The term “Responsive Web Design” has failed

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and although Alex’s recent slide is a bit full on, it’s not entirely wrong.

I think what he should have said was that Responsive Web Design alone has failed so far in keeping the web at the forefront of users experiences where most users are most of the time — on mobile. Of course, that’s much more nuanced than he had time for in his talk, but if that is a goal of RWD then it has failed. If the goal of RWD is just to be a practice to making things visually work on different screen sizes, then gold stars all around.

Responsive web design in and of itself is a really smart way to think about developing sites, assuming that you’re taking it from the mobile-first strategy. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a major digital service that hasn’t had a mobile-optimised layout of some nature, so I think on the whole that’s worked. Although, I have to ask where the “so focused on mobile they didn’t bother with a desktop optimisation” crew are – I sort of expected that to happen, but I’ve not yet hit a serious site that has a mobile-only view and presents that to it’s end users on desktop as a fallback. I have, however, seen buckets of splash screens that block me entirely and point me at the native app as the exclusive and only way to access their content and services. That’s scary.

What’s lacking about the responsive web design story is it has always focussed so heavily on the visual, dimensional, aspects of digital design. What are the snap points? How do we scale the images, the text? Can we trim content for some or enhance for others?

As a movement, it’s failed to capture the true otherness of being on a small screen. The fact that CPU, memory, network speed, storage and so many other aspects need to be first-level concerns. I’d argue that for most sites, the compromise for small screen devices has gone about as far as the ever-maligned hamburger menu and largely stopped there.

What I think I, and folks like Alex and Jeremy, who are fearful of the future of the Open Web really want to see is the sort of design work that Jad spoke about at Fronteers. That deep, close, observation of what our users _really_ expect on their devices – given that a majority of their experiences are with native apps and we’re trying very much to slip in our non-native experiences and pass them off as as reliable, integrated and valuable as those. RWD also isn’t taking us into where people find their online experiences (app stores). It could, but it needs to be tightly coupled with a strong PWA game with Trusted Web Activities, for example.

Jad’s excellent Fronteer’s talk

So, in short, RWD didn’t fail so much as it stopped short. Let’s not bicker about the specifics and just focus on getting out of our doom loop, eh?

A Book Apart: Progressive Web Apps

This time last year, I was at Chrome Dev Summit. I ran into Jason Grigsby, who I am always glad to chat with. He mentioned, slightly off-hand, that he was writing a new book about Progressive Web Apps and jokingly suggested that I would be a good person to contribute to a foreword.

Well. He wasn’t joking.

His wonderful new book is out now, published by A Book Apart.

Picture of the PWA book
A real book made of trees!

The foreword is written by myself and Alex, and we mean every word we say in it. We couldn’t be happier with how Jason’s book turned out and it’s really the only book you need if you want to understand why, and how, you should be building PWAs.

I’m very thankful for his kindness and the opportunity to contribute in a tiny way to his amazing work.

Naming Progressive Web Apps

I got an email a few weeks ago from a German technology magazine asking me some questions about Progressive Web Apps. I responded, but the email eventually bounced and I assume the sender never got my reply so I don’t know – can a print magazine go out of business that quickly?

I was thinking about the questions, though, and the answers I wrote. They wanted to know how we came up with the name (it’s really boring) and what I thought about native apps (meh), and would there be hybridisation (probably, inevitably).

I accidentally helped name this thing because it’s essentially core to Alex’s work these days. I’m more of a sounding board / humaniser than an active designer of the thing. Ultimately, we talk about it because I really care about the web – the open web – and sometimes I wonder if it’s too late to save it – which we find a depressing topic, but one we dwell on a lot.

I mean, we can’t even reliably do email still, apparently (I know they’re not the same), and we’ve got bullshit things like AMP essentially screwing up what it even means to have a website at all. AMP is a symptom that someone, somewhere, thinks the web is failing so badly (so slow, so unresponsive) for a portion of the world that they want to take all the content and package it back up in a sterile, un-webby, branded box. That makes me so sad. PWAs, to me, are a potential treatment.

I keep seeing folks (developers) getting all smart-ass saying they should have been PW “Sites” not “Apps” but I just want to put on the record that it doesn’t matter. The name isn’t for you and worrying about it is distraction from just building things that work better for everyone. The name is for your boss, for your investor, for your marketeer. It’s a way for you to keep making things on the open web, even those things that look really “app-y” and your company wants to actually make as a native app, 3 times over. They don’t want you to make websites anymore, but you still can if you’re sneaky, if you tell them it’s what they think they want.

It’s marketing, just like HTML5 had very little to do with actual HTML. PWAs are just a bunch of technologies with a zingy-new brandname that keeps the open web going a bit longer, that helps it compete with the proprietary, the closed, until the next thing (and hopefully the next thing) comes along to keep it sharp and relevant. It’s for the next billion users who come online and open a browser and go looking for what’s out there, for those users who have to pay per mb for their downloads, who have old shitty phones, who don’t want to, or can’t, be on a native-app-based operating system.

Remember, this is for everyone. The name isn’t.