Just what is it that you want to do?

The supersmart Scott Jenson just gave a talk at The Web Is in Cardiff, which was by all accounts, excellent. I wish I could have seen it, but I’m currently chilling out in Florida and I haven’t mastered the art of bilocation.

Last week, Scott wrote a blog post called My Issue with Progressive Enhancement (he wrote it on Google+, which is why you might not have seen it).

In it, he takes to task the idea that—through progressive enhancement—you should be able to offer all functionality to all browsers, thereby foregoing the use of newer technologies that aren’t universally supported.

If that were what progressive enhancement meant, I’d be with him all the way. But progressive enhancement is not about offering all functionality; progressive enhancement is about making sure that your core functionality is available to everyone. Everything after that is, well, an enhancement (the clue is in the name).

The trick to doing this well is figuring out what is core functionality, and what is an enhancement. There are no hard and fast rules.

Sometimes it’s really obvious. Web fonts? They’re an enhancement. Rounded corners? An enhancement. Gradients? An enhancement. Actually, come to think of it, all of your CSS is an enhancement. Your content, on the other hand, is not. That should be available to everyone. And in the case of task-based web thangs, that means the fundamental tasks should be available to everyone …but you can still layer more tasks on top.

If you’re building an e-commerce site, then being able to add items to a shopping cart and being able to check out are your core tasks. Once you’ve got that working with good ol’ HTML form elements, then you can go crazy with your enhancements: animating, transitioning, swiping, dragging, dropping …the sky’s the limit.

This is exactly what Orde Saunders describes:

I’m not suggesting that you try and replicate all your JavaScript functionality when it’s disabled, above all that’s just not practical. What you should be aiming for is being able to complete the basics - for example adding a product to a shopping cart and then checking out. This is necessarily going to be clunky as judged by current standards and I suggest you don’t spend much time on optimising this process.

Scott asked about building a camera app with progressive enhancement:

Here again, the real question to ask is “what is the core functionality?” Building a camera app is a means to an end, not the end itself. You need to ask what the end goal is. Perhaps it’s “enable people to share photos with their friends.” Going back to good ol’ HTML, you can accomplish that task with:

<input type="file" accept="image/*">

Now that you’ve got that out of the way, you can spend the majority of your time making the best damn camera app you can, using all the latest browser technologies. (Perhaps WebRTC? Maybe use a canvas element to display the captured image data and apply CSS filters on top?)

Scott says:

My point is that not everything devolves to content. Sometimes the functionality is the point.

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I would say that even in the case of “content” sites, functionality is still the point—the functionality would be reading/hearing/accessing content. But I think that Scott is misunderstanding progressive enhancement if he think it means providing all the functionality that one can possibly provide.

Mat recently pointed out that there are plenty of enhancements on the Boston Globe site that require JavaScript, but the core functionality is available to everyone:

Scott again:

What I’m chaffing at is the belief that when a page is offering specific functionality, Let’s say a camera app or a chat app, what does it mean to progressively enhance it?

Again, a realtime chat app is a means to an end. What is it enabling? The ability for people to talk to each other over the web? Okay, we can do that using good ol’ HTML—text and form elements—with full page refreshes. That won’t be realtime. That’s okay. The realtime part is an enhancement. Use Web Sockets and WebRTC (in the browsers that support them) to provide the realtime experience. But everyone gets the core functionality.

Like I said, the trick is figuring out what’s core functionality and what’s an enhancement.

Ethan provides another example. Let’s say you’re building a browser-based rich text editor, that uses JavaScript to do all sorts of formatting on the fly. The core functionality is not the formatting on the fly; the core functionality is being able to edit text:

If progressive enhancement truly meant making all functionality available to everyone, then it would be unworkable. I think that’s a common misconception around progressive enhancement; there’s this idea that using progressive enhancement means that you’re going to spend all your time making stuff work in older browsers. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. As long as you spend a little bit of time at the start making sure that the core functionality works with good ol’ fashioned HTML, then you can spend most of your time trying out the latest and greatest browser technologies.

As Orde put it:

What you are going to be spending the majority of your time and effort on is the enhanced JavaScript version as that is how the majority of your customers will be experiencing your site.

The other Scott—Scott Jehl—wrote a while back:

For us, building with Progressive Enhancement moves almost all of our development time and costs to newer browsers, not older ones.

Progressive Enhancement frees us to focus on the costs of building features for modern browsers, without worrying much about leaving anyone out. With a strongly qualified codebase, older browser support comes nearly for free.

Approaching browser support this way requires a different way of thinking. For everything you’re building, you need to ask “is this core functionality, or is it an enhancment?” and build accordingly. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it gets easier the more you do it (until, after a while, it becomes second nature).

But if you’re thinking about progressive enhancement as “devolving” down—as Scott Jenson describes in his post—then I think you’re on the wrong track. Instead it’s about taking care of the core functionality quickly and then spending your time “enhancing” up.

Scott asks:

Shouldn’t we be allowed to experiment? Isn’t it reasonable to build things that push the envelope?

Absolutely! And the best and safest way to do that is to make sure that you’re providing your core functionality for everyone. Once you do that, you can go nuts with the latest and greatest experimental envelope-pushing technologies, secure in the knowledge that you don’t even need to worry about the fact that they don’t work in older browsers. Geolocation! Offline storage! Device APIs! Anything you can think of, you can use as a powerful enhancement on top of your core tasks.

Once you realise this, it’s immensely liberating to use progressive enhancement. You can have the best of both worlds: universal access to core functionality, combined with all the latest cuting-edge technology too.