Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

This blog post is superseded by UK government browser guidelines: good sense prevails.

Last friday, the UK government’s Central Office of Information (COI) published a public consultation on browser standards for public sector websites:

This guidance has been developed to assist those delivering public sector websites to determine which web browsers to use for testing. Public sector websites have a responsibility to be inclusive and not exclude groups of users but it would be impractical to test websites on every available browser.

So far, so apparently reasonable. I’m pleased to see that the COI advises that browsers on Windows, Mac and Linux be tested, that assistive technologies be tested, and it’s good that the draft guidance recognises that different sites have different target audiences.

But the central premise of the draft guidelines is fundamentally flawed.

Playing the numbers game

The central message of the draft guidelines (which are not available in HTML, only Word (280K) and PDF (160K)) is that public sector webmasters need not test in less-popular browsers.

If a browser appears in visitor logs as being below an arbitrary percentage of total “unique visitors” then it should not be listed as being “fully supported” in the site’s accessibility or help pages.

It may be listed as "semi-supported", which is defined: "A browser is semi-supported if the content and navigation works but the website does not display as intended”. Intended by whom? Are we back to the bad old days when webmasters strove for pixel-perfect rendering, even on governmental sites which are largely content-driven rather than design-dependant?

This page is best viewed with Browser X

The COI says “Avoid using statements such as, ‘this page is best viewed with Browser X’", and then goes on to advocate pushing users to change their browser.

There are many reasons why people use minority browsers, like Opera, Flock, Camino, OminWeb, Konqueror and the like (full disclosure: I work for Opera). A large percentage of visitors to the WaSP website use browsers other than the Web’s most numerically popular browser, for professional or political reasons. Others use a smaller browser for accessibility reasons, or because it’s familiar, or because they prefer the user interface, or just because they like it. Choice and personal preference is the heart of an open Web.

But the COI believes that it’s legitimate to suggest that visitors to government websites should change their preference, working methods and computer setup because of its testing policy. The example browser support policy statement, that they advise publishing on an accessiiblity or help page, says (my emphasis):

[Website name] has been tested on a wide range of browsers:

[List supported browsers here]

We advise you to upgrade your browser version as far as your computer allows and if possible to one of those listed above. However, the following browsers should also provide access to all of the content and navigation on the site:

[List semi-supported browsers here]

In short, in order to save costs on testing, the COI is advocates browser upgrade. By encouraging people to move from minority browsers to majority browsers, it works against the minority browsers ever increasing their market share in that sector, and the public sector is a big sector. It also sets a terrible example to organisations outside the public sector who are only just being cajoled out of the “build for IE” mindset.

Swimming against the tide

In the introduction to a document that wishes to help webmasters save money by limiting the range of browsers used for testing, it says that "how to code for browser compatibility" is "out of scope". This is bizarre; how can the single most effective way to reduce the cost of development be considered out of scope? This goes completely against the recent rise of the standards movement led by the WaSP, which was founded in 1998 to fight for standards that reduce the cost and complexity of development.

The guidelines note

These guidelines do not advocate specific development methodologies, for example graceful degradation or progressive enhancement. However, it is widely accepted that sites conforming to open web standards such as XHTML and CSS are more likely to work well across a wide range of browsers.

This is entirely back-to-front. The guidelines should be advocating a specific development methodology: they should recommend designing to Web Standards. Costs will be driven down, even if testing is performed across more browsers, because there will be fewer inconsistencies and less recoding to fix inconsistencies.

The COI should also advocate publishing information in open formats, such as HTML, and practice what it preaches.

Respond to the consultation

All UK and European developers have the right to respond to this consultation, which closes October 17, 2008. We hope that you will do so, because UK government websites have a lamentable track record, and we invite you to post your response on your site and link to it in the comments below, to inspire others.

Your Replies

#1 On September 8th, 2008 11:26 am