Progressive Enhancement: Boost Your Web Development Process
Learn how progressive enhancement can revolutionize your web development process. Enhance accessibility, performance, and user experience for your websites.
Written by RamotionJul 26, 202311 min read
Last updated: Feb 9, 2024
If you know anything about the web, you probably heard something about progressive enhancement. It's a buzzword in web development, and it describes a process of creating websites that are accessible to everyone, easy to use by everyone, and give a great experience to everyone.
Progressive enhancement is all the rage these days. The web development community can't stop talking about it! Progressive Enhancement or PE for short - is a hugely misunderstood web development technique which is why so many web developers are flocking to it. But what does this technique mean for you? And how can progressive enhancement improve your processes?
What is progressive enhancement?
Progressive enhancement is an approach to web design that ensures accessibility, performance, and user experience for your websites. Simply put, progressive enhancement is about building a website that works for everyone, regardless of their browser or device.
Progressive enhancement is a model for building websites that provide users with an optimal experience. It's about more than just ensuring your site works in very old browsers, although that's a part of it. It's about thinking about how everyone can use your site and make their lives easier.
To understand progressive enhancement, you must know that web pages are built with multiple layers. These layers interact with each other to create the final product. The first layer is what's called the content. This is the meat of your website; it's where all your words and images live.
Importance of Progressive Enhancement
1. Make content accessible to all.
The content is the most essential part of your site. It's what people are coming to see and needs to be accessible to everyone. That means that it shouldn't rely on other layers for its meaning or function. If you use CSS for layout, make sure all of your text is still readable without it.
2. Start with basic HTML
If it does break, ensure there's an alternative way for users to interact with your site.
3. Enhance web browsers that can handle it.
4. Graceful degradation
When you add a feature that only works in modern browsers, ensure it still looks good if the browser doesn't support it. For example, you could use CSS3 gradients instead of images for your backgrounds.
If someone visits your site with an older browser that doesn't support CSS3, they'll still see a gradient, but it will be made up of many small images instead of just one large image like it would have been before.
Deep Dive into Progressive Enhancement
Progressive enhancement is a development strategy that ensures web pages work for many users. The concept is simple: start with a basic level of functionality and add layers of complexity only when necessary.
Progressive enhancement is all about building a website that works for everyone. It doesn't just mean making it functional for people using assistive technology, such as screen readers or braille displays; it also means ensuring the end-user has access to web content in whatever way they see fit.
For example, someone who wants to read your website's content on their phone should have access to the same information as someone who wants to read it on their laptop. And if they want to print the page, they should be able to do that too.
The core principles of progressive enhancement are:
Responsively designed pages adapt their layout based on screen size and device type. They deliver an optimal viewing experience across all devices, from desktop computers to tablets and phones.
Mobile-first design starts with the smallest screen size first and then progresses towards larger screens, with each step built upon what came before. This ensures that your designs are future-friendly and can be expanded easily as more people use responsive web design principles more often than not).
Semantic HTML5 allows you to create structured documents that humans and computers can read without extra effort. This makes it easier for search engines to index your pages, which helps improve their rankings with Google and other search engines. It's also easier for other people to understand and work with your code and make it more accessible for those using assistive technologies like screen readers.
Highlighting the Benefits
Progressive enhancement is a design philosophy in which the user experience comes first and is built up from the ground up. The goal of progressive enhancement is to create a baseline of functionality that all users can access and then enhance it in a way that makes sense for the specific environment.
Progressive enhancement is like building on a solid foundation. It's not just a trendy buzzword; progressive enhancement approach to creating accessible websites.
Progressive enhancement has many advantages:
Accessibility is one of the most critical advantages of progressive enhancement. By ensuring that all users can access the primary content on your website, you are making sure that people with disabilities can use it as well. This helps to eliminate barriers and makes your website more inclusive.
It is a core goal of progressive enhancement. By ensuring that your pages are accessible to everyone, you're creating a website that will be usable by anyone, regardless of their device or browser. This is important from an ethical and business perspective—people who can't access your content won't be able to buy from you!
Progressive enhancement is a future-friendly approach. By ensuring your website is accessible to everyone, you ensure it will remain usable as technology evolves and new browsers are released.
As more people use mobile devices to access the internet, you'll want to make sure that your site works well on those smaller screens—and by using progressive enhancement, you won't have to worry about building separate versions of your site for different devices!
Progressive enhancement is also an excellent way to think about how your website works. When you're creating a page, it's easy to get caught up in the visual design and forget about the content itself.
But what happens if someone comes across your site with only text-to-speech turned on or can't see? You want them to be still able to browse your site and find what they need—and that requires building in some accessibility features!
This is another benefit of progressive enhancement. You don't need to worry about whether someone is on a desktop or mobile device. You can create one site that works for everyone! If you're building a responsive website, you can also use media queries to ensure content and functionality are constantly visible on any screen size.
Improved user experience
Users want to find what they're looking for quickly and easily. If a website is hard to use or navigate, people will leave—and they won't return! Progressive enhancement can improve user experience by ensuring your site works well with any device, from smartphones to desktops.
This approach helps you create a website accessible to everyone and will work well on any device, regardless of screen size.
Search engine optimization
It's not just the user experience that can be improved by progressive enhancement; it can also help your website rank higher in search engines. Building a site that works well across different devices and screen sizes gives search engines more content to work with when determining how to rank your pages.
When you build a responsive website, it's important to ensure that search engines can crawl and index all your content. That's because if search engines can't find your pages, they won't be able to display them in their search results! Progressive enhancement helps ensure all assets are accessible regardless of device.
Guide to Implementation Progressive Enhancement in Web Development
Progressive enhancement is a design methodology that makes websites accessible to everyone. It's based on the idea that all content should be available to all users regardless of what device they're using or what browser they're running.
Progressive enhancement uses layered code so visitors can access your site's core features even if specific enhancements are unavailable.
When you're ready to start implementing progressive enhancement, there are a few things that can help:
1. Start with semantic HTML
The first step in creating a progressive enhancement website is to use semantic HTML. Semantic HTML is code that describes the meaning of the content on your page rather than just its formatting. This can help make it easier for search engines to read and index your site, as well as for screen readers and other software programs used by people with disabilities.
If you need to become more familiar with semantic HTML, the first step is to ensure your code is structured to describe what's on the page rather than how it should look. This means using tags instead of avoiding nested divs and tables and externally linked CSS.
2. Add CSS for styling.
The next step is to add CSS for styling. You can use this to make your sites look more attractive and functional. It's important to note that you should only add CSS essential for basic functionality; it's better not to include decorative fonts or other non-essential styles in your design.
3. Use CSS media queries for responsive design.
You can use CSS media queries to make your site responsive. This means it will automatically display differently on different devices, depending on their size and resolution.
It's important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for responsive design; instead, you should create multiple prototypes based on the different types of content you're presenting and how they should be displayed on each device type.
5. Provide fallback content for non-supporting browsers.
You could also use Modernizr to detect support for the feature and display a message telling visitors that they need an updated browser.
Progressive Enhancement Criticism
Critics argue that implementing Progressive Enhancement can be more complex than it seems. The idea of "upgrading" your content to provide a better experience is counterintuitive, and many developers have trouble wrapping their heads around the concept.
Counter-argument: The complexity of the process should be considered, but it is an essential step in ensuring that your site works equally well across all browsers. The more you can streamline this process, the better off your users will be.
Some critics claim that progressive enhancement can be inefficient and slow down your site's loading. As you layer on additional resources, there is a greater chance that some users will need the necessary technology to access or run them.
Counter-argument: While the technique can be inefficient, this is only the case if you need to be more careful about implementing it. When done right, progressive enhancement can improve your website's performance by allowing users to receive only the content they need and nothing more.
Unfortunately, these criticisms often arise from a need for more understanding of progressive enhancement. Yes, you can't control precisely how your users will view your site (at least not yet).
But what you CAN do is make sure everyone can still access your content and modern functionality. It's the key to designing responsively. And it is the ultimate goal of progressive enhancement.
In this article, we've offered a balanced view of Progressive Enhancement. It can be an efficient website development method, but it only has some answers.
Instead, PE should be viewed as a concept that can complement other techniques and can even benefit from them. And while theoretical criticisms have been posed against PE, they must be weighed against its many pros.
Progressive enhancement isn't some miracle-making process. It does not solve all your development woes or make you a better person (even though it will make you a better developer). But if you're interested in the future of web development, it's worth a look as a helpful tool that can improve your sites and your workflows.
And after all, it's really the process of enhancing sites for more users that matters anyway.
Throughout this module, we've learned the benefits of building with progressive enhancement in mind and how to begin doing so. In short, create for accessibility first; your users will thank you.
The next time you're building a website or web application, consider how you could ensure that all users can access it readily, regardless of device or connectivity. The insights from this module will provide a good starting point as you build your following website or web application.