May 24, 2018 | Dev

Responsive Design Vs. Progressive Web Apps: The Push for PWA's

Want to get a group of developers all riled up? Just mention Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) - currently the hot buzzword in the world of web development.

Progressive Web Apps

PWAs have been the basis for a new debate over whether responsive web design is even still good enough for websites, or if everyone should just move toward PWAs instead.

But we’re going to dive in and put our foot down.

The tl;dr answer is no, you don't need a PWA to be relevant in 2018. Here’s why.

Progressive Web Apps

Wait, Back Up… PWAs?

Let's dive into what a PWA actually is: a CMS, framework, and language-agnostic website that has the ability to be more app-like - meaning users will have access to features like push notifications, a simple home screen icon, the ability to launch in full screen, UIs with 60fps animations, etc. In some cases, browsers are even actively crawling in search of PWAs to add to their own app stores (looking at you, Bing).

The PWA access process usually looks like this: users access the website through any browser, and on a supported browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and even Edge!) it asks the user if they want to install the web app to their home screen. This lets users download and the store the website on their devices (which then gets updated with Service Workers in the background).

The "progressive" in PWA means that even if a user has an unsupported browser (IE or other very old browsers) the site still is fully functional for them, they just don't get the progressive enhancements.

Responsive Web Design

How Do PWAs Compare to Responsive Web Design?

Responsive web design (RWD) basically refers to the practice of designing a website that can be accessed with any technology you might use to build a site.

RWD allows the website to be fully functional (and look good) no matter what size screen the user has in front of them. It has been around since 2001, when Audi launched the first documented responsive site.

Since then, RWD has become basically a requirement for new sites, and Forrester has estimated that up to 87% of digital experience-makers have come to embrace it.

PWAs and RWD are not two independent ways to create a website - in fact, PWAs will almost certainly utilize RWD.

So Why Not Just Jump On The PWA Train?

Some of the major criticisms working against PWAs: speed, bad UX, and "jank".

Speed

As website wants to make more and more money off their users they add more ads, and more tracking scripts to watch your every move. All those can really hurt your page speed.

This can easily be solved by smaller marketing websites that don't have ads, or by using less obtrusive ads on the page if they are necessary.

Making sure images are sized right for the website, and the server is compressing content before sending it to the client all help in speeding up a website.

UX

An often misdiagnosed issue with RWD is bad UX. It is not an inherit issue with RWD, but possibly just your designer. A well-designed website will look good on smaller devices whether it's a PWA or not.

Jank

You know that feeling when you try scroll or tap on a link, but the page is still trying to process and things get hung up - and then all of a sudden your 45 taps all happen at once and things go wonky? That’s jank - and it’s no good.

Jank usually occurs because your company's marketing team has requested to add 14 different tracking services, or the developer coded some really inefficient javascript.

Either way, these problems don't magically go away if your website evolves to a PWA.

Which One?

In Short: Look Before You Leap

As tempting as it might be to jump on board the bandwagon, don’t assume that a PWA will fix all your problems. However, you also shouldn’t be afraid to have a website that can do some really cool things that weren't possible even 6 months ago across much of the web.

At the end of the day, there is simply no right or wrong answer whether a PWA is needed for your website. There are just too many factors that go into planning and developing a custom website to land on one side of the fence or the other.

The best solution (as with so much of life) is to choose the best solution for your particular site. If you’re looking to maximize those app-like features (like easy home screen app access, offline use, and high-quality, full screen functionality), you may want to choose a PWA.

If you’re looking to maximize site speed and accessibility for the most users, RWD might be the better choice.

Let's Put Our Minds Together.

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