Accessibility and supporting Internet Explorer
Posted on by Graeme Coleman
Given that Internet Explorer 11 is now officially retired, organisations occasionally ask us if, from an accessibility perspective, they should continue to support the browser. In short, we're edging (no pun intended) towards dropping support, or at least phasing out support, in favour of Microsoft Edge. There are a few reasons for this, both technical and non-technical.
What do we mean by "support"?
Before presenting our reasons, however, it's worth pausing to define what we mean by "support" in this context, and why this is an issue for organisations to consider.
Broadly speaking, "support" can be thought of as the extent to which a browser renders web content to be usable and accessible. However, from an organisational perspective, there are a number of interrelated issues to consider.
The first issue relates to how an organisation defines "usable and accessible" in terms of their own specific web products. Different organisations will have their own unique perspectives on this. In one sense, an organisation may demand that their web product remains wholly functional and aesthetically pleasing across all browsers, even those that are obsolete. On the other hand, a different organisation may be satisfied if only key functionality is supported, and be willing to live with the fact that the product's "look-and-feel" isn't as slick as it is in other browsers. Here, the hope is that the product will technically still be accessible, but will offer less in the way of an overall positive user experience.
The second issue relates to how much effort an organisation is willing to expend to meet these goals within the context of an effectively obsolete browser. At best, developers may need to implement polyfills to provide modern day functionality that the browser does not support and, at worst, developers may have to resort to building a completely separate experience for people using that browser or even decide to dispense with up-to-date features altogether.
A final issue relates to the passing of time. With Microsoft taking the decision to drop support for Internet Explorer, any new web features introduced in the future are unlikely to work in this browser. People accessing a product that does not use those features may no longer be willing to accept alternative, lesser, experiences. And, at any point in time, those polyfills that the developers spent expensive time and effort building may simply break with no possibility for resolution or support from the browser vendor.
With this in mind, here are some specific areas to contemplate before making any decisions, but which we believe should encourage you to consider phasing out support for Internet Explorer.
A useful starting point is to consider actual usage amongst populations most likely to be affected by dropping Internet Explorer support.
The results of the latest WebAIM screen reader user survey from 2021 shows that only 3.3% of respondents used Internet Explorer as their primary browser, compared to 18.4% who use Microsoft Edge. This is a massive turnaround from the previous year's survey, in which 14.5% of respondents used a version of Internet Explorer compared to just 1.9% for Microsoft Edge.
While only a relatively small number of people respond to these surveys, which are predominately aimed at screen reader users rather than a wider population, this provides a good indication that there is increasing confidence in terms of using Microsoft Edge over Internet Explorer. It also suggests that the number of Internet Explorer users is likely to drop further.
Secondly, let's consider accessibility support.
The HTML5 accessibility support website shows that HTML5 features alone have an accessibility support rating of 100% compared to just 56% for Internet Explorer 11. While this rating relates specifically to HTML5 features, it is arguable that Edge provides a more accessible experience for people than Internet Explorer.
Assistive technology support
Thirdly, there are assistive technology support reasons.
One of the biggest arguments provided against upgrading to Microsoft Edge was due to its comparative lack of support for assistive technologies when compared to Internet Explorer and to other browsers. However, since 2020, Edge has been built on the Chromium browser engine, which is the same engine that Google Chrome uses, and which offers far improved accessibility support than the previous browser engine. Consequently, many organizations now encourage developers to use Chrome instead of Internet Explorer when testing with JAWS. See for example Gov.UK: Testing with assistive technologies and Gov.UK: Designing for different browsers and devices. As indicated in the latter link, Gov.UK suggests that you test with Internet Explorer only if your analytics data shows that at least 2% of users arrive at the service's start page using it.
Finally, there are practical reasons.
As time progresses, it is likely that fewer and fewer people will be able to use Internet Explorer to access services as their operating system encourages them to use Edge.
Of course, there will be some environments - such as public libraries and other large organisations - where people may be limited to using Internet Explorer due to restrictions placed on their machines. In such cases, and particularly if people in those environments make up a large percentage of your site visitors or users, you may need to reconsider dropping support.
Overall, and from a purely technical perspective, the benefits of phasing out support for Internet Explorer in favour of Microsoft Edge outweigh any risks involved, particularly given that Microsoft Edge leads in terms of accessibility support. However, every organisation is different, and you should think carefully before making a final decision. In particular, review your website usage analytics and carefully consider your audience so you can make a considered judgement about maintaining support or not.
Find out more about accessibility assessments and at TetraLogical, or read our introduction to Accessibility Conformance Reports.
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