Progressive enhancement is the practice of making websites fancier if your computer or phone can handle it, and making ‘em less fancy if it can’t!
We techies take for granted that we update our browsers, computers, and phones almost as frequently as we change our underwear. But for many people in the world, a computer they bought three years ago and a web browser they updated two years ago feel pretty new.
Thus, instead of having to either go for the lowest common denominator or give certain users the short end of the stick, you deliver a simpler, but still nice looking, version of your site to those users that are browser and device challenged, and a more complicated version to those users that have the latest of everything.
When you visit Slate on your smartphone, you can you read the articles, but you don’t see all the ads, slideshows, blog links or what’s trending on the Washington Post.
The reason for this is twofold: one, Slate has thought long and hard about what it is you want to do on your phone; do you really want to see what is trending on the Washington Post? Probably not.
The other reason is that your phone is not yet as powerful as your computer, meaning that it can’t process as much information as quickly so Slate doesn’t ask it to. Instead, Slate sends your phone a version of its website that still gives you all the important stuff (articles) without it taking forever.
Cocktail Party Fact
Before we had progressive enhancement, there was a popular idea called ‘graceful degradation.’ The graceful degradation ethos says that you design your website for the fanciest browsers and devices and then make sure it looks ok for everyone else.
The distinction between graceful degradation and progressive enhancement is a subtle one, but it’s the kind of thing that developers and technologists love to fight about! In one camp you have the graceful degraders who think that older browsers should be an afterthought (we build for the future!) and in the other camp you have the progressive enhancers who think that your content should be optimized for all platforms (we build for everyone!).