Saptak's Blog Posts

Progressive Enhancement is not anti-JavaScript

Posted: 2022-05-21T02:18:32+05:30

Yesterday, I came across a tweet by Sara Soueidan, which resonated with me. Mostly because I have had this discussion (or heated arguments) quite a few times with many folks. Please go and read her tweet thread since she mentions some really great points about why progressive enhancement is not anti-js. As someone who cares about security, privacy, and accessibility, I have always been an advocate of progressive enhancement. I always believe that a website (or any web-based solution) should be accessible even without JavaScript in the browser. And more often than not, people take me as someone who is anti-JavaScript. Well, let me explain with the help (a lot of help) of resources already created by other brilliant folks.

What is Progressive Enhancement?

Progressive enhancement is the idea of making a very simple, baseline foundation for a website that is accessible and usable by all users irrespective of their input/output devices, browsers (or user-agents), or the technology they are using. Then, once you have done that, you sprinkle more fancy animations and custom UI on top that might make it look more beautiful for users with the ideal devices.

I know I probably didn't do a perfect job explaining the idea of progressive enhancement. So honestly, just go and watch this video on progressive enhancement by Heydon Pickering.

So how to do this Progressive Enhancement?

If you saw the video by Heydon, I am sure you are starting to get some idea. Here I am going to reference another video titled Visual Styling vs. Semantic Meaning, which was created by Manuel Matuzović. I love how, in this video Manuel shares the idea of building first semantically and then visually styling it.

So I think a good way to do progressive enhancement according to me is:

  1. Start with HTML - This is a very good place to start, because not only does this ensure that almost all browsers and user devices can render this, but also it helps you think semantically instead of based on the visual design. That already starts making your website not only good for different browsers, but also for screen reader and assistive technology users.

  2. Add basic layout CSS progressively - This is the step where you start applying visual designs. But only the basic layouts. This progressively enhances the visual look of the website, and also you can add things like better focus styles, etc. Be careful and check to add CSS features that are well supported across most browsers in different versions. Remember what Heydon said? "A basic Layout is not a broken layout".

  3. Add fancy CSS progressively - Add more recent CSS features for layouting and to progressively enhance the visual styling of your website. Here you can add much more newer features that make the design look even more perfect.

  4. Add fancy JavaScript sparkles progressively - If there are animations, and interactions that you would like the user to have that is not possible by HTML & CSS, then start adding your JavaScript at this stage. JavaScript is often necessary for creating accessible custom UIs. So absolutely use when necessary to progressively enhance the experience of your users based on the user-agents they have.

SEE! I told you to add JavaScript! So no, progressive enhancement is not about being anti-JavaScript. It's about progressively adding JavaScript wherever necessary to enhance the features of the website, without blocking the basic content, layout and interactions for non-JavaScript users.

Well, why should I not write everything in JavaScript?

I know it's trendy these days to learn fancy new JavaScript frameworks and write fancy new interactive websites. So many of you at this point must be like, "Why won't we write everything in JavaScript? Maybe you hate JavaScript, that's why you are talking about these random HTML & CSS things. What are those? Is HTML even a programming language?"

Well firstly, I love JavaScript. I have contributed to many JavaScript projects, including jQuery. So no I don't hate JavaScript. But I love to use JavaScript for what JavaScript is supposed to be used for. And in most cases, layouting or loading basic content isn't one of them.

But who are these people who need websites to work without JavaScript?

  • People who have devices with only older browsers. Remember, buying a new device isn't so easy in every part of the world and sometimes some devices may have user-agents that don't support fancy JavaScript. But they still have the right to read the content of the website.
  • People who care about their security and privacy. A lot of security and privacy focused people prefer using a browser like Tor Browser with JavaScript disabled to avoid any kind of malicious JavaScript or JavaScript based tracking. Some users even use extensions like NoScript with common browsers (firefox, chrome, etc.) for similar reasons. But just because they care about their security and privacy doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to wesite content.
  • People with not so great internet. Many parts of the world still don't have access to great internet and rely on 2G connections. Often loading a huge bundled JavaScript framework with all it's sparkles and features takes unrealistically long time. But they should still be able to access content from a website article.

So, yes. It's not about not using JavaScript. It's more about starting without JavaScript, and then adding your bells and whistles with JavaScript. That way people who don't use JavaScript can still access atleast the basic content.

See this amazing example of progressive enhancement using JavaScript by Adrian Roselli:

Here is another really great talk by Max Böck in id24: