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Websites vs. Web apps – and How We’re Doing it All Backwards

It’s been said that today’s websites have outgrown their own definition. Even seemingly simple web locations are now so complex, the maxim goes, that they have become applications.

It makes sense: in terms of both functionality and design, today’s retail, media, brand, and social media websites offer rich interconnectivity with other locations and interactive elements.  Basically, they’re full of stuff that was until recently found only in hard-coded apps.  As a result, the lines of distinction between SaaS applications, web applications, and websites grow slimmer year by year, if they exist at all.

So We Have Our “Apps”: Now What

If we accept this fundamental shift as true, it should follow that the way we approach maintaining and optimizing online and mobile applications should be evolving simultaneously. After all, an app consists of much more than its front end. It requires constant upkeep, “knob-turning” optimization, and a host of work in the back end to actually deliver experiences.

Yet these crucial processes have fallen behind the cutting edge of design/dev. What happened?

The cycles of innovation on the front end have increased velocity to the point where most organizations have the capabilities needed to build the latest style of a web application, but become bogged down with browser/OS incompatibility, performance problems, or hugely extended cycles when altering the app. These problems were rarer in the 1990s when application development was a month- or years-long enterprise in which all factors relating to the app, from back to front, were accounted for pre-launch.

For just one bit of proof of this effect, look at the bevy of “MBaaS” (mobile backend as a service) companies that have sprung up in the past couple of years, Kinvey and Parse to name a couple. These companies have created a category in record time in order to fill a gap, where new online and mobile applications were lacking the infrastructure they needed. For many years companies relied on in-house teams or large-scale implementations from tech giants. When recently those options proved insufficient, companies turned to new-breed services. The same could be said for tag management software created to deal with the glut of third-party scripts found on online apps today.

The consistent theme: more services than ever are being added to the app stack in order to fill in where diligence was lacking.

How The Cart Got in Front: RWD

The broadest and most important example of this phenomenon can be found by looking at how the industry has approached Responsive Web Design, a development trend that came about to solve the challenge of presenting websites on mobile devices.

Of late there has been a rush to adopt RWD, and many organizations have become highly effective at building such sites.  But while those who use the technology have solved their presentation problem, many have not answered a host of other outstanding factors: namely optimizing performance and managing interconnectivity.  Some of the companies that rushed into RWD learned the hard way that failing to consider these trailing challenges can lead to a slowing or even decline in the growth of engagement with mobile users – in which case the original purpose of the RWD is defeated.

This experience was not limited to a few companies. On an industry-wide scale, it’s evident that RWD design has become detached from the supporting structure that drives functionality over time. A host of conference presentations and publications cover topics such as “How to make responsive design sites fast”.  This shows that the answers are out there, but they are not yet standard.

The only way to reconcile, or realign, the development of UX/CX innovations with the necessary support is to find the concepts and tools that are up to pace with front-end innovations. Some of these include RESS (responsive design plus server-side components), adaptive web design, and mobile-specific “moment” apps.

The Backwards Approach

This “backward” approach – first innovating on the front end, secondarily figuring out how to deal with the implications – may be one of the defining features of application development in the mobile era. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The issues this approach presents have resulted in a new phase of innovation and disruption in “_aaS” services and throughout the web stack. New categories like MBaaS and automated app optimization can serve to save time and resources for organizations of all sizes, even if their provenance was mere as problem fixers.

And best of all, end-user experiences will be better than ever, albeit with a few bumps along the way.

We’ll be covering more approaches to improving user experience on modern online and mobile apps in future posts.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in solving performance for mobile, check out our eBook below on avoiding “Mobile Mistakes.”

Photo via Darkday. on Flickr

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