The Ultimate Beginner Guide to Web App Development
Thierry Maout • Updated on Oct 25, 2021 • 12 min read
Have you ever had an amazing web app idea, only to realize you were lacking the technical know-how to build it? We’ve all been there. The reality is that a good idea can only take you so far, as the former co-CEO of Oracle Corporations once said:
“Without execution, vision is just another word for hallucination.”
- Mark V. Hurd
Thankfully, technology has evolved, and building your own web application doesn’t have to be so complicated as it once was.
In this web application development guide, we will review what web apps are. The processes involved in web app development, and how you can start building your own (even without code). Let’s start with the basics.
What are Web Applications? Definition and examples
Web applications or web apps are interactive computer programs that run on a remote server, contrary to computer-based programs that run locally on the end user’s machine. They can be accessed through a web browser with an Internet connection.
Think about using your laptop to check your email, shop online, or access your banking accounts. All these actions most likely involve web apps.
Let’s take a look at the different types of web applications out there.
Types of web applications
There are two main types of web applications:
- Static web applications;
- Dynamic web applications.
While the first is quite straightforward, dynamic web apps are much more complex and diverse. Without going too deep into the technicalities of the matter, understanding the difference is important.
Static Web Applications
While limited, static web apps are still a great option when creating websites that don't require interactions such as company information pages or personal portfolios.
Dynamic web applications
Dynamic web apps, on the other hand, offer a wider range of possibilities. The application fetches data in real-time based on the user’s request, whether it’s performing a search, posting a comment, liking a post, or doing something else.
Subtypes of dynamic web applications include:
- Single-page applications (SPA): Appropriately named, SPAs allow users to interact with a web app from a single page. They are usually significantly quicker compared to traditional web apps since the logic is operated directly in the web browser. Examples include social networks, email services, or real-time maps services.
- Multi-page applications (MPA): With logic working in the backend, they include several pages and need to reload when changes are made. Highly secure, they’re a great fit for web portals, online stores, and enterprise apps.
- Portal web applications: These apps feature different sections and categories and often require a login from a secure area. Forums, chats, and payment platforms are examples of web portals.
- Progressive web applications (PWA): These apps behave like native applications despite being web apps. If we compare PWAs to native apps, they can be downloaded to a mobile device, accessed and used offline, but don’t require the same technologies as native apps. Softr, for instance, allows you to build a PWA from your existing application in a few simple steps.
Regardless of the type, there are clear benefits involved in using web applications:
- Availability across devices: Since web applications can be accessed through a browser, they are available to virtually anyone with an Internet connection.
- Lower development cost: Web app development allows companies to avoid costly equipment and infrastructure costs
- Integration with other systems: Leveraging integrations with other programs is much easier than with isolated desktop applications
- Easier maintenance: Updates or redesigns are directly applied on the host server and available everywhere. There's no need to update the version of every single client.
- Larger flexibility and scalability: Similar to the easier upkeep, increasing capacity for web applications is made smooth by increasing capacity on the host server.
- Centralized security: Web app security relies on established host servers regularly checked and kept up by dedicated companies.
While native apps make sense in some cases such as enterprise products with an emphasis on data security, web apps have become the norm across the board. Let’s look at some examples you might be using today.
Examples of web apps
The largest food delivery company in the US, DoorDash allows users to order food directly to their doors. At the same time, restaurants are able to reach a larger customer base, and drivers generate income as well.
GetYourGuide is an online marketplace for tour guides and excursions, where users can browse and book tours and activities from classes to tourist attractions across the world.
Part spreadsheet, part database, Airtable is one of our favorite web apps. Super powerful, it can be used along with Softr to create a web application of your own.
One of the biggest players in the sharing economy, Airbnb operates an online marketplace for lodging and tourism activities, connecting vacation renters and house owners.
Image Source: VOX
Spotify is one of the world's largest music streaming service providers, with hundreds of millions of monthly active users.
(Note that you can replicate some of these apps without code using Softr. But we will touch more on that later.)
As you can see, web apps are everywhere. Let’s now look at what steps are involved in developing them, and how we can build our own applications.
How to build a web app: The essentials of web app development
The next step of the web application development guide is the web app building process. A typical beginner mistake when trying to build a web app is to immediately get lost in the technicalities involved:
- What coding language should I use?
- What hosting platform is the best?
- Will 8 full-time developers be enough to build my idea?
While understanding the inner technical principles of web development is definitely important, the strategy and overall ideation process behind it is crucial as well. In this section, we will look at the entire process involved in developing a web app:
- Identifying the problem;
- Researching the market;
- Building a prototype;
- Validating the idea;
- Building the web app;
- Testing the web app;
- Deploying the web app.
Let’s get started!
1. Identifying the problem
The first, seemingly obvious, step is to find an idea. While some might argue that finding an original, groundbreaking idea is the best way to go, others think that following the steps of an already established market makes more sense.
Whichever school of thought you’re adhering to, it is vital that you identify the problem that your product will address.
2. Researching the market
Once you have an idea, researching the market is a logical next step. Understanding who will be your competition and what is already available is critical to avoid the number one trap: Building something no one wants.
It is no surprise that the average age of successful founders is 45. These professionals have usually spent years developing a deep understanding of their industry before launching their own venture.
Likewise, understanding your market will be key to your success.
3. Building a prototype
You now have a somewhat established idea of what your market looks like and what you want to build. It’s time for the fun part: building a prototype.
Image Source: Sketch Repo
Tools such as InVision, Figma, or Justinmind will allow you to create wireframes, a visual skeleton that you can use to showcase a semi-functional first draft of your product. This will be essential for the next step.
4. Validating the idea
With your shining prototype ready, you’re now able to showcase your idea in a tangible form to potential users. By recording their interactions with your wireframes and collecting feedback, you’ll be able to iterate and improve on your vision and determine whether your idea is worth pursuing.
This part is particularly important. Everything should have been relatively low-friction until now, and this is your opportunity to decide whether to dive headfirst, adjust your plans, or give up and move on to the next idea.
Starting with the next step, things are getting real.
5. Building the app
This is obviously a huge chunk of the web app development process and one that will take a lot of energy, time, and money. This will include:
- Deciding what development framework you will use;
- Choosing your technical collaborators;
- Establishing your work methodology;
- Overview progress and set milestones.
Since this post aims to deliver a more high-level point of view on web app development, we won’t go into advanced technical details. But hang on, as we introduce a way to build your web app without code further down the post.
6. Testing the application
This is an ongoing process that happens throughout the building phase and as your application comes together. We wouldn’t want to deliver a faulty product of course (there will be bugs. A lot, probably).
7. Deploying the application
Finally, it’s time to host your app and give it to the world. This is only the beginning. You will now be growing your web application, maintaining and scaling as you get feedback and data from users.
But the initial web app development process is now complete!
Now that you have a better understanding of what goes into developing a web application, two very important questions remain: "How much does it cost and do you need to know how to code?"
Building a web application: Pricing and required technical knowledge
Let’s address two of the biggest barriers to entry into the world of web app development: price and technical know-how. In other words: "Can you build a web app if you’re neither rich nor a coding wiz?" (Spoiler: yes, you can.)
How much does it cost to build a web app?
This is a valid question but unfortunately a very hard one to answer as it involves a lot of changing parts and parameters:
- How complex is your app? How many features?
- What technologies are you planning to use?
- What are your technical requirements?
- Are you building it yourself or hiring developers?
- If you’re hiring, where do you live? Are you willing to outsource? (Here's an interesting case study on the example of a specific country)
- What is your timeline? What is your budget?
It’s obviously impossible to give a clear-cut answer given how complex and unique the needs of each individual business are. To give you an idea, the software development company Cleveroad estimates that the cost of developing a web app can range anywhere from $3.000 for a basic application to around $250.000 for a full-fledged platform.
That’s quite the difference.
Navigating these prices can be challenging. Communities such as IndieHackers or Reddit are great places to get advice and unfiltered opinions from other entrepreneurs and founders to determine whether you’re getting the right value for your money.
For non-technical founders that are not afraid to get their hands dirty, however, there are other options. Have you ever heard of no-code?
How to build a web application without code?
The term “no-code” refers to tools and technologies allowing their users to achieve results that were previously reserved for developers or code-savvy professionals, such as building websites, creating online communities, or building web apps.
Some of the most famous no-code/low-code tools include:
- Softr: Platform to create websites, web apps, and client portals using Airtable.
- Canva: Graphic design tool to easily craft visuals.
- Airtable: Low-code database platform for building collaborative apps.
- UserGuiding: User-onboarding platform to create product walkthroughs and guides.
- Integromat: Integration platform to automate work by connecting apps.
The list goes on. New no-code tools regularly pop up on specialized communities such as nocode.tech or Product Hunt and constantly push the limitations previously imposed on non-coders. You can learn more by reading this article on the history of no-code.
To circle back to the topic at hand, it is indeed possible to create a web app without coding knowledge. You’re in the perfect place to learn about it. Let’s take a closer look at Softr.
Building a web application without code using Softr
Essentially, Softr is a platform that leverages the power of Airtable to help you create online marketplaces, job boards, membership websites, online communities, client portals, and more. Without code.
The concepts of building blocks and databases are at the heart of Softr.
You can arrange the building blocks the way you want to create your pages and define any set of relationships and links of your choice, either within your application or with external parties. The database part is handled through Airtable, where you can display and manage the data “behind” your application.
How does it work? It can be summed up 4 simple steps:
- Select building blocks: Select from 60+ beautifully-designed, responsive building blocks to kickstart your application. Customize the design and look & feel as you go.
- Connect your Airtable base: Organize all your data in Airtable, connect to the building blocks, and create stunning visuals.
- Link pages and application logic: View, search, and filter application data. Send user-filled form data back to Airtable. Or connect your application logic to any external service using Zapier.
- Adding user accounts: Add membership options to your web app. This allows you to publish gated content, set user permissions, or even enable Stripe payments for example.
There are a lot of steps involved in developing a web application, and it might seem daunting at first. But with the right resources, proper guidance, and a solid chunk of motivation, everything is possible!
We love the fact that no-code is an opportunity for all non-developers to give web app development a chance. Whether you choose to go with a team of developers or would rather try and build something on your own, we hope this web app development guide gave you the necessary foundation to start your journey.
Best of luck, and we’re looking forward to seeing your web apps!
by Thierry Maout