What is a web app? Do you need one?

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO
What is a web app? Do you need one?

As a manager or executive, the question of “what is a web app?” may not seem overly important. You may not care all that much whether your business uses a website or a web application to drive sales. Your customers don’t care much about this either (and they probably can’t even tell the difference). But your customers do care about what they can do when they come to your website or web app.

Managers do need to know the answer to the “what is a web app?” question so they can make the right decision between a website vs. a web app. In order to go down the right path, you need a clear understanding of the differences between the two. Once armed with this knowledge, you will know which one is right for your business.

Then, it’s just as critical to make sure you have the right team in place to design, develop, and manage your website or web application. (Hint: A different skill set and team is required for website development than for web application management!)

What is a web app—and what’s the difference between a website vs. a web app?

There is a fine line between a website and a web-based application. The line can usually be drawn based on the amount of interaction there is between your end users and your enterprise. 

As we wrote in a recent FAQ article, at the most basic level, a website is a one-way conversation between your business and a visitor. A web app is a two-way collaboration

If you are presenting information for your users to consume, then your website is a logical extension of literature and collateral, an online showroom. However, if your site enables your customers to interact with your business (managing personal accounts, paying bills, ordering products or services), then you are moving into the realm of web applications. 

That said, the line between website and web application moves around slightly as technology advances. For example, if you were to read the above distinction between a website and a web application, you would deduce that if you wanted to actually sell anything on your site, then you would need to transition to a web application. And you would be right. 

But technology has advanced to the point where many website platforms provide basic ecommerce capabilities out of the box. Adding a product catalog or simple shopping cart feature to your site doesn’t require complex coding or application development anymore. It can actually be rather straightforward to add this functionality to your website and easily manage it. 

So how do you know where to draw the line and which one do you need? Within our own team, we like to boil it down to one question: Can the task/feature/functionality be completed by someone who does not have a computer science or engineering degree? 

The answer determines the type of skills and resources you need to manage and maintain the platform. If the answer is “yes,” then you are probably looking at a website, but if your answer is “no,” then you have likely moved into the web application realm. 

And if you don’t know the answer to that question, we cannot stress how important it is to ask someone with experience in web application development to help you draw the right conclusion. Otherwise, you risk relying on inadequate resources and the end product will suffer. 

Another way to go about deciphering between a website and a web app is to simply ask your web team if they can accomplish the task at hand. A crisp, straightforward answer that explains how they can use your current site platform to get the work done is a good sign you can stick with a website; a fuzzier answer along the lines of “we think we can do this” should raise a red flag that your site is turning into an app (and needs the appropriate skill set devoted to it). 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific differences between websites and web apps.

A website is a set of pages and forms that reside on a server, and:

  • Presents information via text, graphics, audio, and video
  • Provides customers with a way to submit information, but interaction is limited
  • May allow customers to place an order via a simple system that your company fulfills manually
  • Is accessible through a browser
  • Offers up static content

A web application is a software program that looks and feels just like a website from the user’s standpoint. A web app does all of the above, but also:

  • Gives customers one or more ways to interact with the information provided (as they shop or perhaps use a calculator of some sort)
  • Provides dynamic content that changes constantly
  • Interacts with your backend systems including CRMs, accounting, order fulfillment, warehousing, and logistics, using the information entered by customers
  • Sends information to the customer based on the actions they took on your site (showing the status of an order or shipment, for example)
  • Stores information about a customer’s previous interactions and allows that information to be retrieved by that customer
  • Stores data on a customer’s progress, so it can be retrieved or accessed at any time (such as in a health and wellness app) 

So how do you know which one is right for your business? We suggest asking yourself and your team a series of questions:

  • Do you want your users to be able to interact with the information or data you make available?
  • Do you need to integrate with third-party systems?
  • Do you want to provide personalized data to users?
  • Is offline availability important?
  • Do you want to provide enhanced customer support, including offering customers more with more communication channels?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you will be  building a web application to make sure you can deliver the desired value and functionality to your customers. 

What skills do you need for web application management?

As you may have already guessed, a website and a web application require different skill sets. Your internal marketing team or a digital marketing agency can usually do a quality job when it comes to website development and maintenance. 

As previously mentioned, the tools and platforms available today for website design and development make site design and maintenance a manageable job for marketers. If you use Magento, for example, your team can leverage the flexible ecommerce platform to build a powerful site that is appropriate for the size and focus of your company. 

Web application development, however, is a different beast. A web app becomes a piece of your critical digital infrastructure, more suited to development and management by an experienced software engineering team. A web app is usually highly customized to your needs, making design and development a more complex process.

Once you cross the line into web application development, the work becomes more complicated. If you want to develop a successful web application, you will need to think about:

  • User journeys—You will need to define the different types of users of the application, including why and how they will use the app. It’s important that you don’t assume you know what your users want. It is always better to conduct interviews with real users and ask them. 
  • Prototypes—Let users interact with mockups and provide feedback on the web app before you get too deep into development. Incorporate feedback into the prototype until you are confident you have a product users will value. 
  • Quality assurance testing—Your customers want an app that performs well. Proper QA testing is essential for building a web app that works well, at a good speed, and doesn’t crash. 
  • Application security testing—Many web apps collect and store sensitive customer data, making application security and privacy extremely important. Testing should follow best practices and be conducted on a regular and frequent basis during the development process and throughout the life of the application. 

The app will also likely need to integrate with back-office enterprise systems. You will need to think about how the app fits into the workflow and various business processes.

In other words, you have gone beyond the expertise that a marketing team or agency can handle. A successful web application requires a well-rounded team with expertise in coding, quality assurance, user experience and user interface design, and application security. 

More often than not, companies don’t usually have a team that is capable of tackling the challenges of web app development in house (unless you’re a high-tech firm, of course). We recommend looking for a full-service application management company that can build a multi-disciplinary team comprised of the right people with the appropriate skills. 

We have all too often seen projects go off the rails because the right team wasn’t deployed from the start. It’s always less costly and time consuming to do it right the first time. 

Knowing what you need (a site or an application) can help you better determine if you have the right resources on staff or if you need to look elsewhere for software application development expertise. Making the right decision from day one results in a better experience for your customers and, of course, better performance for your company.