Pixel Acres

When to stop testing?

As a web developer there comes a time when you need to consign a browser to the dustbin of history, and remove it from your testing suite. It’s a decision I find difficult to make – I am a visual designer and hate the idea that a website I built might look less than perfect for anyone at all. But to offer our audience an experience that takes advantage of the best the web has to offer, it is necessary to weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few. In this article I will look at some best practices for dropping support for a browser, and suggest a list of browsers that make the cut (and ones that don’t).

Plan ahead

When beginning a web design project, it is important to determine at the outset which browsers you plan to support. The final decision depends on several variables: the website’s intended audience, your budget, and the project deadline all need to be factored in. If your budget or timeline are tight then it’s unrealistic to expect you’ll be able to give your site thorough testing in every browser you can get your hands on, but make sure to set your baseline low enough to cover as much of your audience as you can realistically afford.

Below the baseline

To be clear, when I talk about “supporting” a browser, I mean testing that your site design renders as expected. Your site’s content should ideally be accessible to any user agent that supports HTML.

Just because a browser falls below your baseline doesn’t mean that its users should be barred from your website, or forced to suffer a broken, nonfunctional interface. I won’t argue the comparative benefits of graceful degradation and progressive enhancement here, suffice it to say that both approaches have the same goal: ensuring that users of legacy and outdated browsers will still be able to access and enjoy your website.

The key to ensuring your website remains functional in older user agents is to make sure that users of legacy browsers can still access your basic content and navigate your site. That way, even though your site may not look as pretty as it does in modern a modern web browser, at least its content is still accessible. An ugly site beats a broken site every time!

Which browsers to test in

Which browsers make the cut, and which ones are simply not worth the time or effort to test in? I’ve asked this question in a few of the web design forums I frequent, and the consensus seemed to be that the following browsers should form the core of any testing suite:

Internet Explorer 7 (PC)

Spurred on my the skyrocketing popularity of Firefox, Microsoft have finally resumed development of Internet Explorer. While far from perfect, this new release is a quantum leap forward from IE6. Once IE7 usage eclipses that of IE6, we can look forward to much faster development times as a result of greater parity between the various browsers. So far adoption of IE7 has been fairly fast, but will really take off once the Vista OS is released.

Internet Explorer 6 (PC)

IE6 still has the lion’s share of the browser market, so for the time being this is the browser the majority of your website visitors will be using. To say that IE6 is ‘quirky’ would be an understatement, but by now I’m sure we’re all used to working around its eccentricities. Sigh.

Firefox 1.5 or higher (PC/Mac)

I use Firefox 2 as my default browser, and the first browser I test in during a site’s development. Its standards support and CSS implementation are top notch (outdone only my Opera).

Safari 1.3 or higher (Mac)

Hats off to Apple for kicking IE/Mac to the curb. I do my web development on a PC, and intermittently test my sites in Safari to make sure there are no major rendering issues.

It’s a lean looking list, but will cover approximately 97% of your audience – all other web browsers combined account for a mere 3% of the web browser market. At a minimum, you should be testing every site you design in the four browsers I have listed above. If you develop on a PC then access to Safari might be difficult to organize, in which case a service such as browsercamp might come in handy.

The “also-rans”

Below I have listed the browsers that almost get a foot in the door, but don’t necessarily muster a large enough user base to justify the time required to test in them. Having said that, if your project timeline allows it I would certainly recommend taking the time to fire up these browsers and give your site the once over for any obvious problems. The more browsers you manage to test in, the better.

Opera

A lot of people swear by Opera, and it has the best standards support of any browser, but unfortunately it fails to pass the 1% test (its market share is less than 1%, which in my mind is too small to justify the time & cost required to support it). Luckily, if your site is standards compliant and works in Firefox, it’ll probably pass muster in the latest version of Opera too.

Internet Explorer 5.x (PC)

This one is contentious. Combined, IE5 & IE5.5 still retain a little over 1% market share. But with Internet Explorer 7 now released into the wild, how many versions of IE can we afford to cater for? I would suggest that designers need to consider their audience when making the decision whether to still support these legacy versions of IE. For government sites, or any website where accessibility is a high priority, it may still be a requirement that your site design renders well in IE5.x.

Internet Explorer 5.x (Macintosh)

This browser has probably wasted more of my testing hours than all other combined. Thankfully, Macintosh users have now almost completely migrated to Safari or Firefox, and IE/Mac is dead in the water. Good riddance, I say!

Netscape

Once the king of the browser game, Netscape took a real hammering from Internet Explorer in the late 90s, and never managed a comeback. Their browser has gotten consistently better with recent versions, and as with Opera, if your website tests out OK in Firefox it’ll probably run well in Netscape 7 and 8 too.

Looking ahead

We’re at an exciting moment in the history of browser development. While the fight for web standards is certainly not over, the browser manufacturers definitely all seem to be pointed in the right direction. With the release of the next-generation browsers, led by Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2, we are starting to see differentiation based on UI features rather than proprietary rendering technologies. This new “browser war” is nothing like the dirty fight that characterized the browser landscape in the late 90s, when the real casualties were web developers and their audience. If the current trend towards consistent implementation of standards across continues, then we can look forward to the day when we can “build once, view anywhere”, and cross browser testing becomes an irrelevance. Of course, my utopian view of the future doesn’t factor in the impact that mobile web devices such as cell phones and PDAs are almost certain to have – but let’s save that can of worms for another article!

3 Responses to “When to stop testing?”

  1. Ephram Zerb says:

    I agree with a lot of your recommendations. However, I wouldn’t consign Opera to the “also-rans” category. For one, it has exceptional standards support. As you mention, you aren’t liable to run into any render issues if your site looks good in Firefox. Its value is not so much the screen support (which is excellent), but the “Small Screen” View mode. This rendering mode gives you insight on how your website will look like in the Opera Mini browser – a mobile browser with millions of users worldwide.

    Even if there is no budget for adding mobile functionality to a website, at the very least, you can get a good idea of how the website will degrade to the mobile medium. And if there is money in the budget, it serves as a great mobile development environment for CSS / (X)HTML-based sites.

    Not to mention, Opera’s tool that allows you to scale the website by a % is a fun and potentially insightful way to assess your design. (You might need to click on the glasses in the upper right corner of the browser to activate the feature).

    I also agree with your take on IE 5.x PC, there are probably very few websites that would benefit from supporting it. For everyone else, it’s largely a waste of resources.

    As for the fight for web standards, I think it’s been won. Now it’s time to quell the civil wars. But that’s digressing too much.

  2. Jonathan says:

    @Ephram Zerb: Great tip about using Opera’s “Small Screen” view to see how well how a site will hold up in Opera Mini. I hadn’t used this feature before, and it looks like a fantastic testing tool. I’ve never specifically optimized a site for mobile devices, and it’s heartening to see how well Opera Mini will treat even an unoptimized site.

  3. Ephram Zerb says:

    Attention to semantic HTML will take you far in the mobile medium with minimal optimization.

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