Graceful Degradation, or Progressive Enhancement?

There’s a question of design philosophies in software that describe two diametrically opposite ways of theoretically getting the same results: Top-down or bottom-up? Traditionally we’re supposed to do the former, designing the big picture first and then filling in the details until we’ve built all the way down from abstracted design to concrete reality. We usually do the latter, building little lego bits and then trying to connect them into a structure approximating the original design.

But in a sense in the world of web application design, where “best practice” isn’t just a moving target but one moving in quite different directions, the opposite is in effect. We’re doing top-down experience design, when we should really be doing bottom up. The distinguishing issue is that on the web, we’re not just creating one design, we’re creating a suggested design that will then be rendered in a whole multitude of ways.

Normal practice in web design/development is to work out what you want to functionally do, then make the call on what technology (Flash, Shockwave (remember that?), Java, AJAX, ActiveX, PDF, or even Silverlight) would be best for making that happen, evaluating the “best” as a measure of time, expense, longevity, security, and market support. And then if time allowed, you started designing fallbacks for clients without those technologies.

Chris Heilmann has done a good job advocating the opposite philosophy of progressive enhancement. This is the philosophy that involves you starting your site/web-app design with the lowest common denominator, and you produce a functional product at that tech level. If it can’t be done, you need a good reason for it to be so. Then you progressively layer on “richer” technology. It’s the humble and unassuming philosophy: you don’t presume more than you must about your user and their circumstances.

They’re two opposing philosophies that theoretically should give the same results. You start high-tech and work backwards, or you start low-tech and move forwards.

The problem that works against this is Hofstadter’s law: Work has a knack of taking longer than you expect. Unexpected new things to work on arise, and then you start budgeting your time and triaging things you shouldn’t. In the first design model, you would design low-bandwidth HTML versions of your all-Flash site. Unless a new feature request came in and you had to implement that first in the Flash. Eventually you just give up and require that your clients all use Flash. Then you wonder why Google isn’t doing such a hot job of indexing your site anymore. Or you bite the bullet and spend a lot of time doing things properly. As soon as you start prioritizing the high-tech experience as the primary and complete version, you’re just constraining yourself against future flexibility. And then you sometimes end up irrationally justify that primary experience in places that shouldn’t really exist.

The positive reasons for progressive enhancement then start flowing out of varied examples. There’s increasing numbers of users who use something like the Flashblock extension (because I’m sick of Flash-based ads, especially the ones that start streaming video, sucking bandwidth without your permission). Similarly, people have taken to using NoScript, an extension that imposes a white-list on allow Javascript. And don’t forget the disabled. Screen readers for the visually-impaired do a really bad job of handling Javascript. So does the Google web spider, for that matter. Or take the iPhone, a suddenly popular new platform that completely eschewed Flash. If you had invested into a site that required Flash, you were inaccessible. If you had built a site around progressive enhancement, you were much more well equipped to support mobile Safari. So adopting a philosophy of progressive enhancement in these cases improves support for niche users, accessibility, search engine coverage, and an unforeseen new platform.

This means things like coding HTML that’s completely functional without Javascript, or Flash. They’re technology it’s often reasonable to assume the average client will have. But unless you can really justify it, you shouldn’t.

It involves things like not using links with href="javascript:doThis()" or onClick event handlers hard coded into their HTML. Instead just give the links decent ids and then add the event handlers dynamically from Javascript. It’s not hard to do, if you do it right the first time.

There are some surprising offenders in this class. Try adding accepting a friend request on Facebook with Javascript turned off. You can’t actually click the button, and there’s no reason that should be so. Why did I run into that?[1] Well, if you’re the site owner, does it matter?

I had a Dynalink switch with firmware that broke the rule too. It used Javascript-powered links for its navigation, instead of plain HTML. I wouldn’t have noticed, if it weren’t for the Javascript not actually working on browsers that weren’t Internet Explorer. There was no earthly reason for those links to use Javascript, and every time I had to load up IE (particularly if it involved a reboot to Windows to do so) just to configure my switch, it didn’t do much for my opinion of Dynalink.

If you’re a web developer and you’re not already doing this or haven’t heard of the idea before, I strongly encourage you to read Chris’ full article on progressive enhancement. If you haven’t, but you’re exercising sound development principles (separation of code and content, observing standards, using semantically sensible markup, designing with accessibility in mind etc) you’re probably already most of the way there. But do skim over it all the same. It’s a descriptive philosophy that successfully captures much of what we should already be doing, but for reasons that fallen under different hats previous.

One response to “Graceful Degradation, or Progressive Enhancement?

  1. Nice artical!

    I had never used this type of approach, but due to the fact that, today there are many different platforms and web-browsers, Progressive enhancment is good approach.


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