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From static web apps to hyper-functional, cross-platform web apps, web development has progressed significantly in the last decade. Nowadays, almost anyone with a unique idea and the right mindset can create stunning and useful web apps.
But how exactly are web apps developed? This article will provide you with the necessary guidance on what a web app is, how it differs from a website, what types of web apps are there, and how you can transfer your idea into a functional web app, even if you have zero coding knowledge.
Web apps are basically computer programs that utilize web development technologies to perform certain tasks. With traditional apps, you’ll have to download the app into your device, which takes up storage. Web apps eliminate the need for storage as the app and the database both are secured on a web server.
Web apps can be accessed through a browser. You just have to know the URL of a particular app and a stable internet connection to start using it. Web apps use front-end web technologies like HTML, CSS, and JS for visuals. The information architecture is built and protected using back-end technologies like Ruby and python.
Some of the most popular brands that use web apps are Google Apps, Netflix, MS office 365, Trello, and Canva.
Web apps are closely related to websites and share many core technologies and functionalities. However, web apps provide an additional layer of interactions with end users whereas the key goal of a website is to present information.
The goal here is to make the application more like a mobile app and less like a website. Web applications provide a wide range of interactions that traditional websites don’t.
For example, you can only read the data and perform some selected activities (e.g. logging in/out or searching) but you won’t be able to interact with the core data. Web apps enable you to interact with the page content and core data in numerous ways.
The web app development process can be divided into 4 phases. Let’s explore the step-by-step guideline on how to develop a web app:
Everything starts with an idea. However, not all ideas provide solutions. In this step, you’ll need to focus on brainstorming sessions where you try to solve user problems. These sessions will give you raw ideas that you can incorporate into your web app.
Make a shortlist of rough ideas that can be turned into working web solutions. If you can locate the pain point of your target users, you’ll be able to generate ideas that can help both you and your users. You’ll need to find out what you are going to build and why.
To filter potential ideas, you can start answering these questions:
Once you have a workable solution, it’s time to dive deep into research. Find out if there is a market for your web solution first. If so, there may be some products already on the market providing a similar solution. Find out what those web solutions lack and how you can make your solutions even better.
In fact, finding out about competition is a good sign as it means someone already created the market for you to swoop in. Don’t worry if you don’t find similar products as this indicates an untapped market. The more you research the market and your competitors, the more refined your web solution will become.
The next part of the process is to validate your ideas. What you think is helpful can be different from what actually is. Share your ideas with your target audience or someone who faced the same problem, take their feedback into account and figure out how you want to approach the market.
“MVP” refers to Minimum Viable Product. In your case, this would be a working version of the app with only the core features. You can either develop an MVP and improve the features of your web app utilizing user feedback, or you can come up with a list of features yourself.
However, developing an MVP is usually a more popular approach as it provides the freedom to develop features as user demand increases in the next phases. Remember, you are developing a focused web app, not a swiss army pocket knife that can do everything.
The more features you add in this step, the longer it would take to publish your app. You’ll get the opportunity to add functionalities later. Especially if you are a newcomer, sticking with the basics will do better for you.
List down all the key features and functionality and use the MoSCoW approach to filter them:
|Mo (Must have features)||Highest||You project fails without them|
|S (Should have features)||High||Features you’ll need to incorporate later|
|Co (Could have features)||Medium||Features nice to have, but has little impact|
|W (Won’t need features)||Low||Features not needed as of now|
The design phase starts with creating roadmaps and user journey maps. Roadmap refers to the workflow you and your developer team will follow throughout the lifespan of your web app. On the other hand, a user journey map is a visual representation of how a user will complete a task using your web solution. This step is also called “sketching”.
The roadmap and user journey map you’ll create should be simple and easy to follow. Forget the visuals, you can even visualize workflows using just a pen and paper. Focus on how the users will navigate around pages, where you should put buttons, icons, branding elements, and any other interactive elements you want.
Remember, your functionality will impact the overall design. The main goal of these maps is to communicate and experiment. It would be better not to overcomplicate the process. Your plans should be simple, technical, and business oriented. The roadmap will help you streamline the development process.
Wireframes can be considered as a “blueprint” of the web app you are developing and prototypes are an interactive, working version of your app, minus the visual elements. Your wireframes should focus on the structure, interaction, and hierarchy of all the elements. Softwares like Sketch, Adobe XD, Figma, and InVision Studio can help you create functional and powerful high-fidelity mockups.
A prototype will work just like the final web app would do, giving you the opportunity to check the functionality and find underlying usability issues. Your prototype should reflect the user journey map you created earlier. This will help you get feedback on the user experience, design, and functionality before you dive into the development phase.
Here, you’ll focus on all the visual elements your web app will have. UI designers will help you create mockups that focus on the visual elements like the color scheme, typography, white space, buttons, icons, shapes, and more. They can also include motion design elements like transitions and animations to make it more aesthetically pleasing.
However, though you’ll get busy making your web app “look cool”, the primary drive should come from the usability and functionality so your end users can enjoy a web solution that is easy to use, delightful to interact with, and solves the problem correctly. Once you are satisfied with the result and feedback, it’s time to head on to the development phase.
It’s time to move on to the back-end side. All the data supposed to be processed through your web app needs a secure basement. A web server will act as the repository that holds all your data and codes. You’ll need to develop a secure database with easy accessibility for the users.
There are a variety of database management systems that can streamline your development process. MySQL, MongoDB, Dynamo Db, and Postgresql are some of the most widely used database management systems.
When setting up the database, the developers should focus on segregating your user’s data to avoid security breaches and maintain fluid communication between the front end and the back end of your web app.
Usually, web app architecture consists of 4 layers. The layers of a functional database architecture are as follows:
Presentation Layer (PL)-Provides data to and communicates with the client-side
Business Logic Layer (BLL)-Holds and executes business logics
Data Access Layer (DAL)-Offers simplified access to data
Data Service Layer (DSL)-Helps the PL and the BLL to communicate with each other and isolates BLL from the client-side
Now that you have a strong and secured information structure in the back end, it’s time to focus on the front-end development part. This is the part your users will interact with.
You’ll need to use languages like HTML, CSS, JS, and frameworks like React, Vue, and Angular to make your front-end attention-grabbing and fun to engage with.
Your design should reflect the user research you’ve done earlier. Looks won’t cut it alone. You’ll need to know your target audience better to provide a pleasant user experience. If there is a particular shape, color, or typography your users like, you should incorporate them into your design. The goal here is to provide a personalized and engaging user experience.
You’ll also have to develop the back-end functionalities. Your back end will consist of the database, the business/programming logic (code), APIs to create seamless communication, and the server itself.
There are a number of frameworks available that can streamline the back-end development process for you. We’ll discuss the technologies needed for web app development in the upcoming sections.
All the heavy-lifting is done. Now you’ll need to create a seamless connection between the front-end and the back-end of your web app. APIs will help the two sides of your app to communicate and exchange data. You’ll need to integrate multiple APIs to increase the functionalities and features of your web solution.
The development phase is almost complete. All that is left to do is improve your web app even further through rigorous testing. Although testing should dictate your entire development workflow, usability testing deserves a step on its own. This is where you’ll find and eliminate underlying usability and functionality issues to make your web app spotless.
Your web app should go through both positive and negative testing phases. Positive testing refers to making sure that your app works the way you intended, and negative testing refers to making your app capable enough to handle unexpected conditions.
This is the final step of building your web app from scratch. For your app to be available online, it needs to be hosted on a web server. You can choose a server that matches your tech stack choice or provide better connectivity. There are numerous hosting providers available. However, MS Azure, Google Cloud, and Amazon currently dominate the hosting market.
Once you are done hosting your web app on a secure web server. You are ready to launch your web app online. However, the development process doesn’t stop there. You’ll need to take in user feedback and try to make continuous developments if you want to stay relevant for long.
You can still develop stunning, hyper-functional web apps even if you don’t have any prior coding knowledge. There are numerous software and IDEs available that can help you build awesome web apps from scratch without ever writing a single line of code.
This no-code approach is becoming increasingly popular as more and more people are trying to develop their own apps. Programs such as Adalo, Webflow, DrapCode, Stacker, GoodBarber, and Bubble are some of the most prominent no-code app builders.
Static web apps are developed using HTML, CSS, Ajax, and jQuery. The design displays content, but you won’t be able to interact with them. However, static web pages contain animations, gifs, and videos to make them look cool.
However, writing an app entirely based on HTML can be a tedious and time-consuming task. That’s why static web apps are rare to find.
These apps are more complex in structure than static web apps. Dynamic web apps are interactive and require both client-side and server-side programming. The contents displayed here are not pre-programmed but change with input from the client or server-side.
Dynamic web apps use a basic Content Management System (CMS) that’s in charge of the contents. Usually, these apps are developed using numerous languages including PHP and ASP.NET; and require web hosting, servers, and databases.
Just as the name suggests, these pages are based on one single webpage. However, unlike any webpage, Single Page Apps (SPAs) don’t need to be reloaded to change the displaying content. Initially, the app takes a little time to load, but once loaded, provides a fluid experience.
Usually, SPAs use an infinite scroll mechanism to display all the contents. The architecture is bilayer and tiered. The client-side communicates with the server-side through API(AJAX) requests. The drawbacks of these apps are poor routing and limited browser support.
Most web apps you see and use today are Multi-Page Apps (MPAs). The pages of MPAs need to be reloaded to change the displaying content. The structure is complex, tiered, and has many pages interlinked. These apps offer a multi-layered interface.
The usual approach is to have multiple pages loaded with static content and internal page links. These page links give MPAs a significant SEO boost as indexing becomes much easier for the search engines.
Ecommerce web apps are specialized MPAs designed for online shopping. These complex and dynamic apps feature a multitude of actions and features necessary for everything from product/order management to transactions.
Some great examples can be Amazon, Aliexpress, and eBay. They provide a seamless online shopping experience through core features like a specialized management panel, transaction integration, electronic payment integration, shopping cart, inventory system, and a personal user cabinet.
Portal web apps provide a secure environment for exchanging data. These dynamic apps let a user log in with the right credentials and direct them to a secure location where the users can access a company’s data repository. Most payment gateways use portal web apps for ensuring secure transactions.
Although the primary use of portal web apps is in online transactions, you can establish other features like emails, search, chat, forums, and many more. No one except the members of the portal will be able to see and interact with the data. However, the service provider will track the website activities of each user after they log in.
Client-side web apps focus heavily on user experience (UX). They are visually aesthetic and comfortable to use. Client-side apps are fast and responsive. These dynamic and SEO-friendly apps are fairly new in the market and utilize advanced technologies like Backbone, Ember.js, and Angular.
In this structure, all necessary data and business logic are loaded into a single HTML file, and the browser is used to render the content. These apps are highly responsive and work well with a stable internet connection.
Server-side web apps usually require a couple of moments as most of the dynamic codes are stored in a web server and the browser needs to communicate with it to display contents. The development process is similar to back-end web development, containing processes like maintaining databases, establishing servers, managing application programming interfaces (APIs), and more.
These apps feature better browser compatibility and security than client-side web apps. To resolve the loading time issue, combining the server-side structure with dynamic framework routing is becoming a popular approach. However, you’ll need to run a server to develop this type of web app.
Like the name suggests a Content Management System (CMS) is used to create, modify, and manage content however the user likes. This type of web app targets non-technical people and provides them with the opportunity to create websites or applications of their choice.
CMSs are also better at keeping track of all the assets of the company. Modern and powerful CMSs like WordPress, Canva, and Drupal are some of the biggest players in the field, providing a faster, more cost-effective development process.
Progressing web apps (PWAs) are also named “The future of web apps” as they incorporate the best of two worlds. They are the most advanced and recent addition to the web app community, combining the best features from a website and a native mobile app.
In simple terms, PWAs are web-based apps that can provide the experience of a native mobile app. Although they won’t take up significant space in the user’s device, they can control the functions of that device (like accessing the camera, sending push notifications, and personalized communication).
You can think of PWAs as extensions of your web app. They also provide better accessibility as you can save them on your homepage and access them with a single click. The two sides (server-side and client-side) of a PWA communicate via AJAX APIs. They can even make some features available offline.
The cost of web app development greatly varies on the type of the app, technologies used, level of complexity, number of developers, the time limit, and your business goals. For a basic app with a simple interface and core functionalities, it would take you roughly $2k- $20k.
If you want a more complex and professional-looking app, you’ll need to hire developers. Junior developers will cost you around $4k – $5k per month and senior developers will charge $8k – $10k per month. If you have a 3-month timeframe, that cost becomes $12k-$30k and that’s just the development cost.
Usually, the overall cost with a 3-month timeframe will cost you anywhere between $20k – $50k. More complex and advanced development will cost up to $100k – $300k and take 6 months or longer to build.
Web apps depend on a multitude of technologies to provide a seamless user experience. Here are some of the most prominent technologies used to create powerful, stunning, and impactful web apps:
|Flutter (For web)|
|Ruby on Rails|
No matter what device you are using, you’ll be able to access the app and enjoy its full functionality. As long as you have a stable internet connection, nothing can stop you from accessing and using these dynamic, cross-platform.
Web apps are comparatively cheaper to build and maintain. With web apps, you won’t need native app development. This is why more and more businesses are leaning towards web apps.
Alongside cutting down the development cost, web apps also streamline the development process, reducing the time to publish. Unlike native apps, web apps don’t require deploying multiple platform-specific versions.
The biggest advantage of web apps on the user’s part is that they don’t need to download or install your app to start using. If they know your URL, they’ll be ready to access your web app. They can also create shortcuts on their device’s homepage for instantaneous access.
Web apps let you reach a bigger audience in a very short time. If you wanted to develop a native app, you’d have to develop separate apps for android and iOS users. With the help of dynamic web apps, you’ll be able to reach users from both platforms with minimal effort. This will increase your overall brand image to your users.
No matter how versatile web apps are, they can hardly compete with native apps in terms of speed. It’ll take a couple of moments for the data exchange as the app is hosted on a web server. PWAs are currently working to close the gap in speed.
Native technologies provide a wider functionality. That’s why the native apps you use provide better functionality. As each device comes with slightly different system settings, web apps may have a lower capacity to communicate with the operating system and hardware on your specific device.
Web apps require a stable internet connection to function properly. The technology to make features available offline is still under development and very few PWAs are offering offline availability on specific features. As of now, you won’t get to use all the features of a web app unless you are connected to the internet.
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