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Browser Support

January 29th, 2010 by Erick Beck

Departments and offices on campus will frequently ask to consult with us whenever they begin a new redesign process (we love talking to you, please continue to do so.)  One of the most frequent questions that comes up, despite being a topic that has been rehashed a dozen times in the last two years, is which browsers have to be supported.

My answer usually surprises folks — “all of them.”  This is my attention grabber that then lets me make a point and go into a longer explanation of content, the levels of accessibility, usability,  “browser support,” and the differences between these terms.

As a public university we have an obligation to make our information available to everyone, and as a web professional I think we have a mandate to do the same.  So the informational content of the page should ideally be accessible no matter what user agent the visitor decides to use — the latest version of IE, Safari on iPhone, JAWS speech reader, lynx textual browser, or even Netscape 1.0.    All of these can render the basic HTML that delivers the content, so there is no reason the site design should be such that the information is not delivered.

Note that the above makes no reference to what the page looks like.  Indeed, on various user agents it will almost certainly look different, possibly even bad.  But the information is there and is available.  Only once this bar has been met should we get into the question of what most of us mean by browser support — those which we want the general appearance and experience to be the same.

This, then, limits us to browsers that support web standards plus those for which we are willing to make exceptions and add hacks… largely IE 6.  Analytics shows us that usage of IE 6 has finally fallen to a low enough percentage that we need no longer consider it mainstream.  Unfortunately it is still high enough that it can’t be ignored.

I don’t buy into the argument that a site has to look and act exactly the same for every visitor on every device.  Minor differences are expected as each rendering engine treats the base HTML and CSS slightly different.  So let’s extend that concept and go back to content accessibility – can we create an experience in IE 6 in which the content is delivered and the page looks OK?  Not perfect, not exactly what other browsers will see, but good enough to deliver your information and not create a negative experience or perception of our organization.  That can be done easily enough using IE conditional comments and a separate style sheet to overwrite and tweak the default style.

So, long answer to a short question.  “Do we have to support IE 6?”  Yes… so long as you understand that support doesn’t necessarily mean providing the same experience as modern browsers, it just means making sure those who insist on using it can still get your information and not be turned off by the process.

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Friday, January 29th, 2010 Browsers/Plug-ins
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