Product Design Lessons

Intro to Foundation  |   Lesson #6

How to Plan a Webpage Design With Progressive Enhancement

Learn how to build pages that take advantage of browsers' capabilities rather than be limited by feature sets.

1. Start with the idea.

Start simple: write one or two sentences that define what people should take away or what action they should take. For example:

“I will show people how to tie a tie.”
“People will buy a tie from my online shop.”

When you have a goal, design a site that explains the message you want with no frills.

diagram of the same content on three devices

Above: By “anyone” we also mean “anything.” Old browsers, new browsers, screen readers, search engines, etc.

  • Limit yourself to basic HTML elements. No JavaScript. No vendor prefixes. Less exotic = more universal. Less exotic ≠ upgradable.
  • Pretend you support IE1. As much as we rag on browsers from previous eras, they’re good for testing compatibility.
  • Craft graphics with vectors. It’s a safe bet you’ll need to edit those later.
  • Use as little CSS as possible. You can get fancy in part two.

2. Play what-if.

Now it’s time to think about embellishments. How can we provide…? without changing the foundation?

diagram showing the same site taking advantage of different devices' capabilities

If the user is using a smartphone, what can you do to take advantage of orientation, camera, or having a computer that’s also a phone?

If the user has a giant screen, how can you make use of that extra space? (“for more info…” additional images, larger text?)

If their bandwidth is great, can good video supplement the idea?

If they’re using a particular browser, what nifty features would make the page pop?

If they’re using a mouse instead of their finger, can you give more information or functionality with a useful hover effect?

If the user’s on a screen reader, not a sighted browser, can you change voices to denote different sections of the page (or at least break up monotonous text with with simulated conversation)?

3. Let it fall apart.

Users whose browsers allow special features get a different — an enhanced — experience. Does that mean others miss out? Yes and no. No, they don’t get the extras. But yes, they still get what you’re saying.

diagram showing a futuristic device that can still read the original message

Next Steps

Download Foundation and try building a site that works great on smartphones — then test it on a desktop browser.

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.