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Progressive improvement

The progressive improvement is a web design strategy designed to allow the basic content of a website to be displayed regardless of browser technology, Internet connection or type of end device. At the same time, however, the website in question should also offer a full version designed to meet the best possible technical requirements. One result of this strategy is a responsive design. A variant of this is the mobile first strategy.

Development and background

Steven Champeon first spoke about the principle of progressive improvement at a conference in March 2003. In later posts for the Webmonkey portal, he supplemented his principle with further explanations on the subject. This was a further development of the previously introduced Graceful Degradation technique. When developing the web, he focused on the most modern version of the web browser currently available, to provide the gradations in terms of design and functions that are required. Behind this principle was the opinion that the user only had to update the current version of the browser to get the best feasible performance of the web portal.

In spite of everything, the conditions in practice are generally different. Users cannot basically upgrade their mobile to use Flash-based content on the web. Users are not limited to performing a quick browser update, just to better see current content. To a greater extent, this also applies to businesses. The major updates take a lot of effort by the IT department. For this reason, these innovations are not carried out as often.

Progressive improvements should now remedy this situation. The principle is based on a minimum technical consensus and allows the websites to be adapted to the progressivity of the output device. For this, techniques such as CSS or JavaScript are used, which are externally linked and are only available if the browser supports their processing.

Another distinctive feature of progressive enhancement is the idea that content and presentation are treated separately and therefore exist more flexibility in content production. These ideas are based on the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which was developed in the 1990s even before HTML was established as a markup language. The content and the presentation were separate. Regardless, after HTML was established, web developers initially worked according to the principle of Graceful Degradation. But with the arrival of many different end devices, such as smartphones, tablets or laptops, the focus within web design also changed. The main goal today is to ensure that content can be displayed as identically as possible on all possible end devices. Progressive improvements now play a very important role in this context.


The principle of progressive improvement can be reduced to six basic statements.

  • All basic content must be viewable in all web browsers.
  • All basic functions must be able to be executed by all web browsers.
  • The larger design is outsourced through CSS.
  • The most extensive functions are outsourced via Javascript.
  • The user is not obliged to update or change his browser.
  • Semantic markup is used.


Progressive Enhancement is based on the correct display of content[1]. All extensions are based on semantically excellent HTML code. This can be later displayed as desired by CSS extensions and adapted to the end device. This approach ensures that content is reachable to the widest feasible audience, regardless of the output device. The separation of content and design also facilitates the maintenance of the web. Compared with gradual degradation, progressive improvement has the advantage that less time required for testing with different browser versions.

Importance for usability and SEO

Websites that are designed and implemented in accordance with the principle of progressive improvement have the advantage that the basic content can be delivered to all crawlers. At the same time, these contents are very easy to access. This can make website indexing easier. The progressive improvement of the webs is an advantage for users, since the content can be accessed through devices and technologies. Thus, there is only a small difference between the fact that a user accesses a web portal with a mobile phone while on the go, or with a laptop from their home network via DSL. This not only improves the usability of a website, but also the user experience.

For commercial web projects, this can lead to increased conversions and fewer abandoned purchases. At the same time, the bounce rate will likely decrease and the retention time will increase if the web content is displayed satisfactorily to the user. A longer dwell time in combination with a reduced bounce rate are signals to search engines that the content on the web is of high quality and relevant. In this way, progressive improvement could have a long-term influence on the positioning of a website by improving the long-term user experience.