September 16, 2004

What browser do you design for?

Does the question "what browser do you design for?" strike you as intuitive … or counter-productive? Either way, it's asked often enough in forums — asked in all seriousness, followed by heated arguments, quotings of browser marketshare statistics, and assertions that, since "most people" use Internet Explorer, ignoring other browsers is of little consequence.

Granted, IE has enjoyed a phenomenally large user base. One is able to trot out browser usage graphs in support of the argument that "designing for IE" will enable clients to market to the "largest share of users". Sounds compelling, but most clients are not web technicians, and instead look to their designer/developer to advise them of the best, most effective methods of achieving their goals — which is precisely where this argument fails. It's one thing to ensure that a website works in the most popular browser. It's quite another to advise clients that, in all honesty, it's entirely possible to design websites to be cross-browser compatible without sacrificing much of anything at all — and then gain their agreement to ignore a part of their market.

I'd suggest that designing for IE is short-sighted both for designers/web developers and their clients alike, particularly if the clients lack proper information from which to make an adjudication or, worse, are unaware that such a choice has been made. One day they may know better, and may look upon their designer/webdev as the gal or guy who failed to steer them the right way. This is a lose-lose proposition
in light of the following:

  1. designing for IE only means ignoring other modern browsers which are standards-compliant, and
  2. not every country uses Windows, let alone IE
  3. even in the U.S., users are turning to other browsers
  4. designing for the current version of IE means you're designing for the current non-compliant browser du jour.

Remember, we're not talking about painfully older browsers that were built long before the current HTML and CSS coding standards were implemented; we're talking about current browsers such as Opera, Mozilla, Firefox and the Mac browsers. The "don't want to support older browsers anymore" argument does not equate to dismissing users of these new, more standards-compliant browsers. And there's no way of telling if or when Microsoft may see the Web Standards light and ensure it's browsers are standards compliant, is there?

Oops … IE's marketshare she's a-slipping …

Depending upon a browser's current marketshare is a flimsy foundation upon which to build a business — yours or your clients'. Things change. Years ago, Netscape was far and away the leader in browser usage before Internet Explorer became so popular. Today, IE's once near-100% userbase is already shrinking. We're no longer talking about ignoring the "few people" using alternative browsers:

Roughly 84% use IE-based browsers, down from a high of ~94% as users switch to other browser families … with this downward trend likely to continue as the alternate browsers improve and as IE remains stagnant with no planned upgrade for several years.

See also: w3schools browser usage chart and U.S. CERT warning about Internet Explorer

Deconstructing the Question

The idea of choosing to design for a particular browser is a curious phenomenon that clearly begs the question: why insist on building websites that present users of other modern browsers with a botched design or glitchy functionality? Why risk your clients' success (let alone your own business reputation) on the display of a particular browser in common usage today that provably violates the standards of browser display? Why build websites that don't work in all modern browsers and frustrate visitors who want to read or to purchase? Why quarantine clients' website visitors who use non-IE browsers on some lame, dead-end "you must upgrade your browser" page that kindly provides links to browsers that would take dial-up users upwards of three hours to download? Remember, most people don't know what a browser is; they "log onto the Internet" in the only way they know how, and their money spends as well as anyone's.

The Answer

With all due respect, I suspect that this is precisely where the problem lies for which "designing for IE" was the solution: my guess is that, underneath all the arguments and marketshare quotings, the design-for-IE/ignore-the-rest camp has encountered a problem — that the websites they design are botched in non-IE browsers, and that fixing the problems was problematic. Otherwise, were they not encountering this problem, they wouldn't mention it and there would be no decision to make about "which browser to design for" because they'd be designing to be cross-browser compatible. Right?

Here's the thing, though: IE displays pretty well, but Microsoft has once again ensured that it diverged from the World Wide Web Consortium specifications that it agreed to. Create a website that displays well in IE and the site may magically have problems in other browsers. So if you design for IE, it means you may be designing non-standardly. And that's a problem … especially if you're counting on MS never to change its mind about Web Standards.

Of course, it's entirely possible to design and build websites that display and function correctly in both IE and other modern browsers … but it will be for IE that you'll be implementing workarounds to bridge its faults. As to the others, it's difficult to consider "workarounds" for browsers that display according to standards in the first place. ;-)

One Comment to "What browser do you design for?"

  1. DianeV says:

    Just to clarify, the easiest method of designing cross-browser compatible sites is to test in a more compliant browser while building. Then test in IE, make any IE-necessary tweaks, and there you go.

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