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Serving More for Less

Of course, there are many folks who consider progressive enhancement—especially insofar as creating a non-JavaScript experience goes—a total waste of time. Take this comment a reader left on web developer Tim Kadlec’s blog post “Crippling the Web:”15

  • This is all fine and dandy, but not very real world. A cost-benefit analysis has to happen—what does that next user/visitor cost, and more importantly earn you? This idealistic approach would leave most broke if they had to consider “every user” when building a site. That’s why clothes come in small, medium, large, and extra-large. Most of us have to buy them that way because not everyone can afford a tailor made suit, much less an entire wardrobe. Your approach only works for those who can see the return.

Tim’s response was dead-on:

  • I think that’s where the difference between ‘support’ and ‘optimization’ comes into play. I’m certainly not saying to go out and buy every device under the sun, test on them, make sure things look and behave the same. You don’t necessarily have to optimize for all these different devices and scenarios (that’s where the cost-benefit analysis has to come in), but it’s often not very time consuming to at least support them on some level.
  • Progressive enhancement can get you a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Sometimes it’s as simple as doing something like ‘cutting the mustard’ to exclude older devices and browsers that might choke on advanced JS from having to try and deal with that. The experience isn’t the same, but if you’ve used progressive enhancement to make sure the markup is solid and not reliant on the JavaScript, it’s at least something that is usable for them.

You can’t test every scenario, every browser, and every device. There just aren’t enough hours in the day even if someone was willing to spend the money on doing it—and guess what, they aren’t. You need to balance your desired reach with your realistic resources.

This is why progressive enhancement is so helpful. You can provide a baseline experience that anyone can use and then look for ways to improve it on the browsers and devices that are part of your test matrix.

As an added bonus, you’ll be able to reach new devices as they roll out with little to no extra effort. Case in point: The TechCrunch redesign of 2013 did not prioritize the browsing experience on a tiny screen, but they allowed for it; as a result, the site looks and works just as well on a smart watch (Figure 1.4) as it does on a phone or a desktop screen.

Figure 1.4

Figure 1.4 TechCrunch viewed on an Android Wear device.

Progressive enhancement is inherently future friendly.16

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