Jason on
11th May 2017

WordPress’s core development team recently announced that it would drop support for Internet Explorer versions earlier than v11. With Microsoft now focusing on its developer-friendly Edge brower, the last issues remaining with Microsoft’s once-dominant browser are being put out to pasture.

WordPress’s decision was a logical one; Microsoft itself dropped security and development support for Microsoft Explorer versions 8, 9, and 10 in January of 2016. Globally, as of May 2017, IE11 use averages just 4% of all web browsing, while all previous versions added together constitute just 1.16% of browsing activity. With Google’s Chrome browser now making up over 50% of global browsing, the writing was on the wall for what’s left of Internet Explorer.

When a browser developer drops support for an older version of its product, web developers are rarely far behind. Believe us – when you have to spend hours retrofitting new work around the limitations of older software which is used by just a handful of edge cases, the decision is a no-brainer.

WordPress and older versions of Internet Explorer

WordPress will, of course, continue to work on older versions of Internet Explorer – both on the front end visible to the public and the back end visible to site administrators. The difference is that when features no longer work, neither WordPress nor Microsoft will fix them, nor will the users of older browsers be able to see new features built for current systems. If web sites look different, incomplete, or even a complete mess in an older browser, there is not much developers can (or are willing) to do.

For WordPress users, the biggest issue with dropped support for old versions of Internet Explorer concerns, TinyMCE, the formatting toolbar used within WordPress posts and pages. TinyMCE’s own development team also recently dropped support for older versions of Internet Explorer. This does raise the risk that bloggers using older systems and browsers will find the writing and editing process more challenging and, for some of them, impossible.

The debate over what, if anything, WordPress’s core development team should do about this, a debate which once again raises the issue of how much time and energy should be devoted to retrofitting fixes for a very small percentage of users, remains unresolved.

Empathy in design

On paper, the end of support for older versions of Internet Explorer should not be that big of a deal. But while older Microsoft browsers may have dwindled to a tiny handful of data points, it is important to put those data points in context.

Anecdotally, we at Design33 have seen many corporate systems – particularly in public sector workspaces such as schools, libraries, and councils – which are locked down to surprisingly old Microsoft systems. It is not uncommon, for example, to see Windows XP still in use in libraries. We also saw a charity whose systems were provided by their local council, and their computers were so tightly locked down by central corporate IT, inclusive of the horrible Internet Explorer 8, that their web site looked completely different to them than it did on our state-of-the-art screens.

Another public sector group which relies heavily on older Microsoft systems is the NHS. On one site we recently reviewed which was created primarily for use by NHS clinicians, Internet Explorer versions 8, 9, 10, and 11 still constitute 27% of that site’s visits.

So it’s important to remember that the people accessing a WordPress site on older browsers are institutional, and therefore the least likely to have any control over their systems or software. Library use also implies that these users do not have PCs or smartphones at home, and therefore are likely to have very low levels of computer literacy. Think of the people who use library PCs: jobseekers under duress, refugees who speak little English, older people just browsing. Think of the stressed NHS clinician just trying to look up some information.

If your WordPress site targets a public sector audience, then, don’t punish them for being in that position. We have all seen popups and dropdowns frightening site visitors with warnings of dire consequences for using older browsers, nagging reminders to update, or even inappropriate personal abuse at users of old browsers. None of those tactics have a place on the modern web. Instead, gently advise your users that certain effects may not work on their older systems.

The true test of a designer lies in their ability to understand their audience, empathise with their limitations, and design an appropriate body of work. Consider the limitations of those older browsers from the first day of your discovery process; check that any third-party plugins and features are compatible or, for that matter, visible; don’t go over the top with unnecessary effects that don’t really serve a purpose; and do not require minimum browser versions or features for basic site access.

If you do need to design for users on older and unsupported browsers, consider it a creative challenge to meet rather than a technical problem to overcome.