SPA or Not

The latter half of the last decade can be considered an explosion of SPAs. With introduction of Angular 2, ReactJS, Vue and a ton of such frameworks, creating highly interactive web pages became very easy. So easy that competing technologies like Java applets and Flash are being pushed into extinction.

Of course whenever a new UI technology comes in, it’s going to look exciting, have a big bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon, some realise that it’s actually not relevant to them, others realise something newer has come, then finally, most of them move on. But this time, a new ‘concept’ was spun out. The concept of SPAs.

What are SPAs?

SPAs or Single Page Applications are a concept, where your whole website is just one HTML page. Pieces of content inside the page get dynamically modified and updated using content from the server. For example, a single page that has a menu at the top and an empty box at the bottom – when you click on a menu item, the page will fetch the respective data from the server and populate the empty box. When you click another menu item, it will fetch different content, and replace the content of the (initially) empty box.

In contrast, traditional web applications are made of several pages. So the above example in traditional style would be each menu item would be a a link to the corresponding web page. Clicking on a menu item would just order the web browser to load a new page entirely. The disadvantage being, it’s a bit slower to load an entire webpage rather than populating just data into an existing container.

How to Decide?

SPAs are not an improvement on the web UI, and as such, it’s incorrect to assume that ‘modern’ websites are SPAs. SPAs are just a different way to make websites. So it’s important to choose whether or not to use them. This has become an important decision to make because there are significant differences in user experience between SPAs and traditional applications. So much so, that choosing the wrong type can either make or break the success of your web application.

When to Prefer an SPA

When you’re making an interactive user interface, where there is communication between the different components of the page, it’s better to do an SPA. For example, a dashboard that shows data as tables and charts. You probably would like if the charts are all interactive and respond to different clicks on the page – like if you click on a geography, all the charts get redrawn to show data only for that geography. Another example is a drawing application – a large canvas in the centre and a set of tools like pencil, eraser, shapes etc in a toolbar. These kinds of applications are even possible only because of the advances in UI frameworks and SPAs.

When to Prefer a Traditional Website

When your audience is going to consume information rather than interact with it, then it’s better to do a traditional website. Think of blogs, news websites, video streaming sites, forums – the bulk of the internet. It is unnecessary complication to do an SPA if the interactivity it brings is not utilised. Because it’s way more complex to develop SPAs than normal web pages. There are more possibility of bugs and weird behaviour. More importantly, you page is going to be unnecessarily large and slow to download – SPA frameworks are usually heavy.

Also, if you are making a website where people come to consume information, then you probably depend on search engines to bring you traffic. Well search engines are not very good with SPAs. Chances are that your website won’t even be indexed by search engines, if it’s entirely an SPA.

How to Choose

By now, it should be obvious that there is more chance that you do not need an SPA, because most websites exist for consumption rather than interaction. Most people come to the internet to read, watch or listen. And a smaller portion usage is interactive applications like posting blog entries, working with documents, editing images and so on. So the choice is simple. If your website is more for reading, watching or listening, then do a traditional site. If your website is more for interacting – filtering, sorting, drill-downs, slice-n-dice, drawing and so on, do an SPA.

How About Both?

The thing is most of the times, your website might have to do both. Think of a shopping website. The shoppers all have to read the pages, look at the product details, read reviews – so it seems like a site where people primarily read information. But, it also has to be interactive -filtering products, sorting search results and so on. What to pick in this case?

Such websites can benefit from both approaches. So I would use a combination of both. Start out with a normal traditional website. Then introduce SPA features into the pages where it’s necessary. So your website would be like a collection of pages, some of which are mini SPAs. For example, the search results page is a normal page without SPA functionalities. But to improve user experience, the product page might have features like commenting, reviewing, browse multiple product images, buttons to add/remove the product from the shopping cart etc. These can be done SPA-style, so that the user won’t be navigating away from the page to do these little actions.

Still Doubtful?

When in doubt, do a traditional website. It’s easy to get a normal website right. But getting SPAs right is hard work. Wait for circumstances to strongly push you towards SPAs – and then you can refactor your website to be an SPA. Because often when the developers are in doubt, it means there’s not much benefit in increasing complexity. Presenting an SPA when there is not need for one, will just make the user experience worse. Where the situation doesn’t demand it, SPAs stick out like sores and sometimes even end up irritating the user. So again, if you’re confused, just do a plain old website and live peacefully ever after.