Progressive Enhancement With the WordPress REST API

In a REST API discussion today, we discussed the future of the REST API. Something I touched upon briefly in that meeting is the concept of progressive enhancement with the REST API. Since this topic hasn’t been brought up much previously, I want to elaborate on how progressive enhancement works.

Progressive enhancement is our key solution to a couple of related problems: forward-compatibility with future features and versions of WordPress, and robust handling of data types in WordPress. Progressive enhancement also unblocks the REST API project and ensures there’s no need to wait until the REST API has parity with every feature of the WordPress admin.

For instance, custom post types can do basically whatever they want with their data, so we wanted a robust system for indicating feature support via the REST API. For example, post types which don’t have the editor support flag won’t have content registered, similar to how the admin doesn’t show the content editor for those post types. In addition, plugins can do even crazier stuff like conditionally changing post types. The system in the REST API can handle these cases with ease, providing clients the ability to adapt on-the-fly to the format of the data they’re editing or displaying.

We also recognise that the REST API needs the ability to adapt to future versions of WordPress, and we want to avoid as many breaking changes as possible. Building the abilities for feature detection enables forwards-compatibility via progressive enhancement, and gives clients a reliable paradigm to safely check whether a WordPress supports a feature before trying to use it.

The progressive enhancement concept builds heavily on the model already used by browsers for this purpose. If you want to build a site that uses geolocation (e.g.), you can easily detect support for that and build while waiting for browser support, even including polyfills. Feature detection with the REST API can allow the same technique, and allow polyfilling while waiting for the long-tail of sites to update.

The interplay with the complexity of custom post types is almost a bonus here. If I’m building a replica of the post editor, using feature detection to select which “metaboxes” to show is basically a necessity. In the case of meta, clients need to be robust enough to do this already, as plugins can remove plugin support for custom-fields from the built-in post types, and clients need to respond to this.

Progressive enhancement exists in the REST API already, and is easily usable and accessible by clients that want to ensure robustness.

Building With Progressive Enhancement Today

As an example, let’s say I’m building a simple editor today that uses the REST API. Imagine essentially a slimmed down version of Calypso or MarsEdit.

My editor allows me to write posts, save them as drafts, edit them again later, and publish them when I’m ready. After the post is published, I can update and save, and that affects the live post. I can’t do post previews, as there’s no autosave support built in.1

For now, I build my client without the autosave support, and instead bake autosave features into the editor itself. The WordPress admin already does this with localStorage saving for offline connections, and this system doesn’t require server-side support.

Progressively Enhancing In A Future Release

In a future release, we have the autosaving process nailed down, so we mark our extra feature plugin as done and merge it into core. The autosave endpoint then gets rolled out in the next WordPress major release.

In my client, I want to add the extra server-side autosave support on top of my local autosaving. To do this, I look to see if the feature is supported on the site. In this case, the “feature” I want is the POST endpoint on the /wp/v2/posts/{id}/autosave route, so I check the index to see if the route is there and supports the method.

I see that the site supports the method, so my client transparently starts using server-side autosaves.

This feature detection already exists in the REST API today. For instance, compare the results of and You can easily see which supports creating posts by inspecting for /wp/v2/posts and see that it supports POST.

Plugin Detection

REST API clients can also easily detect which plugins are available on a site. REST API endpoints are registered with two parts to their name: the namespace and the route. The namespace typically looks like name/v1 with a unique slug combined with the version; for the core plugin, this is wp/v2. This system works similarly to function namespacing in plugins currently, and we expect (and strongly recommend) that plugins and themes treat this as their unique slice of the API space.

Let’s say I want to check if WooCommerce is installed on a site. I simply fetch the index route and check the namespaces key to see if woocommerce/v3 is registered.

Again, plugin detection already exists in the REST API. Compare again and The demo site supports the core endpoints, as it has wp/v2 registered, whereas only has the oEmbed endpoints.

More Granular Detection

We can far more granular with detection too. Each route supplies information about the schema that the response follows (and request data when creating or updating resources). This is available either via an OPTIONS request to the route, or by fetching the index with ?context=help.

To detect fields, we simply need to check the schema for that field. If generic meta support is pushed back to a future release, enabling clients to interact with this would be easy. For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s added as the custom_fields property on the post resource.

To detect feature support, we simply need to do an OPTIONS request on /wp/v2/posts/42 (for post 42), then check that $ exists, and matches the format we’re expecting. We can then display a “custom fields” metabox-style interface in the editor for this.

Again, this level of feature detection already exists in the REST API today, and even more than that, we already recommend using this process for existing endpoints. When interacting with custom post types, you can detect whether the post type is hierarchical by checking for $ You can detect whether a post supports reordering by checking for $

This applies even when not working with custom post types: you can detect whether a post supports featured images and whether the site/theme supports them by checking that $ exists. This isn’t a theoretical concern, robust editors already need to do this, as themes have differing support for WordPress features, and these changes need to flow through clients. In addition, plugins have essentially unlimited flexibility, and clients need to recognise this and support it in order to maximise compatibility across the long-tail of WordPress installs and configurations.

Meta with register_rest_field

One thing that was glossed over is that despite us pulling support for generic meta, we still have opt-in support for meta handling at a lower level.

If I’m a plugin author that wants to add my own data to a post response, I can simply use code like:

register_rest_field( 'post', 'rm_data', array(
    'get_callback' => function ( $data ) {
        return get_post_meta( $data['id'], '_rm_custom_field', true );
    'update_callback' => function ( $value, $post ) {
        update_post_meta( $post->ID, '_rm_custom_field', sanitize_text_field( $value ) );
    'schema' => array(
        'description' => 'My custom field!',
        'type' => 'string',
        'context' => array( 'view', 'edit' ),

Since I’ve registered the schema data, this is automatically added to the schema for me. Clients can then detect my feature automatically by checking for $ The API here gives me feature detection for free. The proposal to enhance register_meta in core ( will enable even easier integration with the API.

Moving Forward

Right now, the REST API team, and the WordPress community, needs a clear path forward to get from the feature-plugin as it exists today to a sustainable long-term project. Being able to ship and move on is a key part of this, as well as providing the room to expand in the future.

We believe that the progressive enhancement approach is the best approach for continuing API development. Progressive enhancement is a paradigm the REST API project ​must​ adopt, if it’s an API we want to add to (without breaking backwards compatibility) over the next 10 years.

  1. I’m choosing autosave support here, however it’s very possible this will be completed and merged in the very near future. It’s a convenient example to use though. []

10 thoughts on “Progressive Enhancement With the WordPress REST API

  1. I’m flabbergasted at the blockage, doing front endpoints first with ability for anyone to enhance as they see fit makes sense. You get developers feet wet and you can see how people are using the API and then focus the iterative development on those areas. I honestly don’t think people are going to use admin endpoints for years. You would need to replicate the exact same UI in js or get backlash and what would be point of that? I don’t even see WP going full js, ever. The API is more a development tool to create apps that are not what WP is today.

  2. This is a great post. Thanks Ryan.

    Not sure what the opposite of progressive enhancement is, but I hope that is not the future of WordPress.

    When we talk about progressive enhancement and iteration with the REST API, let’s not forget how having the WordPress REST API helps fast iteration in WordPress development outside of core. I can add my own endpoints very quickly, or use the default endpoints, and apply filters as needed. Thanks to the WordPress REST API, I’m prototyping with a better, more feature complete API, that works better with my JS MVC framework of choice, then the custom APIs I used to spend hours/days making.

  3. Good read, Ryan!
    I completely agree with the progressive enhancement approach for WordPress REST API. I think it’s the WP way and many would agree with me on that. Waiting for the complete wp-admin support doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment. While it may be what we progress toward, that’s not the end goal here, is it?

  4. Excellent post. Cannot wait until this is fully implemented in core.

    I missed the reasoning behind wait for full admin support. Did Matt state *why* he wants to wait for full admin parity?

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