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Progressive Enhancement, Designing for the Future

Evolution of Man

While attending FOWD last week in New York an overarching theme of Progressive Enhancement started to develop as more and more presentations preached it’s benefits. So what exactly is Progressive Enhancement? and how can we realistically use it and ensure our users and clients are happy with the end result?

Progressive Enhancement is all about delivering structured content to browsers and devices regardless of their capabilities, then adding layers of style and behavior that are progressively more complex. If you’re using a modern browser it will be able to render those complex styles and behaviors and deliver a beautiful rich experience. However, if you’re using a legacy browser or device, the content will be rendered to the best of browser’s ability with less complex styles and interactivity. The key here is that nothing breaks, it simply doesn’t look or behave the same in older browsers.

This probably sounds very similar to something web designers and developers have been preaching for years, Graceful Degradation. While they are similar, they have completely different objectives. Graceful Degradation has you building what the most modern browser can handle, and then ensuring that it degrades (or breaks) gracefully in older browsers. Progressive Enhancement on the other hand has you building for the lowest common denominator and then adding extra polish and functionality for browsers that can render it. Graceful Degradation has you looking backward, and Progressive Enhancement has you looking forward.

Why would you want to Progressively Enhance your website? Quite simply, you want to ensure that anybody who wants to consume the content you’re delivering can do so without getting slapped in the face with a broken unusable site. It will also lead to cleaner, semantic code which is easier to maintain and easier to upgrade (or enhance) at a later date.

Lets a take a look at a quick example. Here we have a pretty really basic nav with rounded corners, shadows, and a custom font. Normally we would build this using something like:



You can see we have code in there just to support the design, a div for the bottom corners, a class on the last list item to get rid of the last underline, and a container div to keep it all together. We would also have about 8 different image files for the corners, background, shadow and custom fonts. Don’t forget the PNG hacks to get everything looking properly in legacy browsers. All of that just to support a pretty basic design.

Ideally we would use something more like this:


Here we have clean semantic code with nothing but a class name (maybe) for the styling of this basic nav. No images are required for this navigation, we’ll let CSS take care of all the styling. Rounded corners, shadow, gradient background, custom fonts, and removing the underline on the last list item can all be taken care of with the latest CSS styles. I won’t dig into the CSS code for this today, but we’ll take a look at how this would look in different browsers.


As you can see, nothing would break and everything is still usable no matter which browser you’re using. If you’re using a newer browser you’ll see a little more polish than users with an older browser, and your experience will be a little bit better. Dan Cederholm used television as an excellent analogy for Progressive Enhancement. You can watch the latest episode of 30 Rock in glorious HD and surround sound if your home theater has an HD TV and a surround sound system. However, you can watch the exact same show on a 15″ black and white TV with mono sound. You’ll get the same content, and be able to talk about the same jokes around the water cooler regardless of what your home theater looks like. If you’ve invested in the latest and greatest TV and Audio gear you’ll be rewarded with a better experience. If you have a 15″ black and white TV, chances are you don’t care about that better experience, or at least understand why you’re not getting the best experience.

We need to use this type of analogy to explain Progressive Enhancement to our clients. Websites absolutely do not need to look the same in every browser. You can deliver an enhanced experience to users with the latest technology and not alienate users with legacy technology. The tricky part comes when you present a design with all the sparkle and polish to a client, and they can only see the basic lacklustre version of the final product because they’re using a browser that’s 10 years old. Finding a way to present the lo-fi and hi-fi versions in tandem will be key in selling Progressive Enhancement to clients, and moving web design forward.

Chris Erwin More posts by Chris Erwin