s a typo or a major error or a passage that’s difficult to understand, there’s often a link to a GitHub repo and/or email list where you can report it – and the editors will usually be happy and appreciative to hear from you.

Contact me on Twitter if you have thoughts or feedback about this post.