Progressive Enhancement and Settling for Everything



by Cameron Alcorn August 6, 2014   Web Design

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Terre des Hommes”

Although this statement is over 70 years old, it still rings true today, especially in the world of web design. As many individuals and businesses are still scrambling to optimize their often-times large and complex sites for mobile devices, the question that many are left asking is, “what is most important?” In other words, what content can stay and what content must go? After all, there’s only so much one can cram onto a 300-something-pixel-wide phone screen. What’s the solution to this dilemma you ask? Progressive Enhancement.

Progressive What?

Progressive enhancement is a design strategy and philosophy, established around several core principles. The two most important core principles state:

  1. Essential content should be accessible to all web browsers
  2. Basic functions and functionality should be available to all web browsers

Assuming a web designer abides by these principles, a website should be functional and visually acceptable, no matter the device used to access said site.

How a web designer goes about accomplishing this task is another matter, entirely. Some have recommended responsive design, while others endorse adaptive design. In recent years this has become a huge topic of discussion in the web design industry and community. This wasn’t always the case, though.

When Did This Start?

Surprisingly, the concept of progressive enhancement has been around for over a decade. In 2003, Steve Champeon, web guru and co-founder of the Web Standards Project, coined the term “progressive enhancement”. While this did get some attention, it has especially become a popular topic in recent years, due to the increased usage of smart phones to access resources on the Web.

It’s no surprise that mobile devices just don’t have the screen size, computing power, and resources that laptop and desktop computers do. As touched upon at the beginning of the article, many individuals and businesses are now left asking “what is most important?” What content and functions of a website are essential, no matter the platform? These are questions that will continue to be asked as more designers begin to follow the principles of progressive enhancement in the design process.

Clearly, this is an important subject at this point in the history of web design. However, this approach to design shouldn’t be news to anyone. In fact, it should already be a staple in the web design process.

This Shouldn’t Be Anything New

While it’s truly wonderful to see web designers becoming more conscientious of what features users actually want to utilize and of what content users actually want to consume, this shouldn’t be a new concept. Progressive enhancement is not just a strategy for designing a better website; it embodies a philosophy and outlook on the necessity of quality content. Quality and necessity become an expectation when publishing content to the web.

It embodies a philosophy and outlook on the necessity of quality content.

All-in-all, progressive enhancement is about trimming the fat, so to speak. It’s about separating “wants” from “needs”. It makes a designer truly consider what is worth sharing with the world.

Settling For Everything

That all being said, progressive enhancement is not a compromise. It is not about settling for less. If content or services are at all worth publishing and promoting on the Web, consumers should, in theory, have at least some bit of interest in it. Why is it that AdBlock is the most popular extension in the Google Chrome web store? Why is it we call unwanted emails “junk mail”? Why are pop-up blockers a thing? The answer is because consumers only want to consume what they went online to consume. No one wants spam, link bait, pay-walls, advertisements, or anything else to get in their way.

While you may be thinking, “but my website’s content doesn’t fall under any of those categories”, what about how your site is structured, designed, etc.? How much of your site’s content and features are, in all actuality, filler? How much of the content that you are presenting does the World actually care about? These are all important questions to ask.

The fact of the matter is that by embracing progressive enhancement one is not settling for less. By embracing progressive enhancement one is settling for everything – everything that actually matters.


Just because a web designer can cram more onto a users screen utilizing responsive design, adaptive design, or any other design approach, does not mean that the designer is actually doing the consumer any favors. It’s time for web designers and content creators to start settling for everything that actually matters.


Written by
Business professional by day, web developer by night, when I’m not creating solutions for my clients, I’m writing or creating meaningful content for the Web.

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