Buzzword of the Week: Progressive Enhancement

Interactive Content Director
Published 10/24/13
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Notes from "An Event Apart" in Austin, Texas

Ahh, An Event Apart. It’s been about a month since five of my colleagues and I were in Austin, Texas, for a two-day web design conference (plus a full day’s workshop on multi-device design), and I’m still digesting all I took in. In total, we sat through a dozen sessions with 12 different cewebrities speaking on topics ranging from using style tiles to drive responsive design (something we at Miles have been doing for more than a year now; we gave ourselves a pat on the back for that one) to creating content strategies which focus on quality over quantity.

Three things we kept seeing over and over again:

  1. Flame transitions
  2. Cat GIFs (everyone knows it’s hard to go wrong with a cat GIF)
  3. Progressive enhancement

Now, “progressive enhancement” is a term that’s been around for a decade or so, but I’m not talking about HTML5, JavaScript and other web languages. I’m talking about starting simple and building upon your starting point. Take an electric toothbrush. It’s a toothbrush, plain and simple – one that’s been progressively enhanced. What I took from An Event Apart is that progressive enhancement should be a focus of every part of web design, specifically responsive web design.

From different sessions came different lessons:

Evolve the process. Every project is different, and – while building a website definitely involves certain steps – it’s important to remain at least somewhat flexible and grow as you learn. We at Miles have done a lot of learning and growing since designing our first responsive website, and we learn more – and change more of our process – with every responsive site we build.

Put the most important information first. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s more complicated than it seems. Say you have three signals of intent to travel. It’s easy enough to give them equal play when a user is seeing them on a laptop or even a tablet, but which gets top billing on a smartphone?

Deliver different content to different devices. Well, not necessarily different, but additional. Have essential content load on all devices, a bit more on tablets and more on personal computers. If you put the most important information first, this should be fairly simple.

Don’t stop improving. Responsive or not, a website is never complete. Use analytics and do testing to see how people are using your website, and adjust it accordingly. These are just a few of the things we took from An Event Apart. In addition to a progressively enhanced waistline (if you ever go to Austin, bring your appetite), I came home with a mind bursting with ideas … and an arsenal of cool cat GIFs.