The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML

by @edent | # # # # | 45 comments | Read ~56,373 times.

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.

Twitter's guest mode displayed on a TV.

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.


Here are some stats on games consoles visiting GOV.UK

45 thoughts on “The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML

  1. Sandra says:

    @Edent
    Oh, wow, this story reminds me that we still need to figure out how to solve that TLS issue for old devices.💔

    1. Nony says:

      I think the solution is to reinstate HTTP as a first-class Web technology for informational sites.

    2. Andie says:

      You can use Opera Mini, which is still supported even on J2ME devices.

    3. Dan says:

      Ugh I know one of my clients is using Nokia Series 60 phones to collect data and all certs are passed their validation date for the latest version of J2ME that is running on the phone.

  2. Matt Hobbs says:

    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.” 💯👏➕

  3. @Edent its the same outside the big cities in low-population-density countries like Canada or Australia: slow expensive Internet

  4. JulieG says:

    This is why the web will always be my first priority, even though developing apps is fun.

  5. Daniel Boone says:

    I think the shittiest browser I own is on a paperwhite Kindle. It’s pretty shitty. But I may well have worse, hidden in devices where I’ve never had reason to look.

    1. wizzwizz4 says:

      The Swindle Paperwhite’s browser is actually not that bad. It can do Cloudflare and hCaptcha… most of the time. (Sometimes it hangs.) I’d say it has approximate feature parity with IE11 (except for not being IE, of course).

  6. Aearil says:

    @Edent This one hit close to home: I spent my teenage years slowly scouring the web using my PSP, and yeah, you can forget about anything javascript heavy…Also, nowadays the PSP is near unusable: it’s got ancient TLS that isn’t supported anywhere anymore

  7. Kevin Thorpe says:

    I have poor eyesight, and it only gets worse with age. I also have some old monitors on my desk. I keep hassling the guys at work because I simply can’t use some of the stuff they’re building. No good it being pretty if it’s unusable.

    And things like angular single page apps are awful. Things simply don’t render or don’t work when you click sometimes and you have zero idea why.

    If I can’t use it on links (text mode browser) then as far as I’m concerned it’s broken. I know this is extreme but that’s what the web was for.

  8. µµ»» says:

    Really interesting article

  9. This is so important. Keeping things simple isn’t about dogma or making it hard or boring for devs, or unwhizzy to frustrate senior folks, it’s to make sure stuff works for most people in even the toughest circumstances.

  10. What a fantastic usability test!

    “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?”

  11. GOV.UK is so well designed and simple, relying mostly on HTML and CSS (in the best sense of the word) that it even works on my ancient Kindle 5 (no keyboard, no touchscreen, no bluetooth or backlight)


  12. fluffy says:

    Whenever I build a new website I skate make sure it’s at least basically navigable in lynx and w3m. I should dig out my old PSP as well.

    The TLS issue many people have noted is why I also don’t force my sites to https except for logging in and anything where privacy matters. Not everything needs to be secure, especially things that need to be accessible.

  13. mattl says:

    I wonder how to handle old browsers with no-longer-supported SSL and TLS support.

  14. @cadadr @Edent agreed. Current web trends favor those and only those who chase web trends that are themselves solving self-inflicted developer problems and the pressures of surveillance capitalism on computation

  15. superkuh says:

    I noticed in the photo of the (2015) car browser you show HTML mobile.twitter.com. Unfortunately twitter disabled this completely in 2021. The only way to get HTML twitter content is to use a third party application which calls the twitter API and then generates the HTML itself (like nitter.com).

  16. McNutt says:

    I think there’s likely an entire generation of web developers who should read this.

    shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

    1. Brian M says:

      100% yes – Some developers really need banning from the profession – Saw a fairly large website who’s developers/marketing department thought it was a great idea to have white text on a light grey background, guess they thought it looked cool. Of course such horrors can be done just as easily with good old HTML or the shiniest and newest framework/CSS!

  17. Lobsters says:

    The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML
    lobste.rs/s/glaa8z #web
    shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

  18. The unreasonable effectiveness of “unreasonable effectiveness” essays 😀

    Though I quite agree with this one, and would say it’s not just for public services – it’s for anything that is more “document” than “application”, which is actually a lot of the web.

  19. I even heard someone say that HTML isn’t a proper language a while back. We need more vocal advocates for why it was, and still is an important language. In other news, this search engine rocks for looking back at old HTML websites – https://wiby.me/

  20. shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…. Amen. Bring back simple web. I shouldn’t have to load 10GB of garbage and multiple copies of JS libraries to read an article.

  21. Ted says:

    My worst web browser is an old tablet running iOS 9. It’s new enough that everybody tries to serve up modern pages, but old enough that they don’t work.

  22. This here is why sites like nairaland will remain very active for the foreseeable future in countries like Nigeria where internet data is neither cheap nor bandwidth surplus. shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

  23. This is gatekeeping and “old man yells at the cloud” content I totally support. 👌

    shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

    danluu.com/web-bloat/

  24. Love to see the way GOV.UK pages are built praised here. They’ll probably render on your toaster since they’re not full of JavaScript that only works in the latest version of a big advertising company’s browser. shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

  25. limejet says:

    This is an important anecdote: shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

    It’s never about building the flashiest thing, it’s about making sure that your thing is usable. Accessible to everyone. If you’re making user-facing services, you should basically be testing them on, like, a Wii.

  26. Nearly every time I’m forced to load gigabytes of JavaScript I don’t want to have running on my device, I’m reminded of the unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML. And I think about switching back to lynx for all my browsing needs. shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

  27. Plaidoyer pour que les sites utiles soient développés en HTML basique, pour être accessibles par un maximum de gens. Lorsqu’on est en difficulté et a absolument besoin d’informations, on n’a pas forcément d’un navigateur capable d’exécuter des tonnes de JS
    shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

  28. Jez says:

    @Edent Project Gemini is a cool effort to move away from the ridiculous heavy modern Web, like a modern take on gopher https://gemini.circumlunar.space/

    Project Gemini

  29. Mehdi says:

    Before 2016, I had no smartphone, so my only way to browse the web and share stuff on Twitter on the go was to use the Nintendo 3DS browser on Wi-Fi hotspots.

  30. Ian Guest says:

    Particularly sobering in these times when we’ve been obliged to attempt to support so much pupil leaning online
    shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

    via @dajbelshaw via @johnjohnston

  31. shkspr.mobi/blog/2021/01/t…

    여기에 대해 사람들이 단계적 기능 축소graceful degradation라느니 자바스크립트 없는 웹 개발이라느니 그런 기술적인 논의가 많지만, 나는 GOV.UK라는 서비스를 가능케 한 정부 디지털 서비스(GDS, gds.blog.gov.uk)가 훨씬 중요하다 생각한다.

  32. Sergei Gribovskii says:

    That is all true if only I care about people with the old tech. But if they are not even close to my potential clients I won’t bother making my service ugly just because some guy with a 15 years old phone can not use it. If they can’t use it but what they will have to update to a new device/OS.

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