Let’s Treat Old Browser Users Better

It’s not hard to stumble across diatribes against IE6 (and 7 and 8) users across forums peopled by web developers. As a web developer there is no denying that my desire to play with the new and shiny is hampered by my need to support users on older browsers and systems. But do we have to be such jerks about it?

If you don’t think we’re jerks, I have examples in some of my posts:

How We Misbehave

The posts above are primarily about short-sighted developers (all of us) blaming IE6 (for the most part, but other old browsers as well) for their development woes. We often release that frustration on users — specifically users of those browsers.

We tell those users their browser isn’t good enough. We tell them they’ll have to pay more to use the site. We tell them the site is much cooler in a modern browser. We intentionally exclude them and then fail to report on their traffic (making it easy to continue to marginalize them). We do all sorts of things to the users of those browsers.

Who Are These Trapped Users?

We need to consider that most users on older browsers aren’t there by choice. They are trapped.

Some are trapped because they don’t know any better. They are part of the world that uses a computer rarely and the web is a painful necessity for some things they used to be able to do with a phone, a walk, or a piece of mail. These people are not evil. They are our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters (probably not our kids). They may work in a field where they never need to touch a computer. They may hate or fear computers for very valid reasons.

They may be disabled in some fashion and rely on accessibility features or devices that they cannot afford to upgrade or are otherwise not available to them. They may have very old hardware, be using a library computer, or stuck in some internet cafe in a forgotten part of the world.

Some of them may be very smart, very interested in science and technology, very much able to run cognitive circles around all of us, and still use an old browser:

(That’s out of 206,000 visitors, and only 3,000 of those IE6 users represent China.)

Some users are trapped in a corporate environment where they are not allowed to upgrade. Even with Microsoft’s push to start to auto-update IE, corporate IT departments are still allowed to override it. These users may have no sway with IT. IT itself may be playing it safe to avoid lawsuits and compliance issues, some may not have the budget to re-write internal corporate tools. Those employees are users who trapped.

What We Should Do

Let’s not treat users of IE6 (and other old browsers) like they are deviants or criminals. Let’s instead treat them like people who are trapped and need our help.

Let’s not require them to pay more, jump through extra hoops, or fail to see what the rest of us see. Let’s not talk down to them, treat them like idiots, or tell them they should just do something they cannot do.

Take a look at your sites in an old browser (today that’s IE6, years ago it was Netscape Navigator 4, tomorrow it might be the default Android browser). See if you are being a jerk to your users with poorly-worded messaging, intentional blocks, or imposed “taxes.” When you stumble across these transgressions in projects to which you contribute on GitHub and elsewhere, fix them and maybe even explain why.

If nothing more, make the web and its development practices nicer to the future you who may very well be trapped on an old browser someday.

Update: July 10, 2012

There is a nice (both in tone and quality) article at Smashing Magazine today titled Dear Web User: Please Upgrade Your Browser. It assumes a reader is not afraid of computers and has at least some control over his/her environment (so it’s useless for, say, my parents) and explains reasons to upgrade/cross-grade while providing links to other browsers.

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