Where do we draw the line for browser support?

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

Prompted by the announcement on 37Signals that their next platform update would not support IE7 or IE8 (or many other older browsers), a vigorous debate took place on Twitter around the subject of for how long we should support browsers which don’t have the most modern features. For all its many positives, Twitter is no place for nuanced argument, so this article is for me to try to frame my opinion a little better.

My idealistic view is that the web should work for everyone, regardless of their method of access. Idealism always takes second place to pragmatism, however; I know that we have to work within our limits, we can’t provide a first-class experience for everyone all of the time. So where do we draw the line for browser support?

The answer is the same as always: it depends.

When making the decision, you should use a Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). The cost includes your resources: how much time you have, how much money, the staff you have available. All of these are finite. The benefit (or lack of) is mostly to your users: not only the ones who may be excluded, but also the others who could get a reduced service if you have to divert resources to legacy support.

In 37Signals case they know their users well, they’ve done this before and obviously feel the benefits are greatly in favour of their current user base. If someone can’t get access to their website it’s not the end of the world, there are alternatives available.

But your market may be different. You may not even know your market. Telling people that they must update their browser is making a lot of presumptions about them:

  • That they are aware of what a browser is. A lot of people aren’t. It’s why Google are spending millions on a global campaign (not entirely selflessly, of course).
  • That they have the ability to update it — and I don’t just mean technical ability, but cognitive and physical ability too.
  • That the technology they use supports updating or using alternative browsers. Many (most?) of the devices I know do, but I’m not aware of the technology markets across Africa and Asia, for example.

Most importantly, you must assess the benefit of the content — or the lack of access thereof — to the user. You could be building a site about healthcare which contains content that could save lives — literally vital information. Christian Heilmann recently posted browser stats from a healthcare site which showed that ~50% of visitors were using a browser which wouldn’t meet 37Signals’ criteria.

With all that in mind, after we’ve done the CBA I would say that the very least consideration of ours should be how easy it is to do something. I said in the discussion that “we play the cards we’re dealt” — that wasn’t intended to be a statement of passivity, but rather one of acceptance that we don’t control our users. If they use IE6, we build for them. We can educate and encourage, but only up to a point. Beyond that point we start to become arrogant.

So that’s my opinion, I look forward to hearing yours.

3 comments on
“Where do we draw the line for browser support?”

  1. I developed a WordPress site for a department at a major hospital in our area last Fall. I develop on a Mac and test thoroughly in Safari, Firefox, and Chrome as well as for standards compliance. After that I tend to jump over to Windows XP in bootcamp and test in IE8.

    I kept having issues with the hospital staff complaining of things not looking right on their machines. Turned out, the hospital only allows IE6 and IE7 on all their computers. This is because they run intranet applications that require that version.

    Ironically, the target audience of the web site I was developing was people OUTSIDE of the hospital (aka 3% use IE7). However, there was no way I could sell it to the hospital admins as they were only seeing the broken IE7 version.

    So I spent tons of extra house working really hard to make the site work on IE7 but couldn’t quite pull it off for IE6 (WordPress’ dashboard won’t even work in that version). We finally launched the site and later the head of the department pulled me aside to ask why it looked different on his iPad. smh.

  2. I agree that, especially on commercial websites, it’s simple economic decision which browsers to support. For a project a while ago I supported IE5.5, because it was really easy to do (I have a dozen of virtual machines with different browsers and operating systems which I use to test websites and to find out how broken they look and how difficult it seems to fix them). But for other projects I didn’t (it probably was not impossible, but would have required major efforts).

  3. Our company’s line lies at 1%. Every browser version above 1% market share gets support. IE6 may get degraded support, but everything will still work and everything still needs to look fine. For my personal blog I draw the line at 0.5%, just because I can.

    The cost … if you’re dealing with pros it won’t take more than 2 – 3 days (3 days is already a lot) to have everything work cross-browser, problem is that many people have failed to acquire these skills, those are the ones that should the loudest when people are telling you to ditch support for older browsers.