I was recently involved in a discussion about whether website designers should still be expected to accommodate Internet Explorer 6 users.

The case against accommodating IE 6 users is invariably backed up with statistics about how few people now use this, admittedly flawed, browser. I’ve heard ‘the statistics defence’ (as I will call it) so often over the years that this latest evocation prompted me to think about why I don’t agree with this approach.

Examples of the ‘statistics defence’:

“We design for 17″ screens because that’s what most people use these days”

“We assume 92dpi resolutions because most people use a PC”

“We use IE 7 as a baseline because very few people use older browsers now.”

“We don’t provide an alternative to our flash site, because everyone has the flash plugin these days.”

“We don’t need to make our site accessible because it isn’t aimed at, and doesn’t get used by disabled people.”

My arguments against this approach

I’ll give my conclusion first: content on web pages needs to be accessible to your visitors – irrespective of the ‘user agent’ they happen to be using.

The argument that we can ignore a particular set of users – because they only make up a small percentage of our audience (i.e. they use a particular browser or a particular bit of access technology) – isn’t one web designers should be buying into. It is irrelevant whether a person is using Netscape 4, Internet Explorer 6, a screen reader, or a keyboard driven text only browser – the issues are basically the same; it is about accessibility of web content.

The statistics defence assumes users needs and user agents are predictable

What assumptions do many web designers make about their intended audience. e.g. what browsers do they assume they are using? what Screen size? screen resolutions, bandwidth, colour palette? Are those assumptions based on the computer they have on their own desk, i.e., the one we are using to design the website? Probably – but is this a good approach? – probably not.

Have any of the following things changed in the past: browsers, hardware devices connected to the web, screen size, screen resolution, Markup versions? Will these things change in the future? Yes – all of them. Designing for a specific configuration of hardware and software isn’t a good way of making pages future proof. Even users with the same hardware and software resize their browser windows to suit their own preferences.

A vital lesson to learn is – change is the norm: the most predictable thing we can say is that everything changes. The best chance we have of dealing with this unpredictability is:

Use standards so that sites have the best chance of working on the widest range of user agents.

Create sites that are flexible enough to deliver our content – no matter what the end user is using.

That is not to say that the presentation will be the same on every device – it won’t be. The presentation is important – but if the content isn’t accessible – the presentation doesn’t matter – because there is nothing to present.

The web isn’t paper

Cross platform/cross browser compatibility is the strength of the web – that was the problem it was designed to solve. Designing a web page is not like designing an advert or a bus shelter or a magazine page or a document to be printed on a sheet of A4; where the amount of ‘real estate’, colours, text size and so on is predictable.

To take the specific issue of access for disabled people; do we have to accommodate the needs of disabled people? Do we have perfect knowledge about their access needs? The answer to the first question is yes; in the UK the law tells us that we can’t discriminate against disabled people. The answer to the second question is no; we don’t have perfect knowledge about the access needs of disabled people.

10% – 20% of people in most populations have some kind of impairment: some of those impairments are not obvious: 8% of men have colour blindness (0.4% women) – approx 5% pop with visual impairments – approx 5 – 15% Dyslexia. Once people get older (say over 40) their eyesight, hearing and motor skill start to deteriorate

In the university where I used to work had many disabled students – not all of them were registered as disabled, but approximately 500 were.

Impairment Approximate Numbers
Dyslexia 230
Blind/partially sighted 24
Deaf/partial hearing 25
Wheelchair.mobility 21
Autistic or Asperger 2
Mental health 10
Unseen disability (Epilepsy, diabetic,etc) 91
Disability not listed 101
Two or more of the above 21

We don’t have perfect knowledge about the access needs of each individual listed above – so we need general strategies to deal with this unpredictability. In terms of approach, dealing with the diverse needs of disabled students isn’t much different from dealing with the problem of making sites work on different browsers and different hardware platforms.

We have to assume that we don’t know what the end user will be using – or what their access requirements will be – and think about what this means when we make design decisions. If it turns out that our content isn’t accessible on a particular browser – we need to find a workaround to solve the issue (while maintaining standards markup and accessible design). There is always an answer – even if sometimes it takes a bit of time to find it.

We have to make our websites accessible because it is the law (in many countries).

In the UK we have the Equalities act: and in a university that means we can’t discriminate against a student on the grounds of their impairment; reasonable adjustment and anticipation of students needs is required.

We can’t argue that we won’t accommodate disabled students because they only make up a small percentage of the student population. Equally we shouldn’t argue that we won’t accommodate users with particular browsers because they are part of a minority. In relation to the particular case of Internet Explorer 6, it is legitimate to ask users to upgrade so that they get both the content and the good design – but not legitimate to argue that they won’t get the content at all if they don’t upgrade.

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