But first let’s take a a trip back in time to 2003. In March of that year, Steve Champion introduced a concept he called “progressive enhancement”. It caused a bit of an upheaval at the time because it challenged the dominant philosophy of graceful degradation. Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll compare these two philosophies.
What’s graceful degradation?
Overall, graceful degradation is about risk avoidance. The problem was that it created a climate on the Web where we, as developers, got comfortable with the idea of denying access to services (e.g., people’s bank accounts) because we deemed a particular browser (or browsers) too difficult to work with. Or, in many cases, we just didn’t have the time or budget (or both) to address the broadest number of browsers. It’s kind of hard to reconcile the challenge of cross-browser development in 2003 with what we are faced with today as we were only really dealing with 2-3 browsers back then, but you need to remember that standards support was far worse at the time.
So what’s progressive enhancement?
In his talk, Steve upended the generally shared perspective that older browsers deserved a worse experience because they were less technically capable. He asked us to look beyond the browsers and the technologies in play and focus on the user experience, challenging us to design inclusive experiences that would work in the broadest of scenarios. He asked that we focus on the content and core tasks in a given interface and then enhance the experience when we could. We accomplish this by layering experiences on top of one another, hence “progressive enhancement”.
What’s particularly interesting about this approach is that it is still technically graceful degradation because all of the interfaces do gracefully fall back to a usable state. But it’s graceful degradation at its best, focused on delivering a good experience to everyone. No excuses.
To give a simple example, consider a form field for entering your email address. If we were to mark it up like this
<input type="email" name="email" id="email">
I automatically create layers of experience with no extra effort:
- Browsers that don’t understand “email” as a valid
inputtype will treat the “email” text as a typo in my HTML (like when you type “rdio” instead of “radio”… or maybe I’m the only one that does that). As a result, they will fall back to the default input type of “text”, which is usable in every browser that supports HTML2 and up.
- Browsers that consider “email” a valid
inputtype will provide one (or more) of many potential enhanced experiences:
- In a virtual keyboard context, the browser may present a keyboard that is tailored toward quickly entering email addresses.
- In a browser that supports auto-completion, it may use this as a cue to suggest entering a commonly-entered email or one that has been stored in the user’s profile.
- In a browser that supports HTML5 validation, the browser may validate this field for proper email formatting when the user attempts to submit the form.
typeattribute as a signal that it should validate the field for proper email address formatting.
That means that there are between 5 and 13 potential experiences (given all of the different possible combinations of these layers) in this one single single element… it’s kind of mind-boggling to think about, right? And the clincher here is that any of these experiences can be a good experience. Heck for nearly 15 years of the Web, the plain-ol’ text
input was the only way we had for entering an email address. Anything better than that is gravy.
Progressive enhancement embraces the idea of experience as a continuum rather than some singular ideal. It recognizes that every person is different and we all have special requirements for Web access. Some may depend on our browser, the device we’re on, and the network we are using. Others may be the result of a limitation we have dealt with since birth, are dealing with temporarily as the result of an injury or incident, or are simply a factor of our current situation. We all experience the world differently and progressive enhancement not only respects that, it embraces that variability.
As a programmer, you receive a near constant barrage of commentary on your choices… often unsolicited. You’re using PHP? That’s so 1996! You’re still using TextMate?! You still use jQuery? How quaint! I’m not exactly sure where this all began, but it’s unhealthy and causes a lot of programmers to get immediately defensive when anyone challenges their language of choice or their process. And this hostile/defensive environment makes it very difficult to have a constructive conversation about best practices.
Douglas Crockford (in)famously declared the Web “the most hostile software engineering environment imaginable” and he wasn’t wrong. A lot of things have to go right for our code to reach our users precisely the way we intend. Here are just a few of these requirements:
- Our code must be bug-free;
- Included 3rd party code must be bug free and must not interfere with our code;
- Intermediaries—ISPs, routers, etc.—must not inject code or if they do, it must be bug free and not interfere with our code;
- Browser plugins must not interfere with our code;
- The browser must support every language feature and API we want to use; and
- The device must have enough RAM and a fast enough processor to run our code.
And, of course, none of this addresses network availability. In many instances, a user’s network connection has the greatest impact on their experience of our products. If the connection is slow (or the page’s resources are exceptionally large) the page load experience can be excruciatingly painful. If the connection goes down and dependencies aren’t met, the experience can feel disjointed or may be flat out broken. Using Service Worker and client-side storage (
I fully believe we can heal this rift, but it’s probably gonna take some time. I fully intend to do my part and I hope you will as well.
Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the historical perspective and agree that the rift needs to be healed.
on culture side, I thought graceful degradation was supposed to be “do less down level but DON’T block access”
This does a great job of articulating the value of progressive enhancement and emphasizing that it’s not at odds with client side JS.
“Progressive enhancement embraces the idea of experience as a continuum rather than some singular ideal.”
Nice post! Thank you.
I definitely disagree with your description of graceful degradation. It is degradation without grace.
I always think of it as a phone number to call if you can’t use our Web site @AaronGustafson
Fascinating exploration of progressive enhancement and the ways it can make web design better.
Good thoughts Aaron. Appreciate your voice on the matter
that’s a better summary of everything we were talking about :o)
Thank you Aaron! Also a good read…I like to attack my opinions from all angles! Thanks for sharing…learned lots…
I think it happens some too, but then when new devs are labeled as “frameworkistas” it makes me wonder.
this is awesome! Thanks!!
Late last week, Josh Korr, a project manager at Viget, posted at length about what he sees as a fundamental flaw with the argument for progressive enhancement. In reading the post, it became clear to me that Josh really doesn’t have a good grasp on progressive enhancement or the reasons its proponents think it’s a good philosophy to follow. Despite claiming to be “an expert at spotting fuzzy rhetoric and teasing out what’s really being said”, Josh makes a lot of false assumptions and inferences. My response would not have fit in a comment, so here it is…
Before I dive in, it’s worth noting that Josh admits that he is not a developer. As such, he can’t really speak to the bits where the rubber really meets the road with respect to progressive enhancement. Instead, he focuses on the argument for it, which he sees as a purely moral one… and a flimsily moral one at that.
I’m also unsure as to how Josh would characterize me. I don’t think I fit his mold of PE “hard-liners”, but since I’ve written two books and countless articles on the subject and he quotes me in the piece, I’ll go out on a limb and say he probably thinks I am.
Ok, enough with the preliminaries, let’s jump over to his piece…
Right out of the gate, Josh demonstrates a fundamental misread of progressive enhancement. If I had to guess, it probably stems from his source material, but he sees progressive enhancement as a moral argument:
It’s a moral imperative that everything on the web should be available to everyone everywhere all the time. Failing to achieve — or at least strive for — that goal is inhumane.
Now he’s quick to admit that no one has ever explicitly said this, but this is his takeaway from the articles and posts he’s read. It’s a pretty harsh, black & white, you’re either with us or against us sort of statement that has so many people picking sides and lobbing rocks and other heavy objects at anyone who disagrees with them. And everyone he quotes in the piece as examples of why he thinks this is progressive enhancement’s central conceit is much more of an “it depends” sort of person.
I could go on, but let’s circle back to Josh’s piece. Off the bat he makes some pretty bold claims about what he intends to prove in this piece:
- Progressive enhancement is a philosophical, moral argument disguised as a practical approach to web development.
- This makes it impossible to engage with at a practical level.
- When exposed to scrutiny, that moral argument falls apart.
- Therefore, if PEers can’t find a different argument, it’s ok for everyone else to get on with their lives.
For the record, I plan to address his arguments quite practically. As I mentioned, progressive enhancement is not solely founded on morality, though that can certainly be viewed as a facet. The reality is that progressive enhancement is quite pragmatic, addressing the Web as it exists not as we might hope that it exists or how we experience it.
Over the course of a few sections—which I wish I could link to directly, but alas, the headings don’t have unique
ids—he examines a handful of quotes and attempts to tease out their hidden meaning by following the LSAT’s Logic Reasoning framework. We’ll start with the first one.
- It is always bad to ignore some potential users for any reason.
His first attempt at teasing out the meaning of these statements comes close, but ignores some critical word choices. First off, neither Jeremy nor I speak in absolutes. As I mentioned before, we (and the other folks he quotes) all believe that the right technical choices for a project depend on specifically on the purpose and goals of that specific project. In other words it depends. We intentionally avoid absolutist words like “always” (which, incidentally, Josh has no problem throwing around, on his own or on our behalf).
For the development of most websites, the benefits of following a progressive enhancement philosophy far outweigh the cost of doing so. I’m hoping Josh will take a few minutes to read my post on the true cost of progressive enhancement in relation to actual client projects. As a project manager, I hope he’d find it enlightening and useful.
As I mentioned, I disagree with his characterization of the argument for progressive enhancement being a moral one. Morality can certainly be one argument for progressive enhancement, and as a proponent of egalitarianism I certainly see that. But it’s not the only one. If you’re in business, there are a few really good business-y reasons to embrace progressive enhancement:
- Legal: Progressive enhancement and accessibility are very closely tied. Whether brought by legitimate groups or opportunists, lawsuits over the accessibility of your web presence can happen; following progressive enhancement may help you avoid them.
- Development Costs: As I mentioned earlier, progressive enhancement is a more cost-effective approach, especially for long-lived projects. Here’s that link again: The True Cost of Progressive Enhancement.
- Reach: The more means by which you enable users to access your products, information, etc., the more opportunities you create to earn their business. Consider that no one thought folks would buy big-ticket items on mobile just a few short years ago. Boy, were they wrong. Folks buy cars, planes, and more from their tablets and smartphones on the regular these days.
Hmm, no moral arguments for progressive enhancement there… but let’s continue.
Some experience vs. no experience
- “[With a PE approach,] Older browsers get a clunky experience with full page refreshes, but that’s still much, much better than giving them nothing at all.” — Jeremy Keith
- A clunky experience is always better than no experience.
- HTML content — i.e. text, images, unstyled forms — is the most important part of most websites.
You may be surprised to hear that I have no issue with Josh’s distillation here. Clunky is a bit of a loaded word, but I agree that an experience is better than no experience, especially for critical tasks like checking your bank account, registering to vote, making a purchase from an online shop. In my book, I talk a little bit about a strange thing we experienced when A List Apart stopped delivering CSS to Netscape Navigator 4 way back in 2001:
We assume that those who choose to keep using 4.0 browsers have reasons for doing so; we also assume that most of those folks don’t really care about “design issues.” They just want information, and with this approach they can still get the information they seek. In fact, since we began hiding the design from non–compliant browsers in February 2001, ALA’s Netscape 4 readership has increased, from about 6% to about 11%.
Folks come to our web offerings for a reason. Sometimes its to gather information, sometimes it’s to be entertained, sometimes it’s to make a purchase. It’s in our best interest to remove every potential obstacle that can preclude them from doing that. That’s good customer service.
- “Question any approach to the web where fancy features for a few are prioritized & basic access is something you’ll ‘get to’ eventually.” — Tim Kadlec
- Everything beyond HTML content is superfluous fanciness.
Not to put words in Tim’s mouth (like Josh is here), but what Tim’s quote is discussing is hype-driven (as opposed to user-centered) design. We (as developers) often prioritize our own convenience/excitement/interest over our users’ actual needs. It doesn’t happen all the time (note I said often), but it happens frequently enough to require us to call it out now and again (as Tim did here).
As for the “unstated assumptions”, I know for a fact that Tim would never call “everything beyond HTML” superfluous. What he is saying is that we should question—as in weigh the pros and cons—of each and every design pattern and development practice we consider. It’s important to do this because there are always tradeoffs. Some considerations that should be on your list include:
- Download speed;
- Time to interactivity;
- Interaction performance;
- Perceived performance;
- Input methods;
- User experience;
- Screen size & orientation;
- Visual hierarchy;
- Aesthetic design;
- Text equivalents of rich interfaces for visually impaired users and headless UIs;
- Fallbacks; and
This list is by no means exhaustive nor is it in any particular order; it’s what came immediately to mind for me. Some interfaces may have fewer or more considerations as each is different. And some of these considerations might be in opposition to others depending on the interface. It’s critical that we consider the implications of our design decisions by weighing them against one another before we make any sort of decision about how to progress. Otherwise we open ourselves up to potential problems and the cost of changing things goes up the further into a project we are:
honestly posts like that are amazing, reassuring and needed they’re thoughtful and considerate.
but for everyone one there’s posts like youtu.be/r38al1w-h4k?li… or something from zeldman