Spoiler: server-rendered HTML can work offline

The architecture astronauts who, for the past decade, have been selling us on the necessity of React, Redux, and megabytes of JS, cannot comprehend the possibility of building an email app in 2020 with server-rendered HTML 😴


The effects are truly toxic. Last decade’s obsession with SPAs has poisoned the minds of even the brightest teachers in our industry.

Like, there’s no way this stuff can work offline, right?!

Briefly read up on how HEY is implemented. Is this a correct summary of the pros and cons of its sever-centric approach?
– Pro: Works fast on older devices.
– Con: Can’t be used offline.

Hey now

Progressive enhancement is at the heart of everything I do on the web. It’s the bedrock of my speaking and writing too. Whether I’m writing about JavaScript, Ajax, HTML, or service workers, it’s always through the lens of progressive enhancement. Sometimes I explicitly bang the drum, like with Resilient Web Design. Other times I don’t mention it by name at all, and instead talk only about its benefits.

I sometimes get asked to name some examples of sites that still offer their core functionality even when JavaScript fails. I usually mention, although that has other issues. But quite often I find that a lot of the examples I might mention are dismissed as not being “web apps” (whatever that means).

The pushback I get usually takes the form of “Well, that approach is fine for websites, but it wouldn’t work something like Gmail.”

It’s always Gmail. Which is odd. Because if you really wanted to flummox me with a product or service that defies progressive enhancement, I’d have a hard time with something like, say, a game (although it would be pretty cool to build a text adventure that’s progressively enhanced into a first-person shooter). But an email client? That would work.


Can you build something that works just like Gmail without using any JavaScript? No. But that’s not what progressive enhancement is about. It’s about providing the core functionality (reading and writing emails) with the simplest possible technology (HTML) and then enhancing using more powerful technologies (like JavaScript).

Progressive enhancement isn’t about making a choice between using simpler more robust technologies or using more advanced features; it’s about using simpler more robust technologies and then using more advanced features. Have your cake and eat it.

Fortunately I no longer need to run this thought experiment to imagine what it would be like if something like Gmail were built with a progressive enhancement approach. That’s what HEY is.

Sam Stephenson describes the approach they took:

HEY’s UI is 100% HTML over the wire. We render plain-old HTML pages on the server and send them to your browser encoded as text/html. No JSON APIs, no GraphQL, no React—just form submissions and links.

If you think that sounds like the web of 25 years ago, you’re right! Except the HEY front-end stack progressively enhances the “classic web” to work like the “2020 web,” with all the fidelity you’d expect from a well-built SPA.

See? It’s not either resilient or modern—it’s resilient and modern. Have your cake and eat it.

And yet this supremely sensible approach is not considered “modern” web development:

The architecture astronauts who, for the past decade, have been selling us on the necessity of React, Redux, and megabytes of JS, cannot comprehend the possibility of building an email app in 2020 with server-rendered HTML.


Their focus is very much on people above technology. They’ve taken a human-centric approach to their product and a human-centric approach to web development …because ultimately, that’s what progressive enhancement is.

Always bet on HTML

In September of 2019, Zach Leatherman tweeted

Which has a better First Meaningful Paint time?

  1. a raw 8.5MB HTML file with the full text of every single one of my 27,506 tweets
  2. a client rendered React site with exactly one tweet on it

(Spoiler: @____lighthouse reports 8.5MB of HTML wins by about 200ms)

Take a moment to wrap your head around that.

It’s perceivably faster to load 8.5 megabytes of HTML than it is to load a single tweet with a client-side React app.


Real companies can and do build apps with HTML first

The folks at Basecamp just released a new email product, Hey, that tries to address a lot of the stuff that people find frustrating about email.

Neither product is really my cup of tea, but what I find super interesting is how Hey is built.

It’s core is server-rendered HTML. Basecamp is a Ruby on Rails shop (their CTO created Rails). Almost every view in the app is created on a server.

Then, they sprinkle just a little vanilla JS on top to turn things up to 11.

Basecamp uses a project they open sourced called Turbolinks. This JavaScript plugin intercepts link clicks and progressively enhances a server-side app into a single-page app (or SPA) by fetching additional pages with Ajax and only replacing the stuff that needs updating.

By using this approach, if the JS fails or isn’t supported, the app still loads and works and gives people the full experience. It also means you don’t have to wait for the full JS package to load before you can start using the app.

You still get the benefits of faster page loading that SPAs sometimes give you, but you don’t have to maintain two code bases or do complicated server-to-client hand offs (“rehydration” as they call it in the React world).

Leaflet - a JavaScript library for interactive maps

A stylized "Leaflet" with a branch and green leaves to the side.

Leaflet is the leading open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps. Weighing just about 38 KB of JS, it has all the mapping features most developers ever need.

Leaflet is designed with simplicity, performance and usability in mind. It works efficiently across all major desktop and mobile platforms, can be extended with lots of plugins, has a beautiful, easy to use and well-documented API and a simple, readable source code that is a joy to contribute to.

Brutalist Web Design

The term brutalism is often associated with Brutalist Architecture, however it can apply to other forms of construction, such as web design.


The term brutalism is derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete”. Although most brutalist buildings are made from concrete, we’re more interested in the term raw. Concrete brutalist buildings often reflect back the forms used to make them, and their overall design tends to adhere to the concept of truth to materials.

A website’s materials aren’t HTML tags, CSS, or JavaScript code. Rather, they are its content and the context in which it’s consumed. A website is for a visitor, using a browser, running on a computer [or mobile device] to read, watch, listen, or perhaps to interact. A website that embraces Brutalist Web Design is raw in its focus on content, and prioritization of the website visitor.

Brutalist Web Design is honest about what a website is and what it isn’t. A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.

They list the following principles:

Allow Ctrl- and Shift-clicking links in event handlers

I just recently updated a bunch of my click handlers to not act when the Ctrl or Shift keys are pressed during the click, so that links can be opened in new tabs or windows by the user if so wanted:

Code language: JavaScript

// Don't do anything and defer to the default action if a modifier key
// was pressed during the click (to open the link in a new tab, window,
// etc.) - note that this is a truthy check rather than a strict check
// for the existence of and boolean true value of the various event
// properties:
// *
// *
// *
if (event.ctrlKey || event.shiftKey) {

Container-Adapting Tabs With "More" Button

A non-wrapping horizontal menu, with a "More" button on the end, which reveals a vertical list of menu items that overflow the limited horizontal space.

This looks like an excellent, accessible starting point for the priority navigation pattern:

Or the priority navigation pattern, or progressively collapsing navigation menu. We can name it in at least three ways.

There are multiple UX solutions for tabs and menus and each of them have their own advantages over another, you just need to pick the best for the case you are trying to solve. At design and development agency Kollegorna we were debating on the most appropriate UX technique for tabs for our client’s website…

We agreed it should be a one-liner because the amount of tab items is unknown and narrowed our options down to two: horizontal scroll and adaptive with “more” button. Firstly, the problem with the former one is that horizontal scroll as a feature is not always visually obvious for users (especially for narrow elements like tabs) whereas what else can be more obvious than a button (“more”), right? Secondly, scrolling horizontally using a mouse-controlled device isn’t a very comfortable thing to do, so we might need to make our UI more complex with additional arrow buttons. All considered, we ended up choosing the later option[.]