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.
Wikipedia

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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