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Progressive enhancement is a strategy for web design that emphasizes core webpage content first. This strategy then progressively adds more nuanced and technically rigorous layers of presentation and features on top of the content as the end-user's browser/internet connection allow. The proposed benefits of this strategy are that it allows everyone to access the basic content and functionality of a web page, using any browser or Internet connection, while also providing an enhanced version of the page to those with more advanced browser software or greater bandwidth.
"Progressive Enhancement" was coined by Steven Champeon & Nick Finck at the SXSW Interactive conference on March 11, 2003 in Austin, and through a series of articles for Webmonkey which were published between March and June 2003.
Specific Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) techniques pertaining to flexibility of the page layout accommodating different screen resolutions is the concept associated with Responsive web design approach. .net Magazine chose Progressive Enhancement as #1 on its list of Top Web Design Trends for 2012 (Responsive design was #2). Google has encouraged the adoption of progressive enhancement to help "our systems (and a wider range of browsers) see usable content and basic functionality when certain web design features are not yet supported".
The strategy is an evolution of a previous web design strategy known as graceful degradation, wherein designers would create Web pages for the latest browsers that would also work well in older versions of browser software. Graceful degradation was supposed to allow the page to "degrade", or remain presentable even if certain technologies assumed by the design were not present, without being jarring to the user of such older software. In practice, graceful degradation has been supplanted by an attitude that the end user should "just upgrade".
The PE approach is derived from Champeon's early experience (c. 1993-4) with Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), before working with HTML or any Web presentation languages, as well as from later experiences working with CSS to work around browser bugs. In those early SGML contexts, semantic markup was of key importance, whereas presentation was nearly always considered separately, rather than being embedded in the markup itself. This concept is variously referred to in markup circles as the rule of separation of presentation and content, separation of content and style, or of separation of semantics and presentation. As the Web evolved in the mid-nineties, but before CSS was introduced and widely supported, this cardinal rule of SGML was repeatedly violated by HTML's extenders. As a result, web designers were forced to adopt new, disruptive technologies and tags in order to remain relevant. With a nod to graceful degradation, in recognition that not everyone had the latest browser, many began to simply adopt design practices and technologies only supported in the most recent and perhaps the single previous major browser releases. For several years, much of the Web simply did not work in anything but the most recent, most popular browsers. This remained true until the rise and widespread adoption of and support for CSS, as well as many populist, grassroots educational efforts (from Eric Costello, Owen Briggs, Dave Shea, and others) showing Web designers how to use CSS for layout purposes.
First proposed as a somewhat less unwieldy catchall phrase to describe the delicate art of "separating document structure and contents from semantics, presentation, and behavior", and based on the then-common use of CSS hacks to work around rendering bugs in specific browsers, the PE strategy has taken on a life of its own as new designers have embraced the idea and extended and revised the approach.
PE strategy consists of the following core principles:
Web pages created according to the principles of PE are by their nature more accessible, because the strategy demands that basic content always be available, not obstructed by commonly unsupported or easily disabled scripting. Additionally, the sparse markup principle makes it easier for tools that read content aloud to find that content. It is unclear as to how well PE sites work with older tools designed to deal with table layouts, "tag soup", and the like.
Improved results with respect to search engine optimization (SEO) is another side effect of a PE-based Web design strategy. Because the basic content is always accessible to search engine spiders, pages built with PE methods avoid problems that may hinder search engine indexing.
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