Christian Heilmann

Posts Tagged ‘progressive enhancement’

Stumbling on the escalator

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I am always amazed about the lack of support for progressive enhancement on the web. Whenever you mention it, you face a lot of “yeah, but…” and you feel having to defend something that should be ingrained in the DNA of anyone who works on the web.


When explaining progressive enhancement in the past Aaron Gustafson and me quoted the American Stand-Up comedian Mitch Hedberg and his escalator insight:

An escalator can never break – it can only become stairs. You would never see an “Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order” sign, just “Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience. We apologize for the fact that you can still get up there.”

This is really what it is about. Our technical solutions should be like escalators – they still work when the technology fails or there is a power outage (if you see CSS animations and transformations and transitions and JavaScript as power) – but they might be less convenient to use. Unlike real world escalators we never have to block them off to repair them.

We could even learn from real-world escalators that shut down when nobody uses them for a while and start once people step on them. On the web, we call this script loading or conditional application of functionality. Why load a lot of images up front when they can’t be seen as they are far away from the viewport?

An interesting thing you can see in the real world is that when an escalator broke down and became stairs people stumble when they enter it. Our bodies have been conditioned to expect movement and our motor memory does a “HUH?” when there isn’t any.

This happens on the web as well. People who never were without a fast connection or new and shiny computer or phone with the latest browsers have a hard time thinking about these situations – it just feels weird.


Another interesting thing are the horizontal walkways you have in airports. These are meant to accelerate your walking, not replace it. Still you find people standing on those complaining about their speed.

On the web these are the people who constantly complain about new technology being cool and all but they’d never be able to use it in their current client/development environment. Well, you don’t have to. You can walk in between the walkways and still reach the other side – it just takes a bit longer.

So next time someone praises flexible development and design practices and you have the knee-jerk reaction to either condemn them for not using the newest and coolest as “everybody has a xyz phone and browser abc” or you just don’t see the point in starting from HTML and getting to your goal re-using what you structured and explained in HTML as “GMail and Facebook don’t do it either” think about the escalator and how handy it is in the real world.

Think about it when you are tired (accessibility), or you carry a lot of luggage (performance) or when you just want to have a quick chat whilst being transported up without getting out of breath. Your own body has different needs at different times. Progressively enhancing our products allows us to cater for lots of different needs and environments. Specialising and optimising for one will have a much more impressive result, but for example a lift is pointless when it doesn’t work – no matter how shiny and impressive it looks.

Our job is to make sure people can do the things they went online for – get from their start to their desired goal. This could be convenient and fast or require a bit of work. Our job is to make sure that people do not get the promise of a faster and more convenient way that fails as soon as they try taking it.

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Does API rate limiting spell the end of progressive enhancement?

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Building TweetEffect taught me a few lessons and also pointed out some annoyances when building with third party APIs. Above all, I had to re-think and violate some of the best practices I’ve been advocating for years now.

First of all, TweetEffect was meant to be a demo for a university hack day and I didn’t quite plan for it to be a big success. Therefore I cobbled it together rather than planning the whole thing. What I wanted to build was a small tool that shows me my latest Twitter updates and analyze the changes in follower numbers. I then mapped those to the updates that happened before the change to show which ones might have been the cause.

The TweetEffect wishlist

I’ve had a few things I wanted to avoid:

  • Users shouldn’t have to give me their Twitter login data – this is just wrong, no matter how you put it
  • I didn’t want to cache any data on my server, for the same reason and to avoid my DB getting hammered (this blog runs on the same one :-))
  • I wanted end users to be able to use the site or simply get the results with a widget and subsequently with an API.

The PHP solution

Now, the normal way I would go on about building a solution like TweetEffect is to build it in PHP and then enhance it with JavaScript. This means it will work for everybody – including me on my BlackBerry – and I have PHP at my disposal, which is much richer than JavaScript when it comes to XML conversion or even array handling.

The normal way of dealing with it would be something like this:

// the API sanitizes the user parameter, contacts the third party
// API and gives the data back in the right format, including the
// $user variable.

// handling code…


The problem I encountered with this even whilst developing is that if you call a third party API in your API you can quickly run against its limits and get blocked for an hour.

The only workaround is to cache the results locally – something I wanted to avoid for accuracy and the sanity of my server. Other services do caching for you (like gnip) but then you also run into the issue of data being outdated. During development it is a good idea to have a local flat data file stored to use – this will also cut down on your development time as you never have to wait for the third party servers.

Crowdsourcing API calls to avoid reaching the limit

Normally progressive enhancement in this case could be used to override the form submit event to show a slicker interface and do sorting of the data once it has been loaded without re-reading the page. This would cut down on the number of times you accessed the third party API.

However, if the API is more restrictive (like Twitter) but has a JSON output you can work around the issue by not calling the API server-side but instead create script nodes dynamically to get the data. That way you’re not the one requesting it but the computers of your users are doing it for you. Exceeding the API limit can only be done by your end users individually, not by all of them together. The obvious drawback is that users without JavaScript don’t get any results.

In the case of using dynamic script nodesthe api.php file still does the user entry sanitization, but instead of contacting the third party API and writing out the data directly, it writes out an HTML scaffolding and the necessary JavaScript files.

// the API sanitizes user entries, contacts the third party
// API and gives the data back in the right format.

echo $HTMLscaffolding;
echo $scripts;


This, however is not progressive enhancement as it does not test if JavaScript is available – instead it simply expects it to work. We could work around that by adding a hidden form field that gets populated with JavaScript or simply by giving the submit button a name attribute when JavaScript is available.

// the API sanitizes user entries, contacts the third party
// API and gives the data back in the right format.

echo $HTMLscaffolding;
echo $scripts;
} else {
// handling code


In any case, the solution will never be proper progressive enhancement as you will have to maintain two versions: the one that builds the resulting interface in JavaScript, and another one that does it server-side. The server side solution will most likely keel over sooner or later and you cannot offer a simple URL interface like app.php?user=user_name as this will always lead to the server side solution instead of the JavaScript one.

Submission method switching

The way around that is to change the method of the form when JavaScript is available. Initially you set the form to POST and you change it to GET if JavaScript is turned on. You can then check in the API for POST or GET submission and react accordingly:

  • If there is a GET parameter use the JavaScript solution
  • If POST was used then the form was submitted without JavaScript and you offer the server-side solution.

This means that people without JavaScript cannot use the REST API of your application, but still can enter the data in the form and send this one off. You will hit the rate limit in this case sooner or later, but seeing that most users will have JavaScript available it is quite a safe bet that it’ll be a rare occasion.


echo $htmlScaffolding;
echo $scripts;

// server side solution



You can see the result in the demo and download the demo files as a zip. Try the demo (any user name works, this is a hard-coded API, not live Twitter data) with and without JavaScript to see the difference.


All in all strict rate-limiting is a real pain for web application developers (or hackers for that matter). The reasons are of course obvious, and this workaround does the job for now. It is however not quite right and does make it harder for users without JavaScript. The other issue of course is that the security aspect of using JSON in generated script nodes without validation can become a problem.

In the end it boils down to what your API should be used for and to maintain a good communication with your API users. If your product by definition is meant for short-term-high-traffic viral solutions then the ball is in your court to keep it scalable.

Pragmatic Progressive Enhancement

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Last week I went to AKQA in London to give a brown-bag presentation on progressive enhancement. I took this chance to vent some of my ideas on the subject and counteract some of the criticisms I heard about the need for enhancing web solutions progressively.

I’ve come up with the following “Seven rules of progressive enhancement”:

  1. Separate as much as possible
  2. Build on things that work
  3. Generate dependent markup
  4. Test for everything before you apply it
  5. Explore the environment
  6. Load on demand
  7. Modularize code

Instead of explaining them here, I’ve used a longer train ride to write up an article on the subject explaining the details of all the “rules” and examples of why and how to use them: Pragmatic Progressive Enhancement.

The article is licensed with creative commons, so you are very much invited to use and remix it to your needs.

I will upload my slides together with a video of the presentation once I got the material and checked if the video quality is good enough for publication.

Reason #21312 to build accessible data tables – convert them directly to YUI flash charts!

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Following up the success of the data table to Google chart post, and the request in the comments to do the same for YUI charts, go and check the YUIblog today (like, now) and get your fix there:

example of how the script creates a chart above a data table from the table data

The elevator pitch:

  • Create a valid HTML data table
  • Add two script tags to the body and a class to each table
  • Have tasty pie charts above each of the tables