Gracefully degrading your work

There’s a web term you might not have heard before, although you would likely know it when you see it. It’s called graceful degradation, and it works like this: when you visit a website in a modern, standards-compliant web browser, you see all the bells and whistles, all the features, and all the elegant web design. But when you visit on an older browser, say, or even a mobile device, you see a much more stripped-down version of the same site. The key is that while one version might look more impressive than the other, they both function equally well for the end user.

In the words of the World Wide Web Consortium, which decides this terminology, a site built this way “will also degrade gracefully to a lower level of user experience in older browsers.”

Let’s think of this idea in terms of music. Take, for example, the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” When the song first came out, it was a standout piece of pop composition that incorporated a sweeping string quartet backing and socially conscious lyrics.

For our purposes, we can think of it as the perfect example of a modern, fully functional site that is pushing boundaries in terms of web design and content—the kind of site you’d be proud to show your customers.

But not all your customers are going to be viewing your site on the newest version of Google Chrome, the most up-to-date iPhone or Android operating systems, or even computers manufactured in the last few years. And, yes, some of your customers are even going to be using Internet Explorer.

So what happens when those customers come to view your masterpiece of web design?

With graceful degradation, they get a functional experience that, while lacking some of the richness of your site, is still everything they need to understand and navigate your web presence:

And if your customers are using older technology or so-called “non-supported” systems, they will still get a functional version:

Notice how, even though the richness of the instrumentation and lushness of the sound changes, you still instantly understand what song is playing? That’s the power of graceful degradation.

And the idea of graceful degradation can be applied outside the web design world, too. Perhaps you’ve heard of the concept of the minimal viable product, championed by “lean” startups around the world. Essentially, the minimal viable product is exactly what it sounds like: the product that your team can build with the least amount of effort that delivers benefits to your customers (and also teaches you what they may or may not like about your offering.)

Though an MVP is a good goal, often products don’t start off this way. Sometimes we have a great idea, concept, campaign, or product that simply tries to do too much, overreaches, and fails to gain traction, or simply does nothing particularly well, satisfying no one.

At moments like this, one trick would be to consider the idea of graceful degradation as applied to your idea or service: if all else fails, what is the one function of your product or service? What core mission must you deliver at your essence?

Borrowing some tricks from web design can help us think more clearly about ideas that we hold dear. After all, ideas—just like websites—are always best when they can be put into action.

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