Design for the best experience

By Philip Morton

As web designer Scott Jehl recently tweeted "Progressive enhancement doesn't mean settling for poor UX". When I asked who would say that he replied: "I commonly sees PE labelled as a practice for those happy settling for less-than-stellar design."

I think that whoever thinks this is misguided and out of touch with how modern websites are designed and built. Progressive enhancement is core to creating a good user experience, not something that is in conflict with it.

What is progressive enhancement?

Let me backtrack slightly to explain the concept. The idea comes from the fact that the way websites are accessed is unpredictable. The number of different device, browser and operating system combinations and the variance of these is huge.

If you make an assumption about how someone will access your site and only design for those capabilities or features, you may cut out a lot of people. Anyone who’s visited a Flash-based website on an iPhone or iPad will know what I mean. The assumption is that you have Flash and there’s often no contingency plan if you don’t. All you see is a void – hardly a great user experience.

With progressive enhancement, you build your website with the basic content (HTML) first and then add on layers of presentation (CSS) and interaction (JavaScript, Flash). You progressively enhance the experience for browsers with better capabilities, but you don’t leave behind those who don’t have them.

Progressive enhancement and UX

The goal of progressive enhancement is to build websites in such a way that they provide the best experience to the widest possible audience, regardless of how they’re accessing them. Doing this can only be positive for the overall user experience.

The argument is sometimes made that by maintaining a good experience for everyone, you’re limiting your potential to create the very best experience. If you’re always having to consider the lowest capability, edge-case users, you’re shackled and have to “settle for poor UX”.

Yet concentrating on a single technology or set of users at the expense of others rarely makes sense, either in terms of UX or business. Technology changes so quickly that anyone with all of their eggs in one basket can quickly find themselves cleaning up yolk. It might have seemed like a great idea to build your entire website in Flash, but when all of your customers buy iPhones, they get a terrible user experience and you’re back to square one.

The future of the web

Progressive enhancement embraces the fluidity and permanency of the web. Catering for unpredictable use cases can be difficult, but it’s worth doing because the web is a constant. With the prevalence of apps, it can be easy to forget about providing an excellent user experience on the web, but omitting to do so only leads to a poor user experience. As Jason Grigsby aptly put, “links don’t open apps”, they open websites. Having a great user experience on the web should be core to any business and progressive enhancement is core to that.

Scott’s tweet tackles a common misconception that by catering for many people and devices, UX has to suffer. This is counterintuitive, because the consequence of progressive enhancement is to provide exactly that, a great user experience. As we well know, not doing so is frustrating for customers and no good for business.

More on progressive enhancement

Philip Morton

I help businesses create better products and services by putting customer insight at the heart of the design process. In the last six years, I've worked with the likes of Sony PlayStation, HSBC, Sega, Tesco and TSB. In that time, I've seen our research, design and strategy work improve both the experience for customers and commercial outcomes for clients.

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