UX Design and Development course

Understanding Progressive Enhancement


Since 1994, the web development community has beaten graceful degradation’s drum. A carry-over from the engineering world, the concept was, at its core, about giving the latest and greatest browsers the full-course meal experience while tossing a few scraps to the sad folk unfortunate enough to be using Netscape 4. It worked, sure, but it didn’t really match Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for a universally accessible web.

About a decade later, several smart folks began to question graceful degradation and found it lacking on many levels. Concerned with content availability, overall accessibility, and mobile browser capabilities, they sought a new way to approach web development—a way that focused on the content and did more than just pay lip service to older devices.

At SXSW in 2003, Steve Champeon and Nick Finck gave a presentation titled “Inclusive Web Design For the Future.” There, they unveiled a blueprint for this new way of approaching web development. Steve also gave it a name: progressive enhancement.

Without a doubt, progressive enhancement has changed the way that we approach web development. The concept was before us the whole time, but we were bogged down with having to retroactively support legacy browsers. It was all to common that devs would approach solutions from a 'graceful degradation' perspective. It seemed easer, but in many ways it made development work much harder and the amount of code that was needed increased maintenance 10 fold.

What's interesting when you think about it, Web Browsers themselves are already abiding by the rules of progressive enhancement. When you send code to a browser that it does not support, it doesn't blow up. In fact, it tries it's best to render the content. But when you send that same code to a browser that supports that feature, then it displays it without issue.

This is the very essence of the concept.

As progressive enhancement became an everyday phrase around the office, another catch phrase stepped in as well. Mobile First. The great thing is that these two concepts play hand in hand. As the device and display allow for greater experiences, you allow these things to happen.

Now that these concepts are so well ingrained, it is hard to imagine a time when we thought differently. Just goes to show, we need to always be open minded about how these tools work because what we think is the best way to address problems today is always in question.