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Progressive Enhancement? Responsive Design?

Updated on January 7, 2013

Progressive Enhancement and Responsive Design

I remember when the debate in web design was between fluid and fixed designs in response to the problem of different monitor sizes. Fluid designs stretched as the browser window was resized, while fixed designs maintained a solid width, currently at the faddish and utilitarian 960 pixels, aimed to look good on most, if not all, standard browsers.

With mobile devices, the old tutorials on three-column fluid designs have gotten exponentially more complicated and, frankly irrelevant with the growing imperative of looking fantastic and functioning well on any screen, anytime, anywhere. Beyond merely looking good on different screen sizes, today’s designers have to intelligently anticipate which elements of information will most likely be needed at the different sizes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the elitist debates over responsive v.s. adaptive layouts and Progressive Enhancement v.s. Graceful Degradation, but the intent with this article is to side-step the debates and focus instead on the decidedly non-purist questions, “what works to generate sales, what doesn’t and why?”

Although it may make sense to start with definitions, I’m going to plunge in with the money question:

“Do I need to redesign my web site?”

Do you need to have your web site redesigned to keep up with new eCommerce realities? The short answer is, “maybe, but maybe not. Eventually, yes.” If that seems evasive, it’s because the question, itself, should be whether capturing more mobile and tablet visitors would improve your bottom line enough to justify the cost of a redesign. For some businesses such as restaurants, the answer may be a resounding yes, but mobile phone conversions on a bookstore may be somewhat more negligible. In the end, however, mobile use is exploding so within a year or two, there will be no excuse for not having a site that reflects that reality.

Further, merely replacing one design template with another layout that happens to be “responsive” misses out on several opportunities that present themselves with regard to seriously focusing on the relationship between mobile use and other realities such as social networking, for example. If the decision is to do a redesign, putting real thought into it may propel you easily into a future with greater than expected growth. The idea is that a redesign should be far more than merely a redesign of the layout, but rather a redesign of how you do business on the web at all.

Definitions: Progressive Enhancement, Graceful Degradation, Responsive Design, Adaptive Design, etc.

For years, web sites were designed with the idea of looking optimal on the best and newest browsers, but still being presentable to older, obsolete browsers. Designing a site for optimal presentation, first, then making sure the site looks nice and is usable on older and older browsers is called Graceful Degradation.

Progressive Enhancement, on the other hand, concentrates on the content rather than the presentation, first. It is far superior and flexible to Graceful Degradation because it operates on the assumption that the content layer of a design should operate independently of the design with well-formed structure. The presentation layer is then added and remains independent of the semantic mark-up. Lastly, functionality through javascript, etc., is added.

Progressive Enhancement thus allows for easy adaptation of a site layout and functionality to new and emerging technologies.

With Responsive and Adaptive designs applied to a site developed with Progressive Enhancement, different devices receive a user experience appropriate to the media device and how that media is used. In the case of Responsive Web Design (RWD), the layout fluidly adapts to the size and shape of the browser window. For Adaptive Designs, the browser and media type is detected and content appropriate to that device is then delivered complete with the layout.

I have yet to read a good argument why a combination of Responsive and Adaptive designs shouldn’t be employed and the current BBC web site is a perfect example of sensible rather than purist solutions to real-world problems. (As a note, anybody that remembers the leaked internal BBC memo, “The Glass Door” will appreciate their use of adaptive design WAY before cell phones became a consideration).

Going Beyond The Buzz

If you’re an eCommerce website owner and you’ve picked up on the buzz, I advise you to stop and take a deep breath. Don’t be one of those small business owners that careen from one cool idea to the next demanding new website features you neither need, nor fully understand. You won’t get any more new customers now than you did when you slapped the SEO sticker on your site.

The first thing I advise is to grab your cell phone, go outside and, without turning the phone on, look at the screen and imagine being a potential customer looking for your business and not your web site. Is there any good reason why someone standing right where you are now would be doing this instead of searching for you from the comfort of their office or home computer? If so, what are they – you – wanting to see as web site options, first? Directions? Lunch in between meetings? The time that rock band is playing at your store? the price of a new widget that you offer and they need it, now? Maybe somebody just turned them on to that cool doohicky you offer and they want to see a photo and a price tag with a simple, buy now button.

If you can reasonably imagine a person converting from their cell phone, then it may be time to think about a redesign, but you should be thinking of the content and use of your site and NOT the looks, first. Starting from "what information and functionality simply HAS to be there?" Note that answer and set it aside.

Now, with your most basic text editor, write sample content for a page as if it were a newspaper article: Headline, sub-headline, text, next headline, etc. What information would you include that would STILL get a visitor to convert without anything but raw text and a link?

When you’re fully into this mindset of looking at your own future web site without any thought to looks, you are now at the point where you can talk to a developer about a redesign with Progressive Enhancement as a design standard and Responsive/Adaptive design to appeal to various customers depending on their choice of devices and why they may be using that device to find you at that time.


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