Keana Lynch

Progressive Enhancement

Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

I had the privilege of attending “An Event Apart” in Austin, TX this week and feel like I have come home with an abundance of knowledge about leading practices in web development. This conference is an educational session for those passionate about standards-based web design and this year focused heavily on best practices for our multi-device world. Many developers are facing the challenges of 1000s of screen sizes and the multitude of ways people can now access the websites we create. With new devices coming out daily plus fascinating new ways to enhance sites visually and interactively, we sometimes forget that many people are still using older slower browser and devices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be designing our sites without all the bells and whistles, but we cannot forgot about the other users. At the conference, one topic in general really helped explain how we create amazing sites without leaving anyone out. Progressive enhancement!

What is Progressive Enhancement?

“Progressive enhancement is a strategy for web design that emphasizes accessibility, semantic HTML markup, and external stylesheet and scripting technologies. Progressive enhancement uses web technologies in a layered fashion that allows everyone to access the basic content and functionality of a web page, using any browser or Internet connection, while also providing an enhanced version of the page to those with more advanced browser software or greater bandwidth.”

Basically, progressive enhancement allows everyone, no matter what their browser or internet connection may be, to access a web page and view the basic content and functionality. If you are running a more advanced browser or better bandwidth, you will get the enhanced version of the page.

Progressive Enhancement vs. Graceful Degradation

Both graceful degradation and progress enhancement focus on how a site works in all browsers and devices. The focus and how it affects the workflow is the key between these two methods.


For many years, web designers have been using the principle of graceful degradation to make sure users in older browsers can at least see the content on a site, even if it doesn’t look exactly like the design intended. It allows designers and developers to focus on building the website for the most advanced/capable browsers. Using this method leaves older browsers with poor, but passable experience.


Rather than focusing on browser technology and support, we can focus on the content and how the user will see this content no matter what they are on. The content of your site is the most important element, it’s what brings users to your site and should always be first priority.

So how does Progressive Enhancement work?

It’s best to think of progressive enhancement as different layers. We couldn’t build a home without a solid foundation, the same goes for our websites. Each layer builds on the previous to improve the interactivity on the website without losing a solid functional base.

Content first! Start with your content, marked up in rich, semantic HTML. Having well-thought-out HTML has the advantage of not needing presentation layers to make sense. This also means screen readers, search engine spiders and those on basic mobile browsers will be able to view your content without any distracting formatting issues.

Visual Enhancements (CSS) Once your base HTML and content is ready, you are ready for the visual enhancement layer, CSS.  The majority of desktop and mobile browsers support CSS, though not all support CSS3. The CSS should enhance the content and make the overall user experience better.

Interaction (JavaScript) The final layer of our web site is JavaScript and should be handled last. JavaScript can contribute so much to the usability and user experience of a website. It has revolutionized the way sites work and how we do things online. However, your website should always work without JS and there should be an HTML or server-side scripting alternative. While most web users have JS enabled, there are still some cases where JS is undesirable and not every mobile browser or screen reader has good support for it.

Once you understand progressive enhancement, the concept of it makes sense and is easy to do. We build for the very basic structure and then build out so that no matter what device or speed someone is viewing the site at, they will always be presented with what is important. The content!


One Comment

  1. Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Great article Keana! I learned a lot… Would you elaborate on this item though– “Start with your content, marked up in rich, semantic HTML.”? Is there anything the creator of the website content can do to make this easier for the developer? Thanks!

One Trackback

  • By Mobile Technology and the Digital Divide on November 22, 2013 at 9:10 am

    […] and content should cater to the mobile platform. We can do this through responsive design and progressive enhancement and a content first approach that considers the content needs of all your users above all else […]