Radical Inclusion

At WordCamp Las Vegas 2011, I gave my first ever WordCamp talk. My topic was Progressively Enhancing Your WordPress Theme.

I chose that as my topic because I believed then, as I believe now, that progressive enhancement is nearly always the best way to build a website or web application. Focus on getting the content to someone, no matter what device they might be using, or what capabilities they might have. Then work on adding extras to that experience for devices and for people who have the capability to enjoy them.

As the web’s reach expands, the ways that people access it change, too. We take for granted that everyone else is having the same experience on our websites that we are – sitting at a desk with a nice, big monitor or maybe even balancing a laptop while sipping a coffee. But people access websites on gaming consoles, ebook readers, phones (only about half of which are smartphones),  tablets, televisions, etc. And all those different devices have different capabilities.

We also have a wide range of people using our websites. People who can see and people who can’t, people who can hear and people who can’t, people who have control over the movement of their fingers and people who don’t. All of these people deserve to access our content, purchase our products, publish their own ideas and opinions, and connect with others.

While working at a Fortune 500 company, I pitched the idea of progressive enhancement in a meeting where we were discussing possible approaches to a new project. The project manager’s only comment when I finished speaking was that the decision was a business decision, not a technology decision — in other words, his decision to make, not mine.

I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s a human decision.

I think it’s about empathy, dignity, compassion, and making the web the universal gathering place for all of humankind that it was intended to be. It’s about not excluding anyone from your content because they’re using the wrong browser, the wrong device, or have the wrong capabilities or abilities.

There’s a rush to embrace what’s next, to abandon old principles, like progressive enhancement. But you can embrace all that’s new without leaving people out, if you just take a moment to think, “How will this work without x?” Where x is JavaScript, or media queries, or CSS3 animations, or HTML5 form elements, or the history API, or the location API, and on and on.

That doesn’t mean that your website has to look and work exactly the same on every device and in every browser known to man. Just that your content should be accessible, no matter how I’ve arrived at it. Slick animations and parallax scrolling effects won’t work on a Kindle Paperwhite, but I might still like to use mine read your latest blog post. Just make sure that I can.

Progressive enhancement isn’t a stumbling block holding us back from innovation on the web. It’s about giving people the ability to access content, no matter who they are. It’s not about holding back and designing for the least capable devices and browsers. It’s about starting with the least capable browsers and adding on from there. It’s about ensuring that a rich and interactive experience for the most capable browsers doesn’t exclude those with lesser capable browsers. Innovate, experiment, move the web forward — just don’t unnecessarily leave anyone behind.

Image credit: Jason Pearce


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