4 Questions to Ask Before Ending Your Web Apps’ Older Browser Support
Test and Monitor | Posted February 12, 2014

As a Web developer, you might instinctively cringe when your new consulting client or user department requests support for IE6 or Safari 5.1. Before you rattle off your reasons for ending older browser support, run through this checklist of questions to ask the client.

Despite the happy acceptance of Internet standards, not every Web browser supports those standards in the same way – or even bothers to pretend it’s doing so. We all know developers who have spent days – days, I tell you! – fixing one snippet of code because it doesn’t work right in an older version of Internet Explorer when their clients demand IE6 support or some such. That happens even when the developer is sure that under 1% of the site’s users run that browser, and who the heck cares about the people who can’t bother to upgrade after 10 years?

Depending on a variety of factors, dropping support for outdated browsers isn't always the best direction for an organization. Before automatically ruling out support for older browsers, you should make sure the lack of support won't damage online business. Answers to these four questions will help you decide whether supporting older browsers makes business sense, or no sense at all. Or, at least, by asking these questions of your user or consulting client, you can help the client come to his own conclusion that perhaps that software requirement is just an eensy bit ridiculous.

Who Visits the Site?

“The question of browser support heavily depends on your customer base,” says Curtis “Ovid” Poe, a Perl consultant and author of Perl Hacks. Poe says that if your client runs a gaming company, for example, they probably don't care as much about older browsers, as their customers tend to be younger and thus more likely to upgrade their browsers.

One of Poe’s clients, however, still wants support for IE6, IE7, and IE8 – and for good reason. A company selling vacation packages, for example, is not targeting the same customers a gaming company wants. “They're targeting people with both free time and disposable income,” Poe explains. “Those tend to be older people and are exactly the sort of people who are likely to run Windows and use the default browser, and are less likely to upgrade their computer systems.” In this case, despite only holding a small percentage of the market share, older browsers are common among select populations. As Poe points out, many businesses would be flushing money down the drain to ignore potential customers.

Still, any client determined to attract and keep these customers is in a predicament. “My client is less concerned about Chrome and Firefox because those users tend to upgrade more often,” Poe says, “But my client strongly want to upgrade to jQuery 2.x. Unfortunately, that version of jQuery has dropped support for versions of IE lower than IE9.” And as Poe points out, the open-source world is built by people who don't want to be hobbled by (or who don't have the resources to support) older technologies. On the other hand, developers willing to support older browsers might be able to cater to a niche market willing to pay for their services.

What Do the Analytics Say?

Sometimes the client says that its customers are using older browsers, but traffic analytics might indicate otherwise. “If a client has Google Analytics [or other analytics tool] installed on their website, it helps us to see specifically what browser version their audience is using,” says Glenn Romanelli, president of Lighthaus Design. If analytics confirm that a large percentage of site visitors are using an obsolete browser version, Romanelli’s company will offer design support for it, which usually increases design and programming costs by about 20%.

When analytics showed that fewer than 2% of their site visitors were using IE7 or older, Phil Lang, owner of suitey.com, an online real estate brokerage in New York City, stopped supporting the dated browsers. The amount of time and service required to support the older browsers didn't make sense for his company. “Instead of supporting those browsers, we place a banner across the site that asks people to download a more modern browser and gives contact information if they would like to get in touch with an agent at the company to speak about their real estate search in lieu of searching online,” Lang says.

Before you take this approach, however, your clients will want to see how much recommending upgrades to newer browsers will affect their business. Poe says that A/B testing on his client's site showed that urging customers to upgrade led to lower conversion rates.

How Does the Old Browser Affect Site Functionality?

What your client wants its site to do and how they want it to look also determines which browsers you can support. A website that needs to take advantage of modern features may rule out support for a Web browser that completely lack a required plug-in or otherwise simply cannot do the job.

Jeff Kear, co-owner of Planning Pod, a SaaS company that provides online event management software, says that when new technologies become available that vastly improve user experience, his organization stops supporting older browsers that limit that experience. “Good examples of new technologies over the last few years are HTML5, jQuery standardization, and CSS3 protocols,” Kear says. “For example, when these new platforms/offering became available, it was a no-brainer for us to stop supporting Internet Explorer 9. And once we stop supporting a browser, we will not support it for any user or charge a premium for supporting old browsers. It is financially not worth it on our end to do so.”

How Much Extra Work Is Required?

Is the extra work required to support older browsers worth your time and the client's money? “On some more complex designs, including JavaScript transitions or CSS3 transitions, that could take an extra 40%-50% just to translate the entire thing for IE7,” says Asaf Zamir, a freelance Web and mobile developer.

That price isn’t just in dollars. It’s in time, too. Most users want their software developers to deliver the application as soon as possible. If the development staff (in-house or contract) has to spend time making the flyovers display correctly in a browser that only a tiny percentage of users need, that’s time not spent on the cool features they’re really paying for. So it’s not just “How much extra is the client willing to spend?” but “How much longer will she wait for it?”

Software developer Jameson Quave charges extra for supporting older browsers because of the extra development time. “There are solutions such as modernizr to make it easier to support old browsers, but in the end testing will usually show certain features behave differently in various browsers,” he says. Quave's development rates for supporting older browsers scales with the number of features built into the site. “For example, a simple website like craigslist doesn't need much work to make it work in IE6; it's nearly a text-based website with almost no client-side features using complex JavaScript,” he explains. “Meanwhile, a site like Facebook would be much more complex.” When a client sees a price tag attached to the support for older browsers, they might reconsider their options.

(In this article, I didn't mean to pick on Internet Explorer, but it tends to pop up as a frequent offender in the real-life examples according to my sources; however, despite free update options, many people are still using older versions of Safari, too.)

So when do you decide to end support for an older browser? How do you break the news to your users or client (other than, “We’ll support that over my dead body!”?) Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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