Progressive Development: Stop Postponing Joy!

2006-08-22
TechJournal South

Progressive Development – sounds like a building strategy to breathe life into a stagnant community, doesn't it? Only the neighborhood – the Web – differs from what you might have first imagined. Progressive Development is the deliberate and ongoing process of breathing new life into web sites to better serve the changing needs of site visitors. Buildings actually provide a good metaphor for understanding the concept of Progressive Development. To quote the unsuspecting hero of many user experience designers:

Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it…The house and its occupants mold to each other twenty-four hours a day, and the building accumulates the record of that intimacy.
— Stewart Brand, in How Buildings Learn

You've probably admired certain buildings that evolve gracefully – that gas station that is now an architect's office or that corner store that is now a modern home. Somehow, it simply keeps pace with trends without major reconstruction. Its inhabitants aren't inconvenienced by the changes; the space merely adapts to its inhabitants' needs and expectations.

Just what you'd like your web site to do, right? Before we talk too much about adapting web sites, though, we must first consider how they are built.

Progressive Enhancement — an important foundation

Initial construction techniques make a big difference in the adaptability of buildings and web sites. One technique, Progressive Enhancement1, bears striking similarities to classic post and beam, as well as modern commercial steel frame, construction. This technique, first formally defined in the web community in 2003, is rapidly gaining momentum. AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft are recent and notable advocates. The larger and more competitive the site, the more critical adaptability becomes due to economies of scale. However, you don't have to be one of the “big guys” to benefit. In fact, you receive payback for your online investment every time you adapt the site to meet the needs of your organization or site visitors.

Like post and beam construction, Progressive Enhancement centers on two basic elements. Post and beam uses horizontal supports resting on vertical timbers. Progressive Enhancement also uses two key concepts – content contained within independent structural definitions2. Most importantly, though, both construction methods are incredibly durable. And neither method is bound to any particular presentation style. A post and beam house lends itself either initially or through transformation to everything from rustic to traditional to sleek contemporary. With Progressive Enhancement, web sites demonstrate similarly amazing flexibility in presentation style, while also accommodating an enormous variety of browsers.

Must form and function follow major funding?

What does this approach really mean to the Web, though? Over the last decade, increasingly sophisticated web coding techniques, languages, and browsers emerged. Today, underneath the covers of most web pages, you find content interspersed with table-based layouts, embedded graphics, and a mix of languages. In fact, these routine and seemingly "standard" construction methods bear striking similarities to stick-built home construction. You simply fold in the latest stylistic trend wherever you need it. The possibilities are endless – until you want to make changes. Suddenly, the existing implementation is revealed to be incredibly complex, stifling, and difficult to change.

Overhauling a "stick-built" web site is labor-intensive and costly. No wonder budgets only allow major redesigns every 2-3 years. Unless planned for during the initial site design, those 2-3 years often mark a period of abstinence from really improving the site. Sure you write and edit copy. You add new pages. But substantive changes in architecture, look, or function mean completely rethinking the fundamental site and page design. The result? The "dynamic Web medium" is largely not living up to that claim. Sites are literally being resuscitated every few years, rather than evolving or breathing naturally like the communities they support. Not to mention that each major overhaul means a major budget and major timeline – and presents a major risk.

Progressive Enhancement — empowering Progressive Development

Having explored the advantages of the Progressive Enhancement construction technique, let's plunge into this new mindset called Progressive Development. Progressive Development is all about instant gratification. It's not that this ongoing evolution doesn't take effort, of course. Progressive Development requires a change in thought and action. Web sites, like those amazing buildings we've admired, can't simply be “maintained” until the next overhaul.

Progressive Development advocates smaller, iterative changes to the site. If you regularly use a particular web site, you know firsthand that small improvements are appreciated. On the other hand, massive ones can upset the apple cart and can waste your precious time in relearning, even if the changes are good. Your mindset must shift toward providing little puffs of fresh air that provide instant gratification for your site's users. With this approach, you give users no cause to roam to other competing sites. And you don't overwhelm your customer support staff with the high volume of questions and complaints that often result from major changes.

Even CFOs find the Progressive Development approach highly desirable. Studies demonstrating the savings associated with Progressive Enhancement and Progressive Development are just beginning to emerge, showing truly astounding results. The savings over the major overhaul approach are on the order of 30 percent. CFOs receive instant gratification, too, when they see incremental ongoing investments in the site, rather than huge ones that carry a much higher risk of failure – and the potential for unplanned additional expenditures. Given this, there's no need to postpone the joy of better serving your web community's needs and interests.

Spread the joy proactively!

By now, you're probably wondering what those regular little puffs of fresh air should be. The best approach is to evolve the site based on deliberate activities that identify the appropriate adaptations. Think about performing these activities regularly – perhaps quarterly or semi-annually. Consider placing a rotation of these activities into your plan, rather than performing all of them at once, so that changes to the site stay incremental. Good activities include:

  • Usability testing
    No matter how good your initial usability test results might have been, user expectations usually change over time. This is particularly true of sites that manage to inspire people to frequently visit and participate. Usability testing can help ensure that you are meeting expectations of repeat users without compromising the needs of new visitors.

  • Audience assessments
    New types of users, with different requirements, may emerge as your site becomes more visible and popular. Existing users' expectations often change, too. Some, but not all, of these expectations are prompted by evolution of the web medium itself.

  • Evaluation of site statistics
    Site visitors leave little footprints that many organizations routinely collect and ignore. Ongoing analysis can help you understand cyclical or seasonal patterns, the burn-in rate for new functionality, the ease or difficulty of finding resources on your site, and most importantly, what portions of your site are most appreciated by the community you serve.

  • Product, service, and process assessments
    What your organization offers its community, as well as your delivery process, will change over time. If you change either one, evaluate how to reflect that change in your online community. Even if your community isn't predominantly online, you may be able to streamline the process for both audiences using Internet technologies.

Progressive Development is the revolution of evolution. Instead of shocking changes, it provides constant, gradual changes that are better for users and for business. It builds on sound, standards-based construction techniques. And it saves money. Isn't it time you started thinking progressively?

1 Steven Champeon, Progressive Enhancement and the Future of Web Design at www.webmonkey.com

2 In Progressive Enhancement, document structure is styled by cascading style sheets (CSS) and in some cases, through the use of external scripts. Content is kept separate, with style-related markup intentionally kept to a bare minimum. Presentation characteristics, typically also specified by CSS, are generally isolated from both the semantically meaningful document structure and its contents.