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.


  1. "the unsophisticated and uninspired" like poor people or those in developing countries for example?

  2. What is preventing poor people from upgrading to a modern browser?

    1. They are not poor people, but are those working in some offices (mainly governmental) where everything needs to go according to some foolish procedures established by top management; example to upgrade IE7 to IE8 or IE8 to IE9, approval needs to be taken from the department manager (and usually knows nothing about computers). He thinks upgrading means money to be spent and therefore can't sanctioned this expense. These 2% of IE7 users may be 30%-50% of an online business clients - e.g. government officers need loans and are therefore clients of insurance companies. But since these officers are using IE7, websites of insurance companies need to run on IE7 (for the 30-50% clients) ...

  3. You seem to treat graceful degradation as though it's only required to cater to people who can't be bothered to update their web browsers. Aren't you ignoring the fact that graceful degradation (and the widely preferred option of progressive enhancement) is also required to make sure web content travels well to devices with more limited browsers, such as phones and tablets?

    (Also, you should be careful using evaluative terms such as 'unsophisticated and uninspired' to describe people who don't update their web browsers - some people are just not aware of this kind of stuff, some are aware but just not hugely interested, others might simply prefer older, more limited versions of browsers because of familiarity, and yet others might lack the privileges to update, at work or whatever. I'm not sure any of those reasons speaks to a lack of sophistication or inspiration, and it certainly doesn't mean that they should be precluded from accessing websites.)

    (And does having the latest in web browsing software really contribute towards someone being SOPHISTICATED or INSPIRED? Really?! Maybe a certain limited level of technological sophistication, but inspiration?)