Over the last week or so, the discussion “should we continue to support IE6” has been gaining more and more momentum. Digg, Mashable, Techcrunch and other websites ran features about why IE6 should be given the boot, websites like facebook and youtube are starting to phase out the browser, hinting users to upgrade their browser.
This sparked a long and heated debate in a number of web design agencies and clients I am working with (or have worked with / for), whether it would be worth just dropping the support for Internet Explorer 6 and ask users to upgrade their browsers so that they can enjoy the website to the fullest.
Coming from a usability, accessibility, SEO and web dev background, I thought it might be a good idea writing why I would recommend supporting (or not supporting) IE6 in the industry I am working for.
Looking at our industry – what made IE6 stay
With the release of Windows XP in October 2001, users were greeted to the new – bundled – version of Internet Explorer 6. Companies, schools and universities planning on buying new hardware tended to use resellers such as Dell to buy a number of same-spec machines at a bulk discount – and with all machines either shipping with XP or Win2000, the reign of IE6 was established.
System admins were able to roll out updates and software easily, as all machines were virtually the same, and keeping control of networks became relatively easy. Additionally, intranet software was bought or developed based on IE6, since every machine came with it this made development and testing a lot quicker and easier.
In November 2005, FireFox 1.5 became the first real free browser on the market to rival IE6 for its ease of use, and coupled with the ability to extend the browser’s capabilities through extensions it became the browser of choice – if you had the ability to choose. You see, the browser (just like 95% of all applications) needed to be installed. This wasn’t a problem on your own personal computer, but when trying to do this in an office environment (or any institution) then things were a bit more difficult: most users were not given administration rights to their machines to prevent abuse or installing malicious software. Most software requests had to go through a number of channels, from procurement (if licensing was involved) to IT (to see how much work was involved and how much time would be required per machine) to head of department (to sign the request off and add additional reasons for the request) to someone a lot higher up to ultimately sign the request off. A simple “Can I have software XYZ” could easily take months to get it approved.
With the arrival of Windows Vista and Server 2008 in October 2006, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7, 5 years after the release of IE6. At that time, IE7 was only available for Vista and Server 2008 machines, and it was not until October 2007 that IE7 was officially available for XP machines. Companies were once again given the option to roll out IE7 to every machine under their care, however this didn’t happen: rolling out IE7 to all machines in bigger companies or institutions would not only cost a lot of time and – more importantly – money (system admin time, potential upgrade costs, etc), but the software used for business purposes (such as stock management software, accounting or counter software) was built on or running on IE6, most of the time exclusively, and paying for this software to be upgraded was a very expensive option (and sometimes the company that wrote the software did not even exist anymore).
As such, IE6 came to stay with us, and it will probably do so for a long time to come unless Microsoft was to offer free upgrades to companies and allow backwards compatibility of IE6, if only at least for the software and not for the browser use. And I somehow cannot see that happen.
Affecting your target audience
Now this was the general “industry” as we have it out there this year. What needs to be considered is how much of that sector fits into your target audience. Every website offers different bits of information, services or products, and each website has a different target audience with different needs or requirements and expectations of the website (if you read my article on information architecture and user testing you will be aware of different user scenarios to test a website with).
The main target audience I am dealing with is the travel and tourism industry. Our target traffic (based on a survey conducted in Jan / Feb 2008 by three of my clients) is coming from:
- Users at work, looking at holiday packages and destinations at work during their breaks – ~ 65%
- Users at home, either planning with the family or reading up on what they found at work – ~35%
Just over two thirds of traffic is coming from people using company / education networks. Depending on your target audience it might be a good idea to look at where your main traffic is coming from to paint your own picture for your market.
IE6 today – the stats
Let’s have a look at Google Analytics. These are the June / July stats of a holiday cottage provider based in the UK (we are looking at a slow month):
Interesting picture, almost three quarters of all traffic is coming from Internet Explorer.
Let’s break it down:
About 16% of all visitors are using IE6 to browse the website, read more information about the product or destination and make a booking. A fifth of all bookings are made using IE6 – very interesting fact to keep in mind.
Debunking some myths about IE6
Now having looked at the stats and a brief history, let’s have a look at some of the most commonly used phrases in the last couple of weeks from my industry:
Myth 1 – No one uses ie6 any more
Looking at the stats above, this simply isn’t true. The website usage of people using IE6 is still significant enough to not ignore it. Again, this depends entirely on your industry, but if you are working in travel / tourism / holiday properties then you really ought to keep that in mind.
Myth 2 – Developing for IE6 is difficult
That entirely depends on what you are planning to do. I have yet to encounter a problem that I could not overcome for IE6. Some websites (such as www.visitpeakdistrict.com for example) have been built by colleagues and myself with no IE stylesheet at all! There are plenty of resources out there to aid you (one of my personal favourite ones being the definitive guide to taming IE6 by Jeff Starr) with developing for IE6, from flickering backgrounds to missing text (usually it is just a width or height-issue anyway), and jQuery and other plugins still work reasonably well for IE6 and degrade gracefully if not.
Myth 3 – IE6 is bad user experience
Whoever said this clearly does not have a grasp of what “user experience” actually means. As a piece of software IE6 “works” (else it would not have passed QA at Microsoft), it allows for bookmarking, browsing, searching, information gathering and even levels for customisation, which I believe is delivering a pretty good user experience.
The user experience this person was talking about is not defined by the browser, it is defined by the experience the website has to offer! It comes back to the points above – if you cannot code properly for IE6 then it is you who is causing this user experience issue.
Myth 4 – No one supports IE6
Wrong. Many support IE6 still to this day, web developers, software companies, and even the most crucial web techniques such as jQuery or Flash support IE6 (hell, Flash doesn’t even support a 64bit plugin properly!).
Myth 5 – it is easy to upgrade your browser
Just because it is easy for you to upgrade doesn’t mean it is for everyone. Put yourself into the position of an office employee working for a big company. This comes back to the history of IE6 I mentioned earlier, upgrading a browser is difficult because:
- The computer you are using may have a very old operating system
- You may not have administrator rights to do so
- You may not be able to justify why you need to have a new browser, and approval may take a long time in a bigger company
- You may not be able to justify the time and costs involved to upgrade all machines with a new browser, let alone a new operating system.
- Software on your machine you are using for day-to-day work may heavily rely on IE6
- You don’t know how to upgrade
A lesson in history – when things went wrong (a case study)
About 2 years ago I was working with my team on a website for a relatively big UK travel company. Because the client wanted new functionality on certain product pages (interactive pricing grid and “add to basket facilities) they decided to make this available only to certain newer browsers (against my company’s recommendation and to save development time), and set up an error message (see screenshot on the right) when visiting those new pages and asked us to monitor traffic in real-time for these pages and the whole of the website.
About 3h after putting these new pages (and this warning) up the CEO’s office rang to tell us that they received over 2,000 complaints about the new error message and had an over 80% drop in traffic and asked us to quickly take the new pages down and replace them with the old ones – and to plan in time to work on a cross-browser solution.
IE6 is sadly the only browser that will stay with us long after IE9 or maybe even IE10 has been released. Many companies cannot afford the time and money for purchasing new software licenses or changing operating systems because a lot is depending on their current set-up.
IE6 is a problem for many web developers, myself included, and many of us are spending hours, even days, making a website work properly across all browsers. What you need to think about is: who is your target audience, and what computer capabilities do they have? And are you willing to take the plunge and not support IE6 and lose X% in visits and potential custom?
How is your industry affected? Are you still supporting IE6?