how not to develop websites

It amazes me time and time again how certain websites are designed/administered. In particular, government websites. Let it be known my rant starts here.

Laughing in the face of the credit crunch I recently booked a trip to Australia. As it turned out, it was almost as cheap to go via the US with a stopover in San Francisco, which I duly accepted. However, as I was now staying in the US for a day or two, I had to apply for a ESTA – this has to been done at least 72 hours before travel. Fair enough.

So off I trotted to Google and searched for “ESTA”. The searched showed that the most likely place to complete my ESTA was at the link However, clicking on the link returned the page shown in the screenshot below. Hence, I thought the site must be down, and that I’d come back later. I then tried later that day and it still wasn’t working so I ended up leaving it for a while (by a while I mean a month or so).

ESTA website error screenshot

ESTA website error screenshot

Then last night I thought I’d better try again, but nothing, the same page. It was late, so I thought I would leave it again until the morning. However, the morning greeted me with the same error page once again. With my suspicions now raised and due to the departure date looming over me, I searched on Google to see if anyone else was getting this problem. Nothing, no mention of anything. Strange.

It then dawned on me that it might be the browser. So I loaded up the page in IE7 and bang it worked. I mean how shite is that? They should have at least have given a warning that my browser (Chrome) wasn’t supported. Instead I have wasted time trying to figure out what the hell was wrong.

Maybe I should have tried an alternative browser sooner but I was given no indication that this might be the problem. In my eyes this is a colossal FAIL. In fact, the only reason I decided to check in another browser was that the UK Government was considering a similar stance with browsers it did not believe it should support. The following excerpt is taking from the Boagworld podcast #135:

Apparently, the UK government believes we should test on the basis of popularity. In a draft document advising public sector websites, it suggests that if a browser appears in visitor logs as being below an arbitrary percentage of total “unique visitors”, then it should not be listed as being “fully supported”.

As the guys over at Boagworld stated, this may seem like a sensible move, but in fact it’s not, and I refer you to the comment quoted by Jon Hicks.

It isn’t clear how the supported browser list would be enforced, but I’m concerned that this approach will encourage browser sniffing, a move that will exclude browsers like Omniweb,Shiira and iCab, simply because their name isn’t ‘Safari’. They share the exact same rendering engine, and therefore require no further testing. You can be more inclusive without spending any extra resources.

So this brings us round to the issue of graceful degradation and progressive enhancement ([1][2]), as championed by Yahoo.  For those who don’t fancy following the links here are the definitions of each concept:

Graceful degradation: Providing an alternative version of your functionality or making the user aware of shortcomings of a product as a safety measure to ensure that the product is usable.

Progressive enhancement: Starting with a baseline of usable functionality, then increasing the richness of the user experience step by step by testing for support for enhancements before applying them.

Surely following either one of these approaches is the way forward?  Developing a website in this way will also improve the site in term of accessibility – the sooner someone gets prosecuted here under the disability discrimination act for this stuff the better. However, this methodology seems totally lost to the US government (and the UK government for that matter). Instead others will wonder why the hell they can’t get on the site from their “obscure” browsers. Hopefully this post may help them. Or maybe the US government will do the sensible thing and tell us why we can’t view the page, I won’t hold my breath though.