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A 15-Step Guide on How to Build a Web App

  • Akash Lomas
  • By  Akash Lomas
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  • 87D32530-FD6E-468E-BB24-045278513D21 Created with sketchtool. 9 MIN READ
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  • 6BCC25D0-42B3-420B-8C28-C5D7EF3F6856 Created with sketchtool. Updated: September 13, 2021

Mobile device use is nearly ubiquitous, up to 97% for Americans, of which 85% of users are now smartphone users. There are over 400 million active websites and web apps (out of over 2 billion in existence) and over 8.9 million mobile apps available. The average US adult spends 3 hours and 43 minutes on their mobile per day, across social, email, entertainment, news, and online shopping. Altogether, this time and experience has led to high expectations for what consumers expect from their interaction with brands online. Users expect performance, personalization, flexibility, security, and scalability across all their online experiences.

In a web app, a user interacts with the app via the browser, making it possible to develop a multi-channel app that interacts with a variety of target platforms including smartphones, laptops, tablets, or desktop computers. Well-designed web apps are also responsive, meaning they are fluid to the screen size and device being used. Google Docs is a web app. So is Trello.

Recommended Reading: What is the difference between a Mobile App vs a Web App?

The benefits of a web app over a mobile app are:

  • Responsive designs can provide flexibility to reach users on any device
  • No download required, as they are browser based only. As a result, web apps don’t require space on the device
  • Less expensive to develop and maintain, with common code and no requirement for native app development
  • Faster time to market, due to the decreased development time and the ability to reach both Android and Apple users. Even if you can leverage cross platform development, the apps must be packaged and launched separately. With a web app, you only have one job to get done. Once it’s launched, everyone can use it.

Web apps play a key point in engaging users and actually driving downloads of mobile apps – an important stop along the way in turning casual users into engaged users. For example, the web app Twitter Lite (mobile.Twitter.com) led to a 65% increase in pages per session, a 75% increase in tweets sent, and a 20% decrease in bounce rate.

Newer technologies, such as progressive web apps (see below), are allowing web apps to get closer to native mobile apps in terms of both experience and performance.

types of web applications

When it comes to web apps, most people think of eCommerce, but there are actually many different kinds of web applications:

  • Static Web Apps – These web apps feature pre-rendered, cached content that is sent to the user’s browser, offering no personalization. Due to the lack of interactivity, some people do not consider static websites as “apps.” A common example is a marketing landing page.
  • Dynamic Web Apps – Dynamic web apps use server-side and client-side processing to generate code in real time, making it possible for the page display to change each time a page is refreshed or new input is added. A common example is a blog.
  • eCommerce App – A dynamic web app that supports browser-based shopping. An eCommerce web app manages the database of products, orders, and payments. Even giants such as Amazon support both web and mobile apps for shopping.
  • Portal Web App – A dynamic web app allows users to log into a secured or gated area for services, unrelated applications, or links. A common example of a portal is Google, providing services for search, email, and more.
  • Content Management System Web App – A content management system (CMS) allows users to create their own content without technical knowledge. Examples of a CMS would be WordPress.com (to create blog content) or Canva (to create design content).
  • Progressive Web App – A progressive web app (PWA) is a website that resembles and behaves like a mobile app. Both mobile app development and web development practices come into play when building a progressive web app.

After understanding the benefits of web apps, and the kinds of web apps that are available, the next step is putting together a development plan that reflects the needs of today’s consumers and the latest best practices.

The rest of this article will provide a step-by-step guide to developing a web application in 2021 – from a simple web app to a more complex, dynamic interactive eCommerce site, this guide has it all.

Ideation Stage

New product development (NPD) always begins with converting an idea into a workable product. While going through the ideation stage of the product delivery lifecycle, staying user-centric, focused, enthusiastic and flexible can help set the stage for not only building the product right, but also building the right product.

product discovery lifecycle

In the ideation stage, we will come up with ideas, research those ideas, and flesh out the core functionality of what your app will do and how it will differentiate itself from the competition.

1. Source an idea

This phase is not about generating foolproof ideas that are ready for implementation. Instead, focus on brainstorming sessions where solving customer problems is given precedence, generating raw and unproven ideas that can be shortlisted later.

The customer problem solving approach to brainstorming begins with the premise that if you have a problem, others may have that same problem. If you can identify and articulate this pain point (the problem) and which users are facing it, you can brainstorm products to solve that problem.

2. Research your target market and competition

The most important starting point for any product is user research. The team needs a real and accurate understanding of the user, the user problem, the scope of the problem (how many people face it), and the competition out there for other ways to solve that problem.

Recommended Reading: How to ensure Problem-Solution Fit and Product-Market Fit

In the market research stage, insight into the user and the competition will help inform the technical direction of the web app.

The biggest culprit behind failure is not finding a strong unmet need and a differentiated and defendable solution for that need. – Tom Eisenmann, Harvard Business School in The Fail-Safe Startup

3. Plan key functionality and features of the web app

In today’s fast moving environment, speed is important – but so is developing the right product. At this stage, we want to ask at the most basic level: what does the web app do?

To prioritize key features and functionality of the web app, list down all the features (major & minor) that you want with the MoSCoW approach:

  • Mo — Must have features
  • S — Should have features
  • Co — Could have features
  • W — Won’t need features

moscow method of prioritization | how to build a web app

These features will be used in later planning, for the feedback stage of wireframing and, prototyping, and ultimately the minimum viable product (MVP), a lean product that has the basic functionality and features to help get the product into the hands of early adopters.

Designing UX & UI Stage

Designing the web application first begins with an understanding of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) – including how they are related and how they each impact the design choices in this stage of web app development.

User Interface (UI) is concerned with the look of the web app, dealing with design questions such as colors, fonts, placement, and overall design. UI design focuses on developing a UI that is aesthetically pleasing for the user.

User Experience (UX) manages the way a customer interacts with the app through a detailed understanding of what a user wants and feels. UX design is open-ended, asking at every stage what a user may want, need, and feel – and how to both feel better and to reduce friction in the experience. The elements of UX design include concepts of being useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, usable, and valuable.

ux and ui design

While both UX and UI are influenced by trends (see 2021 UX trends & 2021 UI trends), both involve asking questions about the user, the user journey, and, above all, testing.

4. Map out the user journey

The user journey map is a visualization of the user flow through the web app over time. It tells the story of the user’s experience and puts the customer front and center in thinking. By mapping each step of the user (or customer) journey, it is easier to understand the motivations, needs, and challenges users experience – and how better UX design can overcome these stumbling blocks.

5. Wireframe the app

Wireframes are digital, simplified visual concepts of the future app. They lay out the structure, hierarchy, and relationship between the elements that make up the product. Think of the wireframe as the “draft” or “plans” for the app, both the front and the back end of how the mobile app will look and how it will work.

The wireframe section can include graphically designing the back-end database to have a visual workflow to reference in coding or can include test sections of code to see how they operate.

what are wireframes | wireframe ux design

6. Build clickable prototype

By adding additional interactivity to the produced set of wireframes, the resulting prototype can appear and behave just like the real web app would do. This prototype can be both seen and experienced, with interactivity and enhanced UX elements that simulate the user experience, allowing for valuable feedback on functionality, design, and user experience before the full development has taken place.

prototypes | ux design process of how to build a web app

7. Visual design

Visual design is an essential experience design method that focuses on the aesthetics of a site or application. At this stage, UI designers create mockups that show how the app will look, choosing elements of the UI including fonts, color schemes, icons, shapes, buttons, screen element sizes and proportions, illustrations and more. Where applicable, this will also include motion design elements such as animations and screen transitions.

But more than the ‘look & feel’ factor, the design is driven primarily by the ‘usability and functionality’ factor of UX, aiming for a delightful and useful user experience.

Development Stage

After design and validation comes development – the stage where larger technical decisions are made about the frameworks and technologies that will support the app as well as the actual coding of the web app.
Choose your tech stack

A tech stack is the combination of technology services, frameworks, and languages that make up the back-end (how it works) and the front-end (how it looks).

  • The front-end (client-side) contains all the elements that go into the visual representation, including the use of three programming languages: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  • The back-end (server-side) refers to everything that lives on the server; the workings or backbone of the web app. Back-end technologies include:
    • Framework – Libraries and general functionalities that can be assembled or built upon to assist development
    • Server-side languages – Python, PHP, Ruby, C#, C++, GO, Java, Perl
    • Database – MongoDB, MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server
    • Web server – Apache, Nginx, IIS
    • Operating system – Windows, MacOS, iOS, Linux, Android

There are popular tech stack combinations that are well suited for web app development. The most common web app tech stacks are LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP / Perl / Python), MEAN (MongoDB, Express.js, Angular, Node.js), MERN (MonboDB, Express.js, React, Node.js) and Ruby on Rails (a “full stack” language covering the front and back end, with no fixed stack).

Recommended Reading: How to Choose the Right Tech Stack

9. Architect your database

The database (also a server) is the repository for your web or mobile app code. The database is also responsible for collecting, storing, processing and managing collected data and providing secure access to that data. In this area, the decision is relatively straightforward, with the database market nearly cornered by two MySQL, with other options including MongoDB and PostgreSQL.

Once you have decided on a database, you create the architecture, typically following the model-view-controller (MVC) architecture:

mvc architecture - how to build a web app

  • Model – How data is stored in the database.
  • View – Displays the model data to the user / the components that are visible to the user, such as an output or a GUI.
  • Controller – The central interface between the user and the system, helping to convert the output from the model to the view component.

10. Develop your front-end

Front-end development is the client-side application that presents the web app to the user in the browser. The frontend is developed with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, with several frameworks providing basic templates and components.

Popular front-end frameworks include Bootstrap, Foundation, and JavaScript-only frameworks that include React, Angular, Vue and Backbone.

11. Build back-end APIs

what is an api

Backend development includes the database (above), the server, and the actual logic (code) of the web application. While there are many choices here, the back-end begins with choosing either:

  • Multiple Page Application – a traditional web app where a new page is requested from the server to display when data is exchanged back and forth.
  • Single Page Application (SPA) – a single page that continuously interacts with the user by dynamically rewriting the current page rather than loading entire new pages from a server. Single Page Applications requires an API only framework and has grown to become the most popular option for web apps.

As the back-end is quite extensive (see above), there are quite a number of frameworks that can assist in development. The choice of framework is driven in part by the tech-stack choice (if following a popular combination) or the programming languages being used. Popular options include Ruby on Rails, Node.js, Flask, Django, Laravel, Swift, and Flutter.

12. Integrate front-end with back-end APIs

The process of API integration helps connect the front-end with the back-end APIs to allow for data to be exchanged. Take eCommerce for example – every step of the customer journey involves an API integration between the front and back end – for the user login, the product inventory, and the payment processing.

13. Test your web app and improve

The hallmark of Agile development is testing – which should be an integrated and iterative part of the development process. Testing helps ensure the app works as expected (positive testing) and that it can handle unexpected conditions (negative testing).

Testing begins during development – with unit, component, and integration tests – and continues through development toward the user experience, where testing then involves specific user feedback.

Launch Stage

The last stage of development is the release of the finished web app – choosing a place to host it and getting it in front of real users.

14. Host your web app

Application hosting allows the web app to be available via the cloud, allowing for instant access to the web app from anywhere in the world. Choosing a server could follow your tech stack choice or be a matter of preference. Popular cloud hosting providers include Amazon, MS Azure, and Google Cloud.

15. Deploy your web app

This final step involves getting the web app from source control to the cloud hosting provider chosen above. As with many other parts of development, there are tools to help including GitLab, Bitbucket, and Jenkins.

Although the ultimate goal of any product development is deployment, Agile and DevOps principles imply that deployment is not a one-off step, but rather the start of a process of continuous feedback, refinement, and delivery to ensure new features and improvements are always being released.

Conclusion

Organizations today are expected to deliver superior omni-channel online experiences: on the web, in mobile apps, in social media. Whether designing and developing a new idea, or translating an existing product into a streamlined web app, time is a factor.

If you are looking to accelerate your time to market with an experienced full-stack design and development team, Net Solutions can help. Our teams have helped create global eCommerce sites, enterprise video portals, and dynamic CMS for brands including Nike, Sampleboard, and Soaq.

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Akash Lomas

About the Author

Akash is a Technical Architect with an extensive experience in MS stack. He is passionate about architecting solutions, coding and enhancing process delivery. He envisages a foolproof solution and holds no bar in achieving his goals. Besides, he is a loving father and is very fond of spending time with his son. He believes in keeping the child alive within himself.

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