Responsive Web Design and Progressive Enhancement: The Right Approach

Progressive enhancement is a strategy for responsive web design that emphasizes accessibility relational to the user’s device. The aim is to allow everyone access to basic content and functionality of a website, starting with the smallest of devices (eg, your smartphone) and then gradually enhancing the experience as you move up to larger devices that have more advanced browser software, greater bandwidth and more powerful processing.

With progressive enhancement a basic markup document is created that is geared towards the lowest common denominator of browsers and features. Once this has been completed a developer can then introduce new functionality to the web page, using modern web technologies such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or JavaScript. Only devices and browsers that support the advanced functionality will display them. The strategy is an attempt to subvert the traditional web design approach known as “graceful degradation”, wherein designers would create websites for the latest browser technologies, then remove features so that the site would function on older browsers and less capable devices. The core principle of progressive enhancement is that basic content and functionality should be accessible to all web browsers. Web pages created using progressive enhancement are by their very nature more accessible, because the strategy demands that basic content always be available, not obstructed by commonly unsupported or easily disabled scripting. Progressive enhancement focuses on the content, not the browser.

progressive enhancement

progressive enhancement and graceful degradation

From a philosophical perspective, progressive enhancement is vastly superior to graceful degradation. As opposed to punishing us for using less capable devices and older browsers the strategy rewards us as we progress through each platform. Progressive enhancement comes from a happy place. It’s a Zen thing.

Developing responsive websites with progressive enhancement should be a best practices standard for web design agencies. Sadly, most of them still cling to the old graceful degradation legacy approach, because that is what they know. If you own or manage a website in 2013 you should be very concerned with content availability, overall accessibility and mobile browser compatibility. I strongly recommend that you take the time to learn more about progressive enhancement and responsive web design as they relate to your overall web strategy.

Frank Farris

Frank Farris is Founder and CEO of DeepBlue. He has been an active thought leader in the application of emerging web technologies since 1998 and is a champion of the movement to make the Responsive Web Design approach the new industry standard.

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