Content First: Why Progressive Enhancement is the Right Choice

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With the recent release of Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10, I’ve been thinking a lot about cross-browser support and the exponential growth rate of the ways web content can be accessed. It seems with every release of Internet Explorer, discussion in the web development community resurfaces regarding which version(s) we can support.

Although older browsers like Internet Explorer 6 and 7 do lack support for a good bit of modern CSS and front end techniques, it doesn’t change the fact that people still use them. In just about every circumstance, the easy way out of website bugs is to blame the browser, when it might be more appropriate to re-evaluate how browser support is being approached.

Progressive Enhancement vs. Graceful Degradation

Until recently, “graceful degradation” has been the preferred approach to cross browser support. This can mean different things to different people, but the core belief concept revolves around the idea that a website will be built for the most current browsers and degrade in a way that the site remains usable on older browsers. In many circumstances, this has been replaced by the philosophy that if a website doesn’t work on out of date browsers, it’s the end user’s responsibility to upgrade. Quite often the source of this less than ideal approach can be traced back to finite development time, limited testing platforms and, most often, limited budget.

Progressive enhancement offers an alternative approach to web development, in which the primary goal is to allow all users to access the site content in an acceptable, though not always identical, experience. Emphasis is placed on building the website with semantic, accessible markup, external CSS and external Javascript, each broken into clear, separable layers that can be applied individually as the necessary technology is available. When a site builder’s focus begins and ends with the most important piece of the website (clean, accessible content), it becomes easier to produce an end product that works much better for a wider array of users.

A Change of Perspective

The transition can often be jarring in an industry where websites are expected to be a pixel perfect match to the Photoshop files they were modeled after. However, this becomes a much more difficult task to accomplish with the vast array of internet connected devices on the market today. The rising popularity of responsive development and the mobile-first mindset make now as good a time as any to implement the practice of progressive enhancement.

The truth of the matter is, in a client driven business, progressive enhancement doesn’t always mean the simplest path to a finished website. As with any project, the importance of setting expectations and requirements up front can’t be understated. However, with even a small amount of education, the value that this approach provides will become immediately clear to all parties involved.