With the rate of progress of web technologies on a seemingly exponential curve, web designers and developers are being treated to new features and functionality on an almost daily basis.
Web browsers are responding more swiftly to these changes than they used to, resulting in a faster and often compulsory upgrade cycle. Google’s Chrome browser, for example, has been silently updating itself on your computer with each new release (currently it’s up to v17). And although there are still some discrepancies with the agreed standards, all current browsers will recognise (most of) the latest HTML5 and CSS3 features.
But what about those of us without the luxury of administrator control on our work computers, who can’t authorise a download or an update? In many cases across the public sector, employees are at the mercy of whatever web browser their IT department last installed – and more often than not, this is the web developer’s arch-nemesis, Internet Explorer 6.
Although launched in 2001, IE6 maintains a 1.4% share of the UK browser market; not much compared to the ballooning figures for Firefox, Chrome and mobile web browsers. However, many of our clients within the public sector see a vastly higher figure than this – sometimes as high as 40% – and usually do not have access to software later than IE8, itself nearly three years old.
These skewed statistics present our web team with some tricky design challenges. Clients naturally want to exploit the latest web features, as do we, and want their audience to get broadly the same experience regardless of where they’re coming from. Many professional developers have come up with tempting ways to sideline IE6 users, such as serving them a simplified or unstyled, text-only layout. Whereas these options are clever, timesaving ways to offer all users a semantically correct experience, they are not feasible for us to use with our higher than usual set of IE6 users.
At diva we use a web design approach known as progressive enhancement – adding layers of visual and interactive fidelity to a solid structure that will work even in the obsolete web browsers of a decade ago. This way, all visitors will receive the same information and general experience, and the vital content of the site is made accessible to all.
However, this design approach must go hand in hand with client education, to make sure there is an understanding that their website will not look identical across all browsers, and the reasons why. Progressive enhancement creates browsing benefits that can’t be seen – smaller page sizes, future-proofing, even better search engine rankings – but it can sometimes be hard to see past any design discrepancies. It also exposes the limitations of creating initial designs as a flat image rather than a working, interactive prototype.
The number of our clients and customers still using older browsers is much higher than average, but progressive enhancement is a positive, flexible approach for any web designer. Our champagne is already on ice for the day that IE6 eventually dies off completely, but the ever-changing mobile web landscape promises to offer a whole new set of challenges, making us better designers every day.