The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML

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

51 thoughts on “The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML

    1. says:

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

    2. 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.

  1. 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." 💯👏➕

  2. 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).

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?"

  7. 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)

  8. 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.

  9. @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

  10. says:

    I noticed in the photo of the (2015) car browser you show HTML 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

    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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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 -

  13. 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.

  14. says:

    This is an important anecdote:…

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. So? Who said you needed to make your service ugly to make it accessible? Esthetic pleasure and usability are not inherently at odds. I personally choose to have an ugly website but it is because of my own esthetic preferences. You should find trying to get to data on it an unremarkable and inoffensive experience, on everything from lynx on a Pentium Pro with 192MB of whatever RAM they used to use back then and a slow ATA disk to Chrome on your 64-core Threadripper box with 128GB of fast DDR4 and 3-way NVM Express SSD RAID.

  17. says:

    이걸 잘 따른 예시가 영국 정부 사이트. 간단한 HTML만으로 쓰여있어서 거의 모든 브라우저에서 작동한다. 심지어는 스마트 TV나 자동차 네비게이션의 웹 브라우저에서도 잘 확인할 수 있다고.…

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