graceful degradation used to refer to the need to accommodate older browsers.

To meet the needs of graceful degradation, copywriters need to shrinking versions of copy to fit ever-smaller devices viewing the same website.

First, I have to admit I don’t know everything about this yet. But to me, it seems as though it’s a revolutionary change in the way website copy needs to be written. Graceful degradation refers to the need for the size of text to degrade to the size of ever-smaller devices. Does it mean we copywriters will have to write three versions of every page?

Graceful degradation is a term that used to refer to the need to accommodate older browsers. When you created a website for Firefox or Chrome, for example, you needed to include programming that would detect an older browser such as Internet Explorer—or even an older version of Firefox or Chrome. It was a big deal for designers and programmers. It didn’t even cause a tremor in the way we wrote copy.

Now the term graceful degradation is being used to refer to the need to accommodate the different screen sizes of digital devices. The premise is this: If you write an appropriate amount of copy for a desktop browser, when it’s opened up on a phone, if the site uses responsive design it will resize the text and design to fit. But you will be scrolling forever to read all the copy—and most people don’t have that much time or patience. It kills our ability to appeal successfully to our target market. Conversely, if you write just enough text for a phone’s screen, when you open it on a desktop or laptop, you see huge text and very few words. It looks ridiculous, and it’s a waste of real estate that could be used to woo your customers with just the right amount of relationship-building words.

So far, I’ve heard two different ways copywriters can approach writing to accommodate graceful degradation. Keep in mind, I’m still researching. I’m involved in the redo of an old site (my own) with this new technique. I’ll know more once I’ve struggled through the process, and I’ll post another report then.

Approach #1 to graceful degradation: To accommodate different sizes of screens, one of my sources points out there is technically an infinite number of sizes of device screens, from the large desktop monitor to the smallest phone and every size in between. Copy should be able to auto-resize to fit all of them with an optimal message. Therefore, the copywriter should write for the large desktop monitor, and within the text indicate portions that can be taken out to reduce the amount of copy gradually (thus the term “degradation”). The designer would be the person to decide which pieces to take out as he/she works on the programming of the page.

Approach #2 to graceful degradation: This source says you really only have to worry about three main sizes, because any page that is not designed exactly to the size of any individual device will be close to one or the other of the three main sizes: desktop/laptop, tablet or phone. So, the copywriter should write three versions of the copy: one for a desktop with a fully developed message; one for a tablet with a medium-size message that reduces scrolling, but allows development of a message that can resonate with an audience; and one version for a phone screen, whether a large or small format phone, that gives the gist of the message to appeal to the right target market quickly.

One of the issues I see is the placement of the call to action. I love the idea of graceful degradation for placement of a call to action where viewers are most likely to see it on the device they are using. On a desktop, you have the luxury of taking the visitor by the hand (or eyes, as it were) and guiding him or her through the thinking process behind your product or service. The call to action is near the end, after the victim—er, prospect—has been suitably prepped to hear your appeal.

On a tablet, the call to action can’t be too far down the scrolling mountain of words, because those who use tablets are less likely to read the whole thing. So the copy needs to be shorter, but you can still draw the visitor through a decent thought process, with a call to action that matches their attention span and doesn’t cramp up their scrolling fingers.

For a phone screen, you will rarely get someone to scroll though paragraphs of information, so you instead deliver the main points quickly and sharply, then land the call to action on them. Maybe the call to action will even be different from the other two…such as, “Go to our website to get the long version of this, which will REALLY make you want to buy.”

Here is an article that addresses the new meaning of graceful degradation: Be aware that many articles out there in webland are old, and they use the old meaning of graceful degradation (accommodating old browsers).

So…I’m not sure how all of this will shake out, but I am intrigued. It seems as though this change to writing for graceful degradation could be as revolutionary a shift in copywriting as it was to shift from long copy to brief blurbs on home pages.

What do you think? What else do you know about it? Share!