Site Testing with Text Based Browsers

I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep tabs on yourself by properly testing your site in various environments. Cross platform, cross browser, and also just as important: cross technology. Many times, developers feel that if their code is valid, they’re good to go. Validity is very important, yes, but if a document doesn’t have semantic value, the validity is just a W3C badge you can include. A great way to visualize the semantics of a document is to disable the style of the document and see it naked. Another method I use on any site I develop is to give it a once-over using a text based browser. Very often will it put a spotlight on a section of the site that doesn’t have semantic markup and needs some attention.

Testing with text based browsers

In my opinion, testing with a text based browser will be the most true-to-life test case for the average developer. With a text based browser, you’ll be having an identical experience as someone who is actually using that technology on your website.

Current browser statistics, for the most part, are very vague when it comes to specifying text based browsers. They’re often classified into the ‘other’ or ‘unknown’ categories and more attention is given to the modern graphical browsers. It’s true; not many people are using text based browsers as their primary vehicle to browse the Internet, I’m not trying to say that there are. I do feel that it is an important technology to test with, however.

Text based browsers are a great way to get a look at the semantics of your document. Can you still determine the section layout of your document within a text based browser? Does the alternate content for your images make sense in all cases? How do the forms work? Is your navigation still effective? Those questions and more can be answered in full after spending 5 minutes testing in a text based Web browser. There are many text based browsers to choose from, and like graphical browsers, they all behave a bit differently and have separate traits.

Lynx

Lynx was the first text based browser I was exposed to, so I find myself testing with it by default.

[Screenshot of MondayByNoon.com using Lynx]

Lynx was originally designed for UNIX and is easily run in Linux after compiling from source, or installing through your distribution package management (if it’s available). There are also versions available for Windows (DOS) or Mac OS X.

The one thing to keep in mind with Lynx is that it will transform any tabular structure you have come up with into a linear display, effectively lining up the data cells one after the other. Not all text based browsers behave like this, but it’s important to keep in mind as Lynx is probably the most popular console browser.

Yellowpipe Lynx Viewer Firefox extension

There is also a Firefox extension which will emulate Lynx. While it’s nice for quick tests, it doesn’t give you the interactive aspect that’s also quite important to test the experience you have using a text based browser. Links are no longer active, and you can use a scrollbar to scroll the content, whereas keystrokes will scroll in Lynx.

[Screenshot of MondayByNoon.com using the Yellowpipe Lynx Viewer Firefox Extension]

The actual output also includes ads for the Yellowpipe service which, although small, is quite annoying to me. Given the ability to install Lynx on any platform, using this extension doesn’t seem like a solid choice.

Links

Links is another text based Web browser that stands out with it’s support for tables and frames.

[Screenshot of MondayByNoon.com using Links]

Testing with Links can come in handy if you’d like to retain the structure of your data tables, but other than that I find myself resorting to Lynx by default. Again, this browser was developed for UNIX/Linux systems but there are also installs for Mac OS X, Windows (beta), FreeBSD, and more. There are also hacked versions of Links available as ELinks and Hacked Links which are variants of the original application.

w3m

w3m begins to blur the lines of a text based browser. This application will actually include various inline images where it deems appropriate. I never find myself using this particular browser for actual testing for that reason.

[Screenshot of MondayByNoon.com using w3m]

Unlike the previous examples, there aren’t cross platform binaries for w3m available for download.

Update
Thanks to Bob’s comment, you can run w3m on a Windows machine using Cygwin. Thanks Bob!

Text based testing is easy

If you don’t currently give your sites a quick run through with a text based browser, it’s a good habit to get into. It really helps you keep an eye on the semantics of your document, and it also gives you a new look into the usability of your website as a whole. At the same time, you’re able to see how your documents behave without all that fancy Ajax you have going on.