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Degradation vs Enhancement

November 15, 2013

In the world of web design, it’s pretty much established at this point that any site being built today is assumed to be responsive unless there’s a good reason why it shouldn’t be.  When I say “responsive” in this context, I mean that a website is able to alter the way elements on the page are displayed in order to conform well to browsers on different sized devices.  In other words, the same website will look different on my desktop browser than it will on my phone, but both versions are the same content, run by the same code.  The site is simply responding to the device I’m using to view it. 

For many years, the usual way to build a website was to tackle the desktop version of it first, and then deal with design for the mobile world later, but that’s simply not enough anymore.  Mobile browsing isn’t just a niche, and it’s not a thing of the future either – it’s here, it’s established, and it’s only getting bigger.  With that in mind, the concept of “mobile first” design is starting to pick up speed among designers and developers.  The idea is that a website design is built with the simplest incarnation of the site – that is, the mobile version – in mind first, and the design is then enhanced to support larger or more capable devices.  In other words, rather than building a design with all the bells and whistles that is able to degrade gracefully, we build a design that is basic and then progressively enhances. 

What’s interesting is that the two approaches, degradation and enhancement, seem to be roughly equivalent on the face, but in my experience I have found that not to be the case at all.  It’s too easy, when working on a site design, to take full advantage of what the desktop platform has to offer, and that makes it too easy to end up with a degraded version that looks like what it is – a watered-down afterthought.  That’s not to say that the degradation approach doesn’t ever work, I’ve just found that in my designs, it’s much easier to start with a lean product, designed to load quickly and take advantage of smaller real estate, and then build upon that foundation.  And ultimately, easier means less expensive, which is obviously the ultimate goal for everyone involved.

At SNQ, we’ve made the decision that every responsive site we build will take a mobile-first approach to design, and we’ve seen a lot of great feedback, both internally and externally, from taking this approach.  It’s not always easy to walk into an exciting new project and think about exposing only the basics first, but in the long run I believe it to be the preferred method for building solid, lean responsive websites.

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