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Technology vs. Experience

When the Web was young, the technologies we used to create experiences for it were rapidly evolving. HTML was not standardized like it is today, and Microsoft and Netscape were taking turns adding new elements and behaviors in a seemingly eternal game of one-upmanship. We also had things like Java applets,6 RealMedia, Shockwave, Flash, and a host of other proprietary technologies that served only to complicate the page construction process and heaped additional requirements on our users.

As an industry, we adopted the engineering concept of graceful degradation, which ensures a system can continue to work with a reduced service level even when part of it is unavailable or destroyed. In other words, it’s a philosophy meant to avoid catastrophe. In practice on the Web, this meant we assumed older browsers, or those without the necessary plug-ins, would get a poor experience. We rarely made the time to test in these scenarios, so we erected signs for our users:

  • This page works best in Internet Explorer.
  • This page looks best in Netscape.
  • You need Flash to use our website.
  • Keep out ye undesirables!

The graceful degradation philosophy amounted to giving the latest and greatest browsers the experience of a full-course meal, while tossing a few scraps to the sad folk unfortunate enough to be using an older or less-capable browser.

And when we really didn’t feel like testing in a browser, we’d just read the User Agent string on the server and erect a roadblock (Figure 1.3).7 After all, we told ourselves, if we stop the user before they experience an error, we’re avoiding delivering a bad experience.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3 An example roadblock page from Kodak.

But is no experience better than a less than ideal experience? I don’t think so.

Lessons Learned at the Bleeding Edge

Some time ago I worked on a Chrome app for WikiHow.8 As a Chrome app and a showpiece for the then-new Chrome Web Store, our client wanted it to have fancy CSS3 animations and transitions, web fonts, a WebSQL database, offline support, and lots of other “HTML5” bells and whistles. And, as our target was a single browser, we relented when asked to go the single-page app route. The app was built to degrade gracefully (it blocked non-WebKit browsers), but it was not progressively enhanced.

Skip ahead about a year and our client returned, asking us to add support for Firefox and Internet Explorer (IE) 9+. Oh boy.

Having built the site purely for WebKit, it was a bit of a challenge. In addition to implementation differences with the experimental CSS features, we also had to deal with the DOM (document object model) and JavaScript API (application programming interface) variance among the browsers. But the single biggest issue we ran into was the lack of WebSQL support in Firefox and IE.

You see, in the intervening year, WebSQL had been abandoned at the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium)—the organization that oversees most web standards—because of pushback (primarily from Mozilla and Microsoft). It was not available in either Firefox or IE, nor would it ever be. IndexedDB, the new replacement for WebSQL, had yet to be implemented in any production browser. So we ended up writing a wrapper on top of localStorage that looked a lot like SQL. Thankfully, that allowed us to avoid rewriting the bulk of the app. Incidentally, it also made the app a lot faster.

The total cost of the new compatibility project was around 40 percent of the budget to build the app the first time around. Without access to an alternate timeline, I can’t be certain, but my experience tells me it would have added less than 40 percent to the original project had we been given the leeway to build it using progressive enhancement. Plus, the end result would have been even better because it would have been able to function without JavaScript.

Based on conversations I’ve had with other designers, the 40 percent number seems pretty accurate—possibly even a bit low. I remember one conversation several years ago about Google Maps. When the team originally built Maps—in all of its Ajax-y glory—they didn’t make it accessible, and it required JavaScript. According to the source of this anecdote (who I have long forgotten), it took them almost twice as long to retrofit Maps as it would have taken had they built it from the ground up following progressive enhancement. As it’s purely anecdotal, you should take that with a grain of salt, but it’s food for thought.

Now consider this story in light of the one I shared earlier. Given the choice between a 40 percent budget increase to add support for 2 browsers and a 15 percent increase to add 1,400 browsers, I know which option I’d choose. Progressive enhancement does require a bit more thoughtful consideration up front. But the extra time required diminishes with practice, and the philosophy pays huge dividends in the long run. More reach, less overhead, fewer headaches.

Progressive enhancement trounces graceful degradation when it comes to reaching more browsers, devices, and (ultimately) users for less money (and fewer headaches). But how?

For starters, progressive enhancement recognizes that experience is a continuum.

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