People have a lot of misconceptions about web development. The notion that frontend is easier than the backend is only one of them. But it has been repeated enough times that most beginners today start to learn frontend, hoping to have a smooth-sailing experience.
In reality, though, frontend is far from being the easy-to-master field people think it to be.
Perhaps, it was the case no longer than a decade ago. But not anymore.
When compared to the backend, though, where does frontend’s complexity lie? Is frontend easier than the backend? Or is it the opposite?
Well, it depends on people’s tastes. Some people find backend more straightforward while frontend is volatile and unpredictable. Others think frontend is more intuitive to work with because of its visual nature.
But if I look at this question objectively, it isn’t far-fetched to say frontend development has become more complex than the backend today.
Why? For one, frontend technologies evolve fast. For another, the preferences of users who directly interact with the frontend also change fast.
Sure, frontend is easier to get started with
On the other hand, backend development overwhelms beginners with dozens of choices. There are more backend languages today than you can count. Add to that the different components of the backend, like databases and deployment servers, its seeming complexity can intimidate a lot of learners.
Backend doesn’t give visible results to developers, unlike the frontend, which can also be confusing.
But this starting simplicity of the frontend doesn’t stay the same as you go deeper into the field.
Frontend is more challenging to master than the backend
The real complexity of the frontend comes out only when you try to become a master of it. Keeping up with the frontend development at the professional level is going to take a lot of effort than the initial phase.
Let’s consider some reasons that contribute to this:
Frontend landscape changes rapidly
Then, in the last few years, the field underwent massive changes within a short period. It saw many new technologies meant to ease the developer workflow being introduced and becoming popular.
These technologies emerged and became popular among frontend developers within quite a short time span. At one point, people even joked about how frontend has new frameworks coming out almost every day.
Frontend continues to follow this trend of rapid changes even today. Some newer frameworks try to solve certain issues in the old guard. Svelte, Preact, and Lit are three examples that have created some buzz recently.
Practices like static-site generation, server-side rendering, JAMstack development, and progressive web apps are gaining momentum and altering how we approach the frontend. An entirely new set of technologies have entered the field with these concepts, as we see with frameworks like Gatsby, Next, and Nuxt.
What about the backend?
True, the backend has also gone through similar changes since its beginning. But they entered the field as more steady progress over a long time. Today’s tech drive has also sped up the evolution of backend technologies and practices. But it isn’t as frantic as the frontend.
Companies being hesitant to change their backend stack compared to the frontend is one of the biggest reasons that contribute to this difference. They have continued to count on their tested-and-true technologies despite all the new ones gaining popularity every year.
Also, the diversity of backend languages has allowed developers to minimize the evolution of each path. For example, let’s assume two dozen new backend frameworks come out in a year. But only one or two of them would belong to the language you use due to this diversity.
However, some signs already show that the frontend’s rapid evolution is finally slowing down.
The definition of a good frontend is highly feedback driven
The one who decides whether a frontend is good or bad is always the user. So, the tasks and responsibilities of a frontend developer heavily rely on user feedback.
It makes their job a lot more volatile compared to backend developers. If users think a certain UI component is poorly designed, you have to make adjustments until they are satisfied. If the users find a certain feature too tricky to use, you must experiment and figure out what works best.
Frontend development requires a more interactive approach with the users rather than a formulistic and procedural one.
For example, with the backend, you can use an automated test suite to determine whether something is working as expected. When it comes to frontend, though, you mostly have to rely on manual testing and user feedback to come to such a conclusion.
The standards for users’ preferences for frontend also keep rising quite fast. A decade or so ago, you could’ve gotten away with a website that gives a poor user experience yet somehow gets the job done. But today, users expect websites to be intuitive and appealing and cater to their specific needs.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this bar rises every time frontend development learns to do something in a better way.
Frontend is now more than just the UI
Frontend hasn’t been just the UI for quite some time. And it’s even more true today.
Some even build entire websites, using little to no backend, with the help of serverless architecture and API services.
This shift in the frontend landscape has pushed developers to understand some concepts usually associated with the backend. For example, they sometimes have to learn to work with databases like Firebase or implement authentication with Auth0.
Even if I take only the UI part of frontend development, it involves a lot of details to master to create a good design. I have listed a few of them below:
- Making your web app responsive so that it can adjust to a diverse range of devices like phones, tabs, and computers
- Ensuring the app is compatible with different browser types and versions.
- Making the site accessible to users with different disabilities.
- Adhering to good design principles when creating UI components.
A question many people just entering web development seems to ask is whether frontend is easier than the backend.
Even though the frontend deceptively looks simpler on the outside, the reality is that it is quite difficult to master. It has a lot of technologies and aspects one has to learn in a constantly shifting landscape.
But it isn’t to say backend is never more difficult than the frontend. Particularly, at a large scale, backend becomes notoriously complex with scaling issues that require distributed solutions.
Under more general use cases, though, we can give that title to frontend, considering how many different concepts frontend developers have to master to become decent in their job.