In more than a handful of conversations lately, it’s become quite clear that we, the web development community, are prioritizing our own convenience and our own time over that of our users. With our industry’s focus on “user-centered design”, you might find that hard to believe, but it’s true.
Here’s one example. In reaction to my post on why I think CSS variables are a bad idea, SASS core team member Chris Eppstein had this to say:
Fundamentally, I agree with his sentiment: A preprocessor should not be a requirement for authoring CSS. Thankfully, it never was; you can build amazing things using only hand-authored CSS. And if you find a preprocessor helpful to your process for one reason or another, great. But using a preprocessor never has been (nor should it ever be) a requirement.
But Chris was not railing against preprocessors. Instead, he is echoing a sentiment held by many people in the preprocessor community. He feels CSS is not as powerful as it could/should be and he hopes that one day soon preprocessors won’t need to exist because CSS will have all of the features they offer natively. Like variables.
I used to feel that way. I used to want variables… and mixins… and functions… and loops… and declaration block-level inheritance. But I’ve changed my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I love these constructs. I use them nearly every day in the SASS I write and I am incredibly thankful for the hard work that has gone into their creation and maintenance. Chris alone has probably saved me several weeks worth of work over the last four years through his contributions to SASS and Compass. I definitely owe him a beer (or three).
Ok, so if my issue is not with the idea of programmatically generating styles, why would I not want these to be part of CSS, the lingua franca for design on the Web? Well, it’s pretty simple: Converting all of these constructs into something that is actionable by the browser takes time and processing power. Someone has to pay that cost and I wouldn’t feel right passing that cost on to my end users if there are better options.
This is a topic I bring up often in my conference talks and workshops: Every decision we make affects the user experience in some way.
When we hide an
img in the small screen version of our responsive design using
display: none, the cost to us is quite minimal. It’s just one little declaration. What’s the harm? But the cost to our end users is quite significant: Longer load times, slower performance, and (in some cases) in real dollars if they are on a metered data connection. And they don’t even get to see the image they paid for!
When I look around, I see our community spending a lot of time coming up with new tools and techniques to make our jobs easier. To ship faster. And it’s not that I’m against efficiency, but I think we need to consider the implications of our decisions. And if one of those implications is making our users suffer—or potentially suffer—in order to make our lives easier, I think we need to consider their needs above our own.
Our users should never foot the bill for our convenience. We need to put their needs above our own.
@AaronGustafson Would much rather that CSS became more functional than declarative, if only to stop having to abstract it into HTML classes.
@ben_eb That’s the tension right? But a fundamental principle of CSS (and HTML for that matter) is declarative syntax.
@ben_eb As a programmer, I like to keep things DRY and create programs to do mundane tasks, but it obscures intent and complicates things.
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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:
100% agree. Don’t inflict your pain on your users. That only ends one way.