Sometimes I’m asked a question in various forms.
What is a web app and what is a website?
I’m pretty sure not a lot of web developers do struggle with this question. It’s an interesting question as the two aren’t exclusive. There isn’t a rule that says what each one is in general. So I’m going to try to lay down my thoughts on the subject and how I differentiate them. This is just my opinion, remember that!
A website is content based. The most important thing on it is text and pictures that it shows on load. When we strip down a website to the core layer, the HTML, we can still understand what we are doing on a page. Any design or functionality, other than links, that the page provides is a bonus.
This, to me, is a simple build process. We need to make sure that at the most basic level the content makes sense without any other formatting.
Looking at things from a traditional view. A website needs to be accessible to all; disabled, able-bodied and even bots. So the solution needs that basic approach. Websites should be manipulative.
A web app is more complicated as it’s function driven so to give correct feedback to the user. It relies on functionality to show that information. A user interacting with a page to gain insight. Developers may build using a single-page application framework so they could be an app. Keep in mind, sometimes developers use these for websites. If that’s the case, the site should still fall back to a non-JS option.
Apps are bespoke to the use-case and designed to work in a particular way. These approaches need a lot of thought as we are almost locking the user into a particular flow. An app should be easier to use, in that the use-case needed fixing so the app solves this to improve user feedback. If I’m designing an app for a visual impaired user then I’ll add features that make it more accessible. A website should always be accessible otherwise I’m breaking the openness of the web. In theory, you’re not adding so much but keeping things simple.
I haven’t challenged this idea so if you think it’s wrong or have another interpretation then let me hear it. Send me a message on Twitter (@WolfieZero) with your thoughts on what’s define’s web app or a site? Or maybe there isn’t a difference?
As I said, it’s a question that pops up a lot. I’ve seen a change in development processes when it’s stated as one or the other. Again, this isn’t a perfect rule nor a de facto response. This is more just my ideas on what I think and how I make the split.