Progressive Enhancement Gets a Conference

by {"name"=>"Aaron Gustafson", "twitter"=>"AaronGustafson", "googleplus"=>"AaronGustafson"} on 15 February 2016

On March 4th, I’ll be in London to give the closing talk at EnhanceConf, the first conference dedicated progressive enhancement. Over the last few months, I’ve been talking to the conference’s organizer, Simon McManus, quite a lot. He’s put a lot of thought into the conference and I thought it might be interesting to interview him so he could share his motivations and hopes for the event.

Me: As a philosophy, progressive enhancement has been around for more than a dozen years. Why do you think it needs a conference now?

Simon: I first started thinking about EnhanceConf in 2014. At the time, Tom Dale had declared progressive enhancement dead and I had just heard Henrik Joreteg telling his Single Page Story.I was hearing lots of talk about progressive enhancement being hard and expensive when my experience showed quite the opposite.

It’s been fascinating to watch how views have changed since, Tom Dale now loves progressive enhancement and Henrik likes to do as much of his rendering at build time as possible.

As the web continues to grow in weird and wonderful ways techniques like progressive enhancement just keep giving more and more value.

Me: What does progressive enhancement mean to you?

Simon: I try to build applications that provide the best possible experience to the end user. Regardless of who they are, where they are or what device they are using. For me, that means using progressive enhancement in every part of the stack.

Progressive enhancement is about so much more than whether an app work with JavaScript turned off, realising we don’t have control over the runtime environment and building applications in the most robust way possible is far more important.

Me: Do you think it’s an approach that everyone should use on every web project?

Simon: I guess that depends on what you mean by a web project. In my mind to work on the web, you have to give up that illusion of control. You need to assume as little as possible about the device or user and for me that fits very well with progressive enhancement.

Web technologies transcend the capabilities of any one device with their reach alone, it seems strange to me when people use them but don’t take full advantage.

Me: If a web designer or developer is only passingly familiar with progressive enhancement and is considering coming to the event, what should they expect to get out of it?

Simon: These are probably the people with the most to benefit from EnhanceConf.

We are going to start the day looking at why progressive enhancement is still important on the modern web, so that should provide a nice intro for anyone who is not already familiar with progressive enhancement.

Me: What about a seasoned practitioner who already applies this philosophy to their work?

Simon: Originally, EnhanceConf was a very selfish idea. I wanted to learn more about the tools and techniques being in use in industry: Over the last few years contracting I’ve seen many in use in that just weren’t surfacing at conferences.

EnhanceConf is about the state of the art in progressive enhancement, I’d like to think EnhanceConf will be the perfect event for such people to come together and learn from one another.

Me: What if the person thinks progressive enhancement is a waste of time?

Simon: I’d really like to encourage these people to come along to the event, I think it’s important their voice is a part of this discussion so that we can learn from each other and move forward together.

With an open mind I think they should have a really good time, they might hear some viewpoints they disagree with, but there will be lots of opportunities for Q&A to discuss those topics in detail.

Me: As a hyper-focused event, there’s a risk of it being a bit of an echo chamber. Have you taken steps to mitigate that possibility?

Simon: I hope by being a hyper-focused event we can move beyond the bikeshedding that so often surrounds such discussions.

But yes. I have taken a couple of steps to mitigate an echo chamber:

  1. Duplicate content If you take all the talks about progressive enhancement and put them all on the same day you would end up with a fair amount of similar content. There will be no generic talks about progressive enhancement at EnhanceConf. Each talk will dig into real examples to provide unique tales from the trenches.

  2. Preaching to the choir I’ve been reaching out to lots of different communities around London to bring as many voices into the discussions as possible. The other day I was at the Meteor London meetup talking about EnhanceConf. Tableflip (the organisers) even bought tickets for their whole company!

The event is also being recorded so anyone not at the event will be able to watch all the talks and Q&A.

Me: You’re modeling the format of the event—four acts, each comprising three twenty-minute talks and a group Q&A session—on Responsive Day Out. What was the draw of that approach?

Simon: Yes, we get to hear lots of different viewpoints and then bring the speakers together for a Q&A. This should allow new viewpoints to emerge from discussions and join related threads. It also means we get to spend each section focusing on a particular area.

Me: Can you talk a bit about your speaker selection process?

Simon: I had lots of people in mind to talk at EnhanceConf. To ensure we heard a wide range of viewpoints we also opened a call for proposals to which we received some superb submissions.

I was fortunate to have some trusted advisors who helped me out throughout the process. I’m really pleased with how the line-up turned out.

Me: When the event is done and dusted, what are you hoping will happen?

Simon: I’d quite like a holiday! :D

But seriously, I hope we can demonstrate how to maximise the benefits and minimise any costs associated with progressive enhancement.

If at the end of EnhanceConf we had a reasoned and nurturing community able to take discussions forward that would be a fine outcome. :)

Me: Do you think there will be another EnhanceConf?

Simon: EnhanceConf is the first conference I’ve organised. It’s been an unfathomable amount of work and financial risk to get this far and it’s mostly been done in my evenings and weekends. That said, it has been quite fun.

I’d like to do some traveling this year, maybe 2018?


EnhanceConf will take place March 4th at the RSA House in London. Tickets are available on the conference website. I will also be giving a one-day workshop entitled Planning Adaptive Interfaces on March 3rd as part of the conference. Seating is limited.

EnhanceConf is offering a small number of educational scholarships. For more information on the scholarships and how to apply, check out Simon’s post about the program.