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An Interview with Aaron Gustafson on Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement

Aaron Gustafson share his thoughts on progressive enhancement, advice for web designers, and how the Web will be changing in the next year.
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Peachpit: There are a number of books out on progressive enhancement and adaptive web design. What makes yours different?

Aaron: There are a good number of books out there that mention progressive enhancement, but only two are wholly focused on the subject, Adaptive Web Design being one of them. Designing with Progressive Enhancement (also from New Riders and written by the amazing team at Filament Group) is more developer-focused, and most web design books are very technique-driven. Adaptive Web Design is not a technique book, it’s a philosophy book. It’s about understanding the medium of the Web at a fundamental level, which will make you a better web designer.

Peachpit: How has this second edition evolved from the first edition?

Aaron: I’ve actually written at length about the differences. The second edition could easily have new book—it’s about 95% new material—but I wanted to update AWD because it has a strong following and deserved a refresh. In addition to new material, I’ve adjusted the framing of the subject and overall organization quite a bit. I also got the opportunity to address single-page apps and Responsive Web Design, which weren’t really a “thing” when I wrote the first edition.

Peachpit: Can you summarize the key benefits of adaptive web design?

Aaron: The adaptive approach (a.k.a. progressive enhancement) has a number of benefits: 1) your sites will be more resilient to the harsh realities of delivering experiences on the Web; 2) what you build will be accessible to more people, regardless of the device, browser, or network they happen to rely on; and 3) you’ll save time and money in the process!

Peachpit: Tell us what you’re now doing at Microsoft as a web standards advocate with their browser team.

Aaron: The majority of my work centers around educating web designers and developers about web standards and accessibility through my writing, conference talks, and workshops. I also provide best practices guidance to internal teams and I coach colleagues on writing and provide editorial assistance to any of my colleagues who’d like it.

Peachpit: What aspects of progressive enhancement do you think people find the most challenging?

Aaron: Progressive enhancement is often mischaracterized as being solely concerned with offering a “no-JavaScript” experience, so many people write it off as “too hard” or “too limiting” because they want to use JavaScript and can’t see how it might be possible to accomplish the interactions they desire without it. Progressive enhancement isn’t just about a no-JavaScript scenario, however; it’s part of it, but only part. Progressive enhancement recognizes that things can go wrong out on the open Web and guides us in building sites in a way that ensures that our customers can do what they came to our site to do, no matter what. Thinking about how to enable users to accomplish key tasks with a minimal number of dependencies, requires thinking progressively—layering additional features, affordances, and so on without compromising a highly usable core experience. In doing that, you guarantee your users will always have an experience, even if it isn’t the ideal experience.

Peachpit: Can you give an example or two of a site that you think does progressive enhancement very well? What about a site that doesn’t do it well (or at all)?

Aaron: I think that the Boston Globe is a testament to progressive enhancement. I think the BBC has also done some great work in this area. The Government Digital Services in the UK have also done a bang-up job with it on and 18F has made it a cornerstone of the work being done within the US government as well.

I don’t really like to call out sites for doing a poor job, but Dan Mall maintains a Tumblr title “Sigh, JavaScript” that includes some common mistakes people make when it comes to relying too heavily on one technology.

Peachpit: How, where, and when did you first get started in web design?

Aaron: I came to the Web from print in the mid-’90s. I was running a small entertainment magazine and wanted to bring it online. A friend helped me with the first iteration of the site, but then I took over and decided to rebuild it. Later, I taught myself PHP and built a custom content management system to run the site. Eventually, I quit the magazine and began building websites full-time.

Peachpit: You’ve worked with start-ups, large corporations, and government agencies. What has working with all of these different cultures taught you, and what one piece advice would you give to web designers to help them flourish in any environment?

Aaron: I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to web designers is to truly know your medium. Get intimately familiar with each aspect of web design (including how back-ends work, even if you have no interest in building them) and see how they come together to create the user experience. Seeing all the moving parts and being able to provide guidance on how they should fit together will make you a trusted and invaluable member of any team.

Peachpit: How do you see the web changing in the next year? How will we use it differently and what challenges will that bring for Web designers?

Aaron: I think the next big thing for the Web is voice. We currently think a lot about what websites should look like and even how they should adapt across different screen sizes, but few of us think about how they should sound. With technologies like Siri, Cortana, Google Now, and Echo creating opportunities for users to have an experience with a “headless” UI, voice interactions will become even more important. To prepare for that eventuality, I highly recommend folks spend some time listening to their sites via screen readers. Does the source order make sense? Can you move around the site quickly and easily? Can you fill out key forms and complete crucial tasks? These are important questions to ask.

Peachpit: What five websites do you visit every day?

Aaron: The only site I probably hit every day in the browser is Gmail. I do read a lot via RSS feeds though and some of my favorite news sources include A List Apart, Smashing Magazine, Ars Technica, and Wired.

Peachpit: What is the one tool all Web designers should use/master?

Aaron: I’m not a big tool guy to be honest. If I was to pick one, I would say the text editor. Learn how to do things by hand so you know what the various other tools are doing for you. That skill is incredibly helpful when things don’t go quite right and you need to peek under the hood.

Peachpit: Where are you speaking this year and which event are you the most excited to attend?

Aaron: I am quite excited about the first EnhanceConf in London. It’s a conference dedicated to progressive enhancement. I’ll be there in early March, speaking and giving a workshop based on the book. I’m also thrilled to be back at An Event Apart again and to be taking the stage at Smashing Conference this year.

Peachpit: Other than your book, what other resources would you recommend to web designers?

Aaron: There are so many great articles, books, and blog posts out there it’s tough to pick just a few to highlight. I included a pretty substantial reading list as an appendix in Adaptive Web Design, Second Edition. Some of my faves include Designing with Web Standards, 3rd Edition by Jeffrey Zeldman and Ethan Marcotte and Nicely Said by Nichole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. Both are from New Riders. And you really can’t go wrong with the offerings from A Book Apart and Five Simple Steps either.

Peachpit: What’s the most fun thing to do in Chattanooga, TN?

Aaron: There are so many fun things to do in Chattanooga, it’s hard to say. Eating out is a big one. We have a lot of amazing local farms and many of the local restaurants source their produce and meats from them. It makes everything so fresh and flavorful!

Apart from food, I am completely in love with our aquarium. It’s small when compared to the Shedd in Chicago or the Boston Aquarium, but it has two buildings, one of which is entirely freshwater. Even though I am a huge fan of ocean-dwelling fish, corals, and (especially) cephalopods, the freshwater building fascinates me. They have paddlefish, gar, sturgeon, and a ton of other amazingly unique fish, amphibians, reptiles, and such from the world’s streams, rivers, and lakes. It makes for a truly unique aquarium experience.

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