Web Apps Are Not A Thing, Please Stop

In the Bay Area there’s this very clear distinction folks make between “websites” and “web apps.” Somehow, the thinking goes, if we make a web app then we don’t need to care about accessibility or responsive design. We don’t need to care about all the work that goes into making a typical website great; semantic HTML, fast performance, responsive design.

“Web apps” somehow play by different unwritten rules than “websites.”

There’s a lot written about this subject but ultimately I think the difference between “web apps” and “websites” is complete bullshit. When you’re looking at a web app or a website you’re still using all the same technology; URLs, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The only difference is the way they’re built under the hood. Typically, “web apps” tend to use bloated JavaScript frameworks and ”websites” are written by hand by the marketing team and perhaps at most use a CMS.

But to people, to the browser, to the network, it’s all the same.

And maybe this is why people in this town are too ashamed to call themselves web designers.

Anyway, when building web apps I keep hearing that we don’t need to care about responsive design or accessibility and it troubles me. It’s like saying the “mobile web,” it’s an excuse to be lazy. The thinking goes in most companies that “we don’t need to care about responsive design because we’ll just build an app” but really I hear that as just another excuse to do a bad job, too.

Do folks know that we can make fantastic websites that are responsive now? That we can change the layout without the source order? Why has our profession become such a joke that we’re willing to hire a whole other team, build for one specific platform, when we could expand our current design and codebase to support smaller screens? Why do I assume whenever I go to a website on my phone it’s going to be an embarrassing mess? Why do I immediately copy the address, just in case I need to email it to myself to view it on a desktop browser later?

How did the responsive web design movement fail here?

I’ve been thinking about this in a different light this week since I read Mandy Brown’s post the other day about accessibility where she quotes Sara Hendren:

Disability in part results when the shape of the world—buildings and streets but also institutions, cultural organizations, centers of power—operates rigidly, with a brittle and scripted sense of what a body does or does not do, how it moves and organizes its world.

When I think of web apps I think of them as brittle, rigid, dumb machines; software that can’t flex to meet us here in our bodies.

And I reckon this is what inspired me about Ethan Marcotte’s original argument for building responsive websites. Not the cool tech, or the new working philosophy, but instead that tiny act of rebellion against brittle software. Everything that goes into making a great “website” expands the scope of what we expect software to be; fast, accessible, responsive, kind.

But we can only do this if we stop making the distinction between “web apps” and “websites.” Only then can we start to build a Web for us all.