In a fashion vaguely reminiscent of the process by which weeds keep growing back no matter how you try to rid yourself of them, the question of browser market share has once again been rearing its foul, misshapen head. Dan kicked off a round of it over at Simplebits, but it’s recently been popping up other places as well. I heard discussions about market share at SES Chicago, perhaps unsurprisingly, but I’ve also been seeing the question on various mailing lists and other forums.
The only thing more frustrating than the persistent recurrence of this unnecessary question is the inappropriate gravity it seems to acquire in so many minds.
Look, I’ll make this very simple for everyone. If you’re trying to figure out what browsers to support (or not) in terms of layout consistency on a given site, then the answer is very easy. Whatever the site’s access logs tell you. End. Of. Story!
For example, the stats for the past few days’ worth of visitors to Complex Spiral Consulting tell me the following:
|User Agent||Portion of hits|
(For those who are curious, IE5.5 makes up 0.8% of hits. Various flavors of IE5.x below IE5.5 total roughly 1.2%, but note that Windows and Mac users are lumped together there.)
Those statistics tell me quite a bit about the people who visit the CSC site, and I can use that information to decide what to do about browser support. You know what those numbers tell you about which browsers to support (or not) in your designs for sites on which you work? Absolutely squat. Anyone who uses those access statistics to make decisions for their own work is a fool, and a misinformed fool at that.
In every design, we have to ask what browsers need to have a consistent experience, which ones can be given a reduced experience, and which ones get no design at all. The user logs from another site are useless in trying to make this decision. The “global statistics” from firms like WebSideStory are just as useless in this case. They may be entirely accurate, but they are also entirely irrelevant when it comes to making design support decisions. The only stats that matter are the ones that come from the site you’re designing.
In a like manner, I don’t care if you think visitors to your site or some other favorite site of yours are an accurate reflection of the overall Internet population or not: that opinion is similarly irrelevant. It’s rather like me claiming that the people who come to our annual holiday party are an accurate reflection of partygoers in general. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but either way I don’t think you should plan your all-night rave to accomodate the kinds of people who drop by our house to have homemade bread and soup and chat about babies, politics, science-fiction movies, and the weather. And vice versa.
(Do remember that your site’s stats may reflect its current behavior instead of your potential audience. If your site is already broken past the point of usefulness in Safari, then you’re going to see very low Safari numbers. Make sure that you’re comparing apples to apples, and only compare the numbers in your access logs for browsers that can already use the site.)
As for the related question of “at what percentage level do I decide a browser isn’t worth bothering about”—well, that’s really up to you, isn’t it? I certainly can’t tell you when it’s worthwhile to stop worrying about IE5.0, or Netscape 4.7, or Mosaic 1.2. I know what I think is appropriate for the sites I work on—and the process of finding the answer is different for every site. It has to be, because every site is different.
Now, if you want to share your user demographics with anyone who wants a peek, hey, have fun with that. If data exhibitionism is your thing, who am I to judge? Just don’t pretend that the bits of data you’re exposing to the world are representative of everyone else’s, because I guarantee you that they are not. As for anyone who happens to glance at your data: I hope they realize the same thing.