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Supporting IE6 (or not) is not about you!

IE6 is an outdated, non-standards compliant, and unsecure browser that is the bane of web designers and developers lives.

Spurred on by campaigns like .net’s “Bring Down IE6”, many website builders now do not support IE6, but the problem is that deciding to support IE6, or not, should not be about the designer/developer, or even the client, but about the end user.

IE 6 Usage

There seems to generally be a view that the majority of IE6 users are businesses who, fearful of the costs of upgrading in-house software, are resistant to upgrading their browsers. Whilst this may be true to an extent (an IT company I do a lot of work for has only, in the last six months, upgraded to IE8), this is not the user based I am concerned about.

I am more concerned by non-technical users – people who have old computers, do not know what a browser is, and only accesses the internet to find vital information.

Let me give you some examples. Here is the IE6 usage for a variety of sites I manage, across the last month and last year (if sufficient information is available).

Type of Site % IE6 Usage Last Month % IE6 Usage Last Year
Sites targeting university students < 1% 1%
Sites targeting businesses 3% 6%
Sites targeting range of users 8% 8%
Sites targeting less well off users (e.g. Housing Associations) 12% 14%

Should you really be penalising these non-technical users (over 1 in 10 people in some cases) by not supporting IE6 for certain sites?

I have always viewed “accessibility” as being more than just disabilities. It is about ensuring that the vast majority of your users can access your content – however they choose!

Considering that these low-technical users potentially do not understand what a browser is (it is just a button to get the internet), nor have any concerns over security, is it right to try and convince them to upgrade, rather than providing them with a passable browsing experience?

What is support for IE6?

By “supporting IE6” – I do not mean that IE6 should look and function identical to other browsers (although as @iDazz says – some clients do not get that principle!). I am a big believer in the idea of progressive enhancement – basically you start with the basics that all browsers support, and you then add additional features that only certain browsers support – ultimately your content is accessible to old browsers (and also screen readers and search engines), but modern browsers get to see all the extra bells and whistles.

This is really not very hard – as long as you bear in mind likely problems, such as the box-model bug and lack of alpha transparency support, and use a cross-browser javascript model, then making a site functional in IE6 is pretty simple* – yes you might need an IE6 specific stylesheet to tidy up a few things, but it is hardly rocket science. You can then provide a significantly prettier interface to other browsers, but IE6 users can still access content on your site.

(* unless your site is very script dependant – like You Tube, Facebook etc.)

To quote from my web development contract (which was borrowed from a blog post I have since lost):

We will test all our markup and CSS in current versions of all major browsers including those made by Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, Google and Opera. We will also test to ensure that pages will display visually in a ‘similar’, albeit not necessarily an identical way, in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 for Windows as this browser is now past it’s sell-by date.

Getting the message across

Don’t get me wrong though, there is still a good case to let users know that their lives could be better upgrading.

For sites targeting a range of users – I will consider including a nagging message that the user’s browser experience and security could be improved by upgrading – including links to the major browsers. However I will not include these messages for sites where I expect a low-tech knowledge base – I just do not think it will do any good and is a barrier to accessing the content.

Conclusion

You need to consider a website’s audience, before deciding whether to support IE6 or not. For some sites, which are aimed at a tech-savy, gadget based, audience (like Google Reader, Basecamp etc.) – then supporting IE6 is less important. However there are a lot of people out there who not only know no better, but do not understand what they are doing wrong – it is bad practice to penalise them for the sake of saving an hour or so ensuring your site works sufficient in IE6.

Comments

Clive Walker
Reply

I would agree that supporting IE6 is not too difficult and mostly about providing adjustments for box model issues. I don’t try and make the sites identical in IE6, but I make sure that nothing ‘breaks’. In terms of IE6 support, apart from personal sites, I decide whether to support IE6 based on visitor stats/target audience.

I don’t really like providing nag messages about upgrading your browser although I have seen this on other web developers’ personal sites. I don’t use a stripped down IE6 style sheet either but I can see that some sites or website specs may warrant this, if the target audience is taken into account
Clive Walker recently posted..Trying out CSS3 media queries with a fixed width layoutMy Profile

daylightgambler
Reply

I think it depends on what you define as ‘support’ – unless the client wants (and pays for) the site to be perfect in IE6, then to me “support” means exactly as you say – that the site does not break, and all the content is accessible.

marek
Reply

I will consider including a nagging message that the user’s browser experience and security could be improved by upgrading

You need to consider not just levels of knowledge, but levels of power. There are substantial numbers of users, particularly in large organisations, who have no control over their browser and use IE6, with all its limitations, because that is what there is. There is nothing more irritating than a message urging a user to upgrade when that user has no means of doing so. Turning the message round, to recognise an IE6 visitor and make the point that the experience may be incomplete is another matter – but it is very rarely done that way

daylightgambler
Reply

Hi Marek – thanks for the comment.

You are completely right that some users have no choice in what browser to use – in fact I just had a conversation with a friend who works for a FTSE 100 company which still uses IE6!! (as an aside he also mentioned how they are all used to ignoring broken bits of sites)

Again I think it comes down to the likely audience for each site. Whilst I would not put an update message on a business to business site, I would consider it for a non-business site with a general audience (but only if I thought it was applicable).

For one of the University student websites included in the stats above (less than 1% IE6 usage from a high tech / web experienced audience) I used the following message:

Did you know that your browser is very out of date?
For security and to get the best possible experience using our website we recommend that you upgrade your browser to a newer version. The current version is Internet Explorer 8. The upgrade is free. If you want to you may also try some other popular Internet browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera, or Safari.

Sam Bryan
Reply

We’ve seen a lot of businesses pretty much skip Vista entirely and hold on to their XP machines for longer. As IE6 is what comes out of the box, and it’s difficult to define a clear business ‘need’ to upgrade or switch browsers in the majority of cases, a lot of places are sticking with the default.

But now there’s a real alternative to XP, so hopefully the usual cycle of hardware replacements will kill these off.

daylightgambler
Reply

Hi Sam – thanks for your comment. I think you are absolutely right. The usage stats definitely show that business traffic with IE6 seems to be decreasing (finally!)

For business to business sites IE6 traffic was 6% over the last year, but only 3% in the last month. Hopefully this trend will continue.

However the usage for the other group of users, perhaps unfairly I can call them ‘IT illiterate users’, seems to be about the same.

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