What is Graceful Degradation & Why Does it Matter?


We often strive to be as graceful about things as possible in life; this is not always an easy task. Thankfully, in web development, we have graceful degradation. Graceful degradation may sound confusing at first but fret not, as that is the topic of this post.

Woman studying Web based graceful degradation and learning how it can benefit her projects.

This post will cover the concept of graceful degradation and its use in the web development industry. You will learn what graceful degradation is and why it is an important concept. You will also learn some examples of graceful degradation and how to use it in your web development.

This should be short and sweet, let’s dive right in.

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What is Graceful Degradation?

Graceful degradation is the practice of creating a website that is both feature-rich and still compatible with older versions of browsers or browsers that are not compatible. This practice is used to help create beautiful websites that are accessible to as many visitors as possible without sacrificing quality.

Web accessibility is an essential aspect of web development, influencing the user’s experience as they navigate the site. As a result, accessibility should always be at the forefront of your design and development efforts.

This information answers the question of what graceful degradation does, but how does one implement graceful degradation? To answer this question, you must first understand why it is used. Check out the video below to learn more about what graceful degradation is.

Why Use Graceful Degradation?

As technology advances and improves, it does not always do so proportionately. That is to say that not all software will improve with other technologies. As an example, most programming languages are capable of far more than most browsers can handle. Furthermore, not all browsers are capable of the same features; as such, it is up to the designers and developers to ensure accessibility.

The reason for taking this proactive approach is that we cannot assume visitors will be equally proactive. Especially when you consider the number of variables involved (programmer humor), the only solution is to take a high-level proactive approach to ensure the best user experience.

Finally, the biggest question is how to implement graceful degradation. That is the next question to be answered. The practice of graceful degradation is pretty simple, design first for modern browsers and work backward. The idea is to create a design that can utilize all of the features modern browsers offer. Then you develop graceful fallbacks for browsers that may not be compatible with them.

Let’s discuss that next.

How to Implement Graceful Degradation

Graceful degradation is all about creating elegant and graceful fallback designs to offer the best user experience for all browsers and visitors to the site. If you design with only older browsers, you will miss out on many features that could improve the user experience. Alternatively, suppose you only plan for newer browsers. In that case, you will miss out on a lot of visitors who cannot utilize your site to its fullest.

So to fix this issue, what developers aim to do is plan to design for as many browsers as possible, understanding that targeting all browsers is an unreasonable task. This is done by noting features that may not work in older browsers or possibly certain browsers visitors may use.

An example is designing for Chrome browsers with Opera browsers in mind. Many Chrome browsers’ features are not available in Opera; designers will plan fallback features that will replace incompatible ones. Moreover, they aim to create a fallback that minimizes the decrease in accessibility.

In most modern browsers, flash is no longer needed. However, in the case of older browsers, it may be required to play certain video content. Instead of forcing users to install flash, you can plan around the video feature by supplying images and transcripts to flash-powered browsers. This allows you to provide the content within the video without worrying about the capabilities of the visitor’s browser.

There are many other ways to handle cross-browser compatibility, but the industry standard is to use graceful degradation or progressive enhancement. Progressive enhancement is quite literally the exact opposite of graceful degradation. Instead of designing for the most modern browsers and working backward, you plan for older browsers and add features according to how modern and up-to-date the browser is.

Getting Started Using Graceful Degradation

Whether you start designing with graceful degradation or using progressive enhancement, designing for maximized accessibility is essential. Getting started with either approach is easy, even with websites you’ve already designed and developed. It begins with identifying which modern features are vital for the user experience; if you remove a feature and it reduces the value or accessibility, it needs a fallback.

Below are some tips to ensure the best approach for your design.

  • Write valid, standards-compliant HTML.
  • Use external style sheets for your designs and layout.
  • Use externally linked scripts for interactivity.
  • Ensure the content is accessible even to low-level browsers without CSS or JavaScript.

Like anything in the technology field, it all starts with understanding the concepts learned here and then using them. The more research and practice you do, the better you will understand how to handle these modifications and design planning.

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