Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ungraceful Degradation

There's this idea in web development called graceful degradation. It refers to the design philosophy that developers should ensure their websites are also accessible for those using older or less-sophisticated web browsers. This way, someone running Internet Explorer 7 (a full 2% of the browsing population at the time of writing) can still read the basic content of a webpage even if they miss out on the latest special effects. Ever since I started paying attention, I've never heard anything but unwavering support of graceful degradation.

But why should people spend their time ensuring their webpages degrade gracefully? The trade-off seems clear to me. You can spend your time using the latest web technologies to innovate and create something new, or you can cater to the lazy, unintelligent, or uninterested hordes of apes who managed to sit down in front of a computer. What would the internet look like today if every hour of graceful degradation work was spent trying to answer this question: How can I use these new web technologies to create something that does not yet exist? There certainly is no innovation in trying to get a webpage to look right in a five year old version of Internet Explorer. There certainly is an undeserved reward for those who make no effort to keep up.

I can anticipate one objection. "What's wrong with web accessibility for those with disabilities?" For example, webpage images can be tagged with text which can be read aloud to a blind person using a custom browser. When a website is rendered in this way, I do not see it as degradation so the objection misses the point. The Opera browser, for instance, is a modern browser that leads the others in accessibility for those with visual and motor impairments. How many "graceful degraders" spent time opening up their webpages to the visually impaired? Graceful degradation is a high-tech reflection of the cultural phenomenon of catering to the unsophisticated and uninspired.