Posted on 09 June 2010.
Call it positive reinforcement. Call it Pavlovian conditioning. I call it a path to a world free of ancient browsers and hands full of freshly pulled-out hair. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ever since the days of the blink and marquee tags, browser have ventured to set themselves apart from the pack. By implementing features ahead of the standards, they offer a progressive enhancement for the developers and users of that browser. Utilizing these new features, unsurprisingly, became known as progressive enhancement, and it has often lead the standards writers by the nose in the adoption of these fancy techniques. (See HTML5, CSS3)
Browser markets have diversified. Choice is abundant, but often the choice that developer wants the user to make, isn’t the one they do make. If my subtext is unclear, allow me to transcribe it into text: A great majority of developers want users to choose a standards compliant browser over Internet Explorer, or at the very least, IE the Younger over IE the Elder, for IE discontentment is inversely proportional to version number.
Users however, are a stubborn bunch. Despite the seemingly apparent improvements in speed, security, feature availability and handsomeness, individuals and corporations alike choose to stay with a browser that drives developers mad, instead of fast gorgeous browsers like Chrome and Safari. (Sorry Firefox, but you’ve been a dog of late.) There seem to be a few choices, all bad, in this regard.
Bad solution: We could ignore the browsers we don’t like.
Why this is a bad solution: We know in our heart of hearts that we cannot turn our back on these netizens. Is it their fault that their companies force them to use IE6 at work? What about Grandma? She uses IE6 because that’s what came on her computer, and asking her to “updating her software” is like asking her to do her own dental work. I mean come on, she’s on the freakin’ Internet after all.
Bad solution: We could grin and bear it.
Why this is a bad solution: These antediluvian browsers, by their very use, are holding back the progress of all of web-kind. Developers are not using cool modern techniques because the ecosystem doesn’t fully support them. Also, for the cost of nothing grandma can improve her web experience by an order of magnitude. She must be brought to know this.
So how does a developer balance human progress without leaving humans behind? Progressive enhancement. That is, give dapper things to those who will accept them, and don’t bother with the rest.
In order to embrace this philosophy you need to first accept a concept which virtually no employer will support: Websites do not have to look the same in every browser. This was a difficult thing to embrace, both for myself and my clients. It does however make sense in the grand scheme of web design, and here is why.
The website must work. In all browsers. Grandma gets the same content, just not the same experience. If we incrementally add spiff for browsers that use it, then we improve the user experience for those browsers. Improved experience means that users will prefer it in that browser, even if it’s incremental, and even if they dont’ know why.
Eventually, if we use these new features, they will do what they were intended to do originally by the browser-smiths: Lure users away from other browsers. Basically all we need is the grapes to tell Grandma “No”.