We are actively destroying the web

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One of the central themes of my talk on The Lean Web is that we as developers repeatedly take all of the great things the web and browsers give us out-of-the-box, break them, and then re-implement them poorly with JavaScript.

This point smacked me in the face hard a few weeks ago after WebAIM released their survey of the top million websites.

As Ethan Marcotte noted in his article on the survey:

Pages containing popular JavaScript frameworks were more likely to have accessibility errors than those that didn’t use those frameworks.

JavaScript routing has always perplexed me.

You take something the browser just gives you for free, break it with JavaScript, then reimplement it with more JavaScript, often poorly. You have to account for on-page clicks, on-site clicks, off-site clicks, forward and back button usage, and so on.

JavaScript routing has always perplexed me, too. Back when SPA-centric front-end frameworks started taking off I thought that there must be something wrong with me, as a developer. Why was I unable to see why this “new hotness” was so popular, so immediately ubiquitous? I taught myself a couple of different frameworks in the hope that in learning to use them in anger I’d “click” and understand why this approach to routing made any sense, but I still couldn’t get it.

That’s when I remembered, later than I ought to have, that just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.#

Front-end routing isn’t necessarily poisonous. By building on-top of what you already have in a progressive-enhancement kind-of way (like unpoly does for example!) you can potentially provide some minor performance or look-and-feel improvements to people in ideal circumstances (right browser(s), right compatibility, no bugs, no blocks, no accessibility needs, no “power users” who like to open-in-new-tab and the like, speedy connection, etc.) without damaging the fundamentals of what makes your web application work… but you’ve got to appreciate that doing this is going to be more work. For some applications, that’s worthwhile.

But when you do it at the expense of the underlying fundamentals… when you say “we’re moving everything to the front-end so we’re not going to bother with real URLs any more”… that’s when you break the web. And in doing so, you break a lot of other things too:

  • You break your user experience for people who don’t fit into your perfect vision of what your users look like in terms of technology, connection, or able-bodiedness
  • You break the sustainability and archivability of your site, making it into another piece of trash that’ll be lost to the coming digital dark age
  • You break the usability of the site by anything but your narrow view of what’s right
  • You break a lot of the technology that’s made the web as great as it is already: caching, manipulatable URLs, widespread compatibility… and many other things become harder when you have to re-invent the wheel to get basic features like preloading, sharability/bookmarking, page saving, the back button, stateful refreshes, SEO, hyperlinks…

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