How to Design a Web App That Works

3 minutes to read
Nikolas Feil
August 9, 2021

Let me guess.

You have a revolutionary idea for a web app that will make the life of thousands of people better.

Or at least that’s the plan.

You’ve bumped into one major flaw: you know nothing about web application development.

So you did what seemed obvious: you jumped on Google and looked it up.

And here we are.

Designing a web app can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know anything about coding or how a flow chart works, but it doesn’t have to be.

Read on to learn how to build a web application from scratch, from the fundamental concepts to deployment.

What is a web application?

A web application is a program that performs a specific function and is accessed through a web browser, such as Chrome, Safari, or Firefox. There is no need to download or install anything, and it can be as simple as a contact form or as complex as a dashboard where you can see how your bitcoin investment is doing.

In contrast, a traditional app is downloaded (typically through an app store) and installed on your device. To use that app, you then have to run it on the device.

How does a web application work? 

A web application has two main components: the frontend and the backend. 

The frontend is the user’s interface, while the backend is what processes a user’s requests and has the logic to send back the appropriate data.

Think about Facebook’s login page. 

Everything that you see on your screen, from the design to the login form, is the frontend of Facebook’s web app. A web app’s front end’s main job is to collect data from the user and display back the results. You can develop the frontend in languages that a web browser can read, like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (JS). 

Back to our example, when you type your login details and click on the login button, you are sending information to the webserver where the app is hosted. This action happens through an API. An API is an intermediary that takes your request to the server and brings back the server’s information to your screen. 

The backend controls how your web application works, and it can be developed with any modern programming language such as Python, Ruby, or .NET. It also processes all the data used in a web app. This data is stored in databases created with database services like MSSQL, MariaDB, or PostgreSQL. These services use SQL to develop their databases.

Moreover, a web app’s backend contains the file system, which stores the HTML, CSS, and images displayed on the frontend.

Web Apps vs. Websites: What's the difference?

When visiting different websites, you can probably pick out a few commonalities, even if they vary in design. They typically have some form of media (text, video, images, etc.), menus, and pages that you can navigate, and a specific function (providing you with information, allowing you to purchase items, share content from users, etc.). 

In contrast, a web app functions exactly like a traditional app, except that it works on the internet and can be accessed from any device (such as a desktop or a smartphone) with a web browser installed. It might have features like drag and drop, file storage, calculation, compression, editing, and so on. 

For example, compare Google Docs to The New York Times. Google Docs is a web app with features, functions, files, and users. On the other hand, the New York Times is a website filled with articles, information, links, and images. 

Other popular web apps include Zapier, Facebook, Asana, and Netflix.

What skills do you need to build a web app from scratch?

Here are the skills you’ll need to succeed as a software developer:

  • Backend programming languages: These are the parts of your app the user doesn't see. Python, Ruby and .NET are the most popular programming languages for web apps, but you can also look into PHP, Go, and Java. You’ll also need to learn SQL if your app needs to interact with a database.
  • Frontend programming languages and Frameworks: These are the parts of your app that users see and interact with. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are all a must.
  • Understanding how DevOps work: DevOps is a practice that helps plan, build, test, release, and improve new projects. You’ll need to learn how to use tools like Github, Jenkins, and Docker to deploy and host your web application.

How to design and create a web app that works: Step-by-step instructions

1. Big Picture: Why are you creating this app?

Step one, look at your big picture. Why are you creating this app? Maybe it's just for fun, or perhaps you're adding a new feature to your company's website. Know the difference, keep it in mind while you work, consider your users and your goals, and use them to guide you in your development process.

2. Design ideation: brainstorm!

With your web app’s compass adequately tuned, it's time to start coming up with ideas. This is everything from what color schemes you might use to all of the features you want to cram into this app. Don't worry about the length of your list; you’re going to refine it later on. Just get everything down on paper.

3. Deep market research: Know your stuff.

Now it's time for the most exciting part of the process: Research.

You should have a market in mind by now, but if you don't, find one! Then, research as much into that audience as you can. Figure out preferences, trends, marketing strategies, and any tech-/niche-specific information you can get your hands on. 

4. Finalize the features and functions of the app

With this data on hand, you're going back to your idea board to see how things have changed. Has it turned out that all of your color choices were terrible, or that you forgot a significant pain point? Use this research to throw out the ideas that no longer make sense and add some that you might have overlooked.

Additionally, remember your scope! If you're one person creating this app for fun, treat it as such. Apps can be iterated on over time, so don't feel like this needs to be the most complete app of all time. Pick the features, parameters, and functions you need right now, and save the rest for later. 

5. Create a diagram

By now, you should have an excellent understanding of what purpose your app will serve, for who, and how. Now it's time to visualize your app — on paper. Grab a pen and pad, tablet,  and stylus, and start drawing each button, page, image, and screen of your app. 

6. Map the web app's workflow

Next, take those drawings and map the paths between them (you will need several sheets of paper, a whiteboard, or an app). Use arrows to show where links lead and start to understand how a person would use your app. It helps to develop a task for yourself to solve and then mime solving it using the diagrams you've created. 

7. Prototype your app

Using the blueprints you just created, you're going to make a working prototype of your web application. This prototype doesn’t need to be close to the final app; it's just a clickable display that mimics how your app functions. It doesn't need to perform calculations, have drag-and-drop functions, nor offer the final configuration.

8. Validation: Does it work?

Even though your prototype doesn't technically work, that doesn't mean you can't start seeing how users respond to it. Pick representatives from your market and have them walk through your app, imagining how the finished app might look. Take their feedback with an open mind and see if your idea is on the right track. 

9. Build your database

If your prototype testers like your app so far, then you're ready to move on to the nitty-gritty. First up, building your database. This is where all of your data is going to be stored. You might have data upfront, or you might be storing data for users. Either way, set up a DBMS (Database Management System) and have it ready for your web app. 

10. Build the frontend

Next up, the frontend. This is the side of your app that users will be interacting with (the buttons, webpage, forms, etc.). Here, your knowledge of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS will come into play. These will primarily be the visual components of your web application, as well as linking and animations. 

11. Build the backend

After that, you have the last step towards a complete, usable app: The backend. The back end is where you'll build out your app’s actual functionality using Ruby, Python, or another programming language. 

12. Test, test, test!

Finally, you have a web application that you can load on your computer, tinker with, and click on, that you and your team can use. That means it's time to test, test, and test again! Test to see how a visitor sees and uses your app. Test to find out if it works and to find bugs.

13. Host and deploy your web app

If everything is working correctly and beta testers are enjoying it, it's time to launch your web application. Host it, connect everything, test it on launch week, and then start spreading the word. 

Start building a web app from scratch today.

And that's it! 

Now you know how to develop a web application from scratch. It's a lot of work but fun and a cost-saving project to undertake. Hopefully, this article has filled in any gaps and questions you might have had!

However, if you reached the end of this article and are thinking to yourself, "You know what, I do not have the time or resources to put this thing together." 

Don't worry, because you don't have to. The experts here at ThinkLogic have worked with companies of all stripes, from startups to Fortune 500 businesses, to help them create custom software. Bring us your idea and let's talk.

Nikolas Feil

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