An analogy for progressive enhancement

As a designer I often have to explain the concept of progressive enhancement and graceful degradation to clients to try and explain why their site doesn’t look the same in every browser.

Selling concepts

I endured a misspent youth in retail sales and one of the things I’m good at is finding the best way to sell things to clients, even if it’s a concept like progressive enhancement rather than a physical product, the concept can be ‘sold’ in a way that the client understands and, more importantly, accepts.

Let’s start with the definition from Wikipedia:

Progressive enhancement is a strategy for web design that emphasizes accessibility, semantic mark-up, and external stylesheet and scripting technologies. Progressive enhancement uses web technologies in a layered fashion that allows everyone to access the basic content and functionality of a web page, using any browser or Internet connection, while also providing those with better bandwidth or more advanced browser software an enhanced version of the page.

While this is a clear and concise definition it does assume a certain level of knowledge and so isn’t the most ideal method to explain the concept to clients.

I tend to use analogies to explain a lot of things to people, taking something that may be alien to them, such as the differing capabilities of web browsers, and use something they may be familiar with to explain the point. My favourite analogy uses games consoles as a replacement for web browsers.

my favourite analogy

So let’s take a popular sports game, Say ‘Tiger Woods Golf’, this game is available on just about every popular games console on the market such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 as well as handheld consoles such as the Nintendo DS, does the game look the same on each console? Absolutely not! It’s physically impossible and there’s a clear and defined difference with games consoles, the ‘high-end’ consoles like the 360 and PS3 cost the most, and undoubtedly give the best visual representation of the game, with better textures, realistic faces, perfect trees and water effects but the Nintendo Wii, having less power will have blockier graphics, jagged edges and rougher details like trees and water. The games don’t look exactly the same, but the most important thing is that — despite these obvious visual differences — it doesn’t stop you playing a round of golf.

Image showing the difference between the game on the Wii (left) and the 360 (right)

Every client I’ve ever explained this to has understood the analogy really well. Nearly all own, or have owned games consoles or have children with them and so can understand that a £300 console might give a better overall experience than a £150 console, even if the game costs the same. The game is designed to take advantage of the increased power available in high end machines, and cut back on certain things on low end machines to make sure that you can still do the core task in the game. Everyone will remember owning an older system when they were younger and wouldn’t expect their Atari, NES or Master System to be able to cope with the latest video games on the market, but they could still get a game that would let them play a round of golf. Even if the balls are square.

the ‘convincers’

There’s a couple of conscious decisions here which help to ‘sell’ the analogy, Firstly: games such as Tiger Woods Golf, Fifa Football or Formula 1 are extremely widespread and mainstream, you can be sure that even if your audience isn’t familiar with a specific game, they know the sport. You can tailor the analogy on-the-fly with the client also, if you know they’re a football fan, switch to Fifa Football as your reference.

Secondly: I use a sports game as they’re the most likely to be ported across all major consoles and contain familiar elements which stay consistent regardless of the platform, such as golf courses, race tracks or sports stadiums. It’s the graphical detail that is the major difference and this is what we’re using to compare.

Thirdly: sports games attract huge investment and sponsorship and sell and make millions. This helps to sell the fact that even EA Sports, with their millions of dollars can make a game look the same across every console.

what about you?

Do you have a favourite analogy? what do you use to explain certain things to clients? It doesn’t have to be progressive enhancement, hit up the comment box below and let me know!

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 15th, 2010 at 10:07 and is filed under Design, p52, Tips and tricks. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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9 Responses to “An analogy for progressive enhancement”

  1. XtinaSparkle says:

    RT @stanton: Latest blog: An analogy for progressive enhancement

  2. Al says:

    Really nice idea. Visual analogies (even when just described) work really well, as most people find them easier to conceptualise.

    Even if not familiar with video games, the person you are convincing will no doubt have seen friends/family playing one.

    Might well use this today on someone! :)

  3. Like all analogies, the console one isn’t perfect- games publishers spend extra money porting games across platforms- whereas progressive enhancement invariably saves time (and therefore money). This is one of my main convincers, and with some clients is a closer!

  4. Stanton says:

    @Al Let me know how it goes :)

    @Andy Very good point! I’ve noticed people starting to charge extra for designing for IE6 and delivering a basic layout as standard. In effect, charging for ‘porting’ the design to the older platform.

  5. [...] Fortunately our very own Paul Stanton has provided a great analogy that explains progressive enhancement. [...]

  6. Andrew says:

    I think it is a terrible analogy. Console games for different platforms are developed by entirely different teams often in different studios, and in the case of Wii or mobile versions are designed from the ground up based on the capabilities of the platform. They are also marketed showing screenshots/video from the respective platforms so that the buyer knows what the graphics of the game will look like before purchasing.

  7. Stanton says:

    @Andrew I still think the analogy holds up, regardless of who actually develops the game, or where in the world they are based, they each develop to the best capabilities of whichever platform they are tasked with.

    Some games are written specifically for a platform, but some are also ported, this fact doesn’t have to be rolled into the analogy because the end product is still the same. For web design we could choose to write a specific stylesheet for IE6 from the ground up, but then we start to get into a level of technical detail which probably isn’t required for most client meetings.

  8. Craig Rowe says:

    I always think PC games alone are a better analogy. The developers have to create a game that works across all manner of PC configurations (both hardware and software) some without dedicated graphics some with, some with more RAM some with less. The user is then presented with a less ‘pretty’ version (maybe less smooth edges) etc. The installer checks the system for compatability and sets default settings (such as no shadows or reflections). In our case of course the browser generally does the picking – by understanding or not particular selectors.

  9. [...] Fortunately our very own Paul Stanton has provided a great analogy that explains progressive enhancement. [...]

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