Progressive Enhancement and the Content-out Approach

by Aaron Gustafson

This excerpt is from Aaron’s book Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement.

The Content-out Approach

The web is all about information. Every day, on every site, information is disseminated, requested, and collected. Information exchange has been crucial to the growth of the web and will no doubt continue to drive its continued expansion into just about every facet of our daily lives.

As such an important aspect of the web, fostering the exchange of information, should be our primary focus when constructing any web interface. Progressive enhancement ensures that all content (that is to say the information contained in a website) is both available to and usable by anyone, regardless of her location, the device she is using to access that information, or the capabilities of the program she is using to access that content. Similarly, content collection mechanisms—web forms, surveys, and the like—also benefit greatly from progressive enhancement because it ensures they are universally usable and, hence, better at doing their job.

Fundamentally, progressive enhancement is about accessibility, but not in the limited sense the term is most often used. The term “accessibility” is traditionally used to denote making content available to individuals with “special needs” (people with limited motility, cognitive disabilities, or visual impairments); progressive enhancement takes this one step further by recognizing that we all have special needs. Our special needs may also change over time and within different contexts. When I load up a website on my phone, for example, I am visually limited by my screen resolution (especially if I am using a browser that encourages zooming) and I am limited in my ability to interact with buttons and links because I am browsing with my fingertips, which are far larger and less precise than a mouse cursor.

As we’ve covered, sites built with graceful degradation as their guiding principle may work great in modern browsers, but come up short when viewed in anything less than the latest and greatest browsers for which they were built. In a non-web sense, it puts the user in a position where, like a young child at an amusement park, she may miss out on a great experience because she isn’t tall enough to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. Similarly, users without the “right” browser will likely experience issues (and errors) accessing the site’s content, if they can access it at all.

By contrast, a website built following the philosophy of progressive enhancement will be usable by anyone on any device, using any browser. A user on a text-based browser like Lynx won’t necessarily have the same experience as a user surfing with the latest version of Safari, but the key is that she will have a positive experience rather than no experience at all. The content of the website will be available to her, albeit with fewer bells and whistles, something that isn’t guaranteed with graceful degradation.

While philosophically different, from a practical standpoint progressive enhancement and graceful degradation can look quite similar, which can be confusing. To bring the differences into focus, I like to boil the relationship between the two philosophies down to something akin to standardized testing logic: all experiences that are created using progressive enhancement will degrade gracefully in older browsers, but not all experiences built following graceful degradation are progressively enhanced.

Limits? There Are No Limits.

During the heyday of graceful degradation, websites became very much like the amusement park I mentioned earlier: “you must be this high to ride.” The web was (and, sadly, still is) littered with sites “best viewed in Netscape Navigator 4” and the like. With the rise of progressive enhancement and web standards in general, we moved away from that practice, but as more sites began to embrace the JavaScript technique known as Ajax, the phenomenon resurfaced and many sites began requiring JavaScript or even specific browsers (and browser versions) to view their sites. It was the web’s own B-movie sequel: The Return of the Browser-Breaking, User-Unfriendly Methods We Thought We’d Left Behind.

Over time, the fervor over Ajax died down and we began building (and in some cases rebuilding) Ajax-based sites following the philosophy of progressive enhancement. Then along came Apple’s HTML5 Showcase with its pimped out CSS transitions and animations. When we finished wiping the drool off our desks, many of us began incorporating these shiny new toys into our work, either because of our eagerness to play with these features or at our clients’ behest. Consequently, sites began cropping up that restricted users by requiring a modern Webkit variant in order to run. (Damn the nearly 80% of browsers that didn’t include.)

When self-realization hit that requiring technologies that are not universally available ran counter to progressive enhancement, some web designers and developers declared the philosophy “limiting” and began drifting back toward graceful degradation. Progressive enhancement, they felt, forced them to focus on serving older browsers which, frankly, weren’t nearly as fun to work with. What they failed to realize, however, was that progressive enhancement wasn’t limiting them; their own understanding of the philosophy was.

Progressive enhancement isn’t about browsers. It’s about crafting experiences that serve your users by giving them access to content without technological restrictions. Progressive enhancement doesn’t require that you provide the same experience in different browsers, nor does it preclude you from using the latest and greatest technologies; it simply asks that you honor your content (and your users) by applying technologies in an intelligent way, layer-upon-layer, to craft an amazing experience. Browsers and technologies will come and go. Marrying progressive enhancement with your desire to be innovative and do incredible things in the browser is entirely possible, as long as you’re smart about your choices and don’t lose sight of your users.

About the Author

Progressive Enhancement, the heart of Adaptive Design, makes the life of a design less complicated. Aaron Gustafson is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Easy! Designs, a web development consultancy. He is also Group Manager of the Web Standards Project (WaSP) where he has spearheaded both Web Standards Sherpa and a small business outreach effort. He is also a speaker, and an author. You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronGustafson.

Strategic Approaches to UX Research

Intensive June 3-7, 2024 • Strategic UX Research is changing organizations. Get ready to change yours.

In five 90-minute sessions, explore how to connect your organization’s long-term direction and strategy directly to your customers’ and users’ deepest needs. Join us starting on June 3 and start leading your organization through this powerful, game-changing transformation.

Dive Into Our UX Research Intensive