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Browsers we support and why

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content design, GOV.UK, Technology

Our goal is to make GOV.UK the best designed, most accessible Government website to date. To realise this aim we maintain a relentless focus on user need, therefore what browser people use when they access GOV.UK is critically important. It boils down to a simple question; what are we going to support and why?

What does “support” mean?

In simple terms, support means making sure GOV.UK displays correctly and key functions work. The golden rule is that we will test GOV.UK on any browser that has over 2% usage as per the Government’s own  guidelines.

Not all browsers will render web pages in the same way, often there is a marked difference between browsers in the way that they handle technologies like cascading style sheets (CSS), HTML and javascript.

We are not trying to make the site pixel perfect, but users must be able to access and use the critical information and features on GOV.UK, regardless of which browser they use. This approach, known as progressive enhancement, means features that rely on the latest browser technologies will fall away for browsers that don’t support them without adversely affecting the user experience.

Our thinking on browser support is similar to that of the BBC. To get the most detailed picture and inform our thinking, we analysed data from large traffic sites including Directgov, NHS Choices and the BBC.

The curse of IE6

Anyone familiar with presentations about will have seen some of the design rules we defined at the beginning of the project. One of the more controversial was our decision not to support Microsoft’s IE6 browser. There are host of technical reasons why not, not least Microsoft’s own marketing campaign to kill off its least loved and now seriously outdated browser. This decision was confirmed by Dave Coplin (below) of Microsoft who recently hosted UKGovCamp 2012.

Dave Coplin at UKGovcamp 2012.Picture courtesy of Ann Kempster / Flickr

Thankfully, IE6 usage is in freefall, with only 1.4% of overall UK web traffic in December 2011, compared to 2.8% when launched in May 2011. At the moment, only 3% of Directgov visitors use IE6, down from 3.4% three months ago, confirming this rapid downward trend.

Many Government departments and local authorities are still tied to it, which may account for the proportion of Directgov users still using it. We know, for example, that only 2.5% of BBC users had IE6 by autumn 2011.

GOV.UK will function adequately on IE6, although there are likely to be some issues with display. Given the ever decreasing number of people actually using it, we won’t be able to dedicate too much development resource to this dying browser as we would rather concentrate our efforts on those browsers and mobile devices which are in the ascendancy.

James Weiner is Front End lead on GOV.UK

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  1. Comment by greg posted on

    Is there a list of Government websites that qualify for the 2% usage? The Forestry Commission LIS viewer ( has an online facility that only works on Internet Explorer. As I'm interested in what forestry we UK citizens still own, I think this is a very worthy candidate for the standardisation rollout.

  2. Comment by Steve Mattheson posted on

    So why is it that a friend of mine who is trying to enter data into a large form on your site gets timed out very quickly. None of their data is saved, and when they do enter the info in on time - the page errors and they lose everything they entered. Sounds like Hell on Earth to me.

    • Replies to Steve Mattheson>

      Comment by nettienwilliams posted on

      Hi Steve - could you tell us what the form was and any other specifics? We'll then be able to give a fuller and more helpful response. Thanks.

  3. Comment by Browser usage on GOV.UK | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] this year James Weiner and Ben Welby wrote about the browsers and devices that we are supporting on GOV.UK. We made these [...]

  4. Comment by What devices are we supporting at launch, and why? | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] January James Weiner wrote a little about the browsers we support and during the summer we revisited that question to decide which operating systems, screen sizes [...]

  5. Comment by Gavin Fordyce posted on

    So....a menu page in front of all the existing gvernment departments homepages -- if it isn't, why does it need to be any more than this?

    This looks like finding a use for computers rather than having a problem that happens to be best solved by computers.

    Direct Gov works very well --leave it alone

  6. Comment by JR posted on

    Not supporting IE6 makes strong commercial sense but please get the message to senior civil servants who can make the decision to upgrade the government systems to a newer browser!

    We are constantly told that there will be no shift to anything newer than IE6. It is likely that if it does change, this will take many years of 'planning' and by the time it is implemented, the new browser will be old!

  7. Comment by Using HTML5 for GOV.UK | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] content of the application is still available to browsers that don’t support it. Over time, as our browser support statistics indicate, we’ll be introducing new features and relying less on fall-back [...]

  8. Comment by js posted on

    You guys seem to be catching civil servant virus.

    Don't apologise for not supporting IE6 because a bunch of whitehall and local gov workers still use it.

    Instead you should celebrate it - when they can't read your site any more their bosses will be forced to upgrade at long last. They might even get a 21st century version of Flash in the process!

    • Replies to js>

      Comment by robaldred (@robaldred) posted on

      Agree completely, The amount of time development companies waste on support for IE6 and even IE7 is ridiculous. No wonder these out of date browsers never die, sites continue to support them.

  9. Comment by Andy W posted on

    I don't understand... you say the government requires you to support browsers with over 2% usage, then say DirectGov has 3% IE6 usage, but you won't support it.

    Are you planning on waiting for IE6 to drop below 2% before relaunching ?

    • Replies to Andy W>

      Comment by James Taylor posted on

      @AndyW - I think James was suggesting that we can tell from our metrics that much of the IE6 traffic on Directgov is from Govt and local authority sites and that is falling rapidly anyway. As he says, though, the site will function on IE6. The COI guidelines on browser usage are here:

  10. Comment by James Weiner posted on

    @yahoo_pete & @edent - keep an eye on the blog - I believe we'll be discussing our thoughts on mobile (and probably responsive design specifically) soon.

  11. Comment by James Young posted on

    Glad to hear IE6 is finally in decline and nice to see one of the "traditional" user groups (govt sites in general) are approaching this in a more progressive way and actually being allowed to 🙂

    Don't know if it's any interest / use for those still having to support IE6 but I think there's possibly some scope for delivering a "mobile" experience with relatively little fuss -

    Cheers and keep up the posts, really enjoying the open sharing of development process!


  12. Comment by edent posted on

    So, my big question - what are you doing about mobile?

    More and more browsing in being undertaken on the phone. And not all of it by super-duper phones like iPhone and Android.

    Will you be making an m. variant? Serve up a mobile version as per the one-web? Responsive design? Something else?

  13. Comment by Peter Herlihy (@yahoo_pete) posted on

    Good point, well made. What's the plan/timing on responsive design...?