The Web has a problem. An old problem. It’s the same problem that it’s had for a decade. Fragmentation. If Web users all used the latest versions of their favourite Web browsers, life would be simple. But they don’t. Companies insist on using old versions of Windows that come with equally old Web browsers. And mobiles have the same problem, as there are hundreds of millions of Android phones that can’t be upgraded to the latest version of Android, due to lazy OEMs not being bothered to incorporate updates their heavily modified version of the OS.
So we as Web developers have a problem: how can we deal with fragmentation whilst taking advantage of what modern browsers are offering?
One technique is known as progressive enhancement. It’s a practice that has become so popular, it even has its own Wikipedia article. But progressive enhancement isn’t just an idea. It’s the single most important concept in Web development at the moment, and it’s vital that we as Web developers embrace it.
How it works
To do it, you start simple, and assume the worst case scenario about the environment that the user is using to view your Web page. Start with the HTML. But don’t be placing
div elements left, right and centre. Remember what HTML is about: semantics; explaining to a Web browser what each bit of text on a Web page is, or means, or represents.
Keep the mark up purely semantic. Start off with a
main content and the
footer. Split the main content into one or more
sections. Add headings (
h3) and paragraphs (
p). Order it all chronologically. Don’t change the order for stylistic purposes.
Then move on to the styles. Use the basic CSS properties that you know work in all Web browsers, first. If you plan on making something like a hidden menu or accordion, don’t immediately use
Progressive enhancement also goes hand-in-hand with responsive Web design, which I will discuss in a later article.
The opposite to progressive enhancement is graceful degradation. This is the traditional practice that we’re all used to, where we concentrate on creating a wonderful, fully featured Web site for our big desktop computers; and then backwards compatibility and support for mobiles are an afterthought.
This leads to many difficulties; especially if your Web site is complex and built-up.
The concept of progressive enhancement has actually existed for almost a decade. It’s not new. But with the increasing amount of devices that proliferate our world, it’s never been more important.
It makes development a lot easier, because it solves problems before they get created. If you want to know more about how it’s done, a Google search will give you plenty of resources. There’s nothing more to say on progressive enhancement other than one last thing: use it!
Update: Even the UK Government have begun to enforce progressive enhancement on government Web sites! Their service manual is worth a read, an explains the concept far better than I have.