Technology

The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML – Terence Eden’s Blog

I’ve told this story at conferences – but due to the general situation I thought I’d retell it here.

A few years ago I was doing policy research in a housing benefits office in London. They are singularly unlovely places. The walls are brightened up with posters offering helpful services for people fleeing domestic violence. The security guards on the door are cautiously indifferent to anyone walking in. The air is filled with tense conversations between partners – drowned out by the noise of screaming kids.

In the middle, a young woman sits on a hard plastic chair. She is surrounded by canvas-bags containing her worldly possessions. She doesn’t look like she is in a great emotional place right now. Clutched in her hands is a games console – a PlayStation Portable. She stares at it intensely; blocking out the world with Candy Crush.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

Walking behind her, I glance at her console and recognise the screen she’s on. She’s connected to the complementary WiFi and is browsing the GOV.UK pages on Housing Benefit. She’s not slicing fruit; she’s arming herself with knowledge.

The PSP’s web browser is – charitably – pathetic. It is slow, frequently runs out of memory, and can only open 3 tabs at a time.

But the GOV.UK pages are written in simple HTML. They are designed to be lightweight and will work even on rubbish browsers. They have to. This is for everyone.

Not everyone has a big monitor, or a multi-core CPU burning through the teraflops, or a broadband connection.

The photographer Chase Jarvis coined the phrase “the best camera is the one that’s with you“. He meant that having a crappy instamatic with you at an important moment is better than having the best camera in the world locked up in your car.

The same is true of web browsers. If you have a smart TV, it probably has a crappy browser.

My old car had a built-in crappy web browser.

The dashboard of a BMW i3 - there is a web browser on the central display.

Both are painful to use – but they work!

If your laptop and phone both got stolen – how easily could you conduct online life through the worst browser you have? If you have to file an insurance claim online – will you get sent a simple HTML form to fill in, or a DOCX which won’t render?

What vital information or services are forbidden to you due to being trapped in PDFs or horrendously complicated web sites?

Are you developing public services? Or a system that people might access when they’re in desperate need of help? Plain HTML works. A small bit of simple CSS will make look decent. JavaScript is probably unnecessary – but can be used to progressively enhance stuff. Add alt text to images so people paying per MB can understand what the images are for (and, you know, accessibility).

Go sit in an uncomfortable chair, in an uncomfortable location, and stare at an uncomfortably small screen with an uncomfortably outdated web browser. How easy is it to use the websites you’ve created?

I chatted briefly to the young woman afterwards. She’d been kicked out by her parents and her friends had given her the bus fare to the housing benefits office. She had nothing but praise for how helpful the staff had been. I asked about the PSP – a hand-me-down from an older brother – and the web browser. Her reply was “It’s shit. But it worked.”

I think that’s all we can strive for.

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