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A 5-step process to design an amazing web app

It’s tricky to create a web application that’s highly interactive, works seamlessly across multiple devices, and offers users all the features they need without overwhelming them with options.

But by using a flexible design process that keeps user needs front and center, anyone can build a web app that creates customer delight.

Last updated

8 Sep 2022
Web app design process

Use our 5-step process to streamline your web app design workflow and prioritize the design decisions that will create an amazing product experience for your users. We’ll also show you how to adapt our flexible process to your unique business needs. Let’s go!

Improve your web app design process with user insights

Hotjar’s tools help you keep your web app design process laser-focused on your users.

What is web app design?

Web app design is the process of creating a website application that delivers a seamless user experience (UX) and meets users’ core needs with a clear, compelling user interface (UI). 

Think of Airbnb realizing users wanted a dynamic way of searching for holiday rentals based on different factors like price and location. They created an interactive web app that includes sophisticated filters and a clickable map function—all wrapped up in a minimalist UI.

Web app design vs website design

Web applications and websites have a lot in common: both are accessed from browsers and prioritize strong UI and UX design to engage users and provide them with an intuitive navigation experience and access from different devices. Unlike native mobile apps, web apps and websites don’t require users to install a program on their device.

So what are the key differences between websites and web applications? 

Websites are primarily informative and content-driven: they provide information that encourages users to take certain actions. They include static pages and they have an open user flow where visitors click around in any order depending on what information they want next. Think of a website advertising a SaaS product: the product itself may be interactive, but the website mainly gives information about the product and team.

Web apps, in contrast, are dynamic online applications that let the user perform tasks and manipulate elements in a highly interactive way. Users follow particular paths based on the tasks they want to complete.

"Think of the main differences this way: a website displays information and content to visitors and usually stays the same and static. But a web app both displays information and allows users to interact dynamically. Programming-wise, websites are mainly made with HTML or CSS, while web apps can be made with a plethora of programming languages."

Loic Claveau
CMO, Takeus

Many aspects of web app design overlap with website design. But web app design requires a much sharper focus on responsive site elements, performance across multiple devices, and a streamlined user journey. 

Web apps are more complex than websites to design and develop, and web app design teams need to consider additional factors—like whether they’ll offer some offline functionality so users can complete certain tasks without a solid internet connection—Google Docs, for example, gives users the option to edit offline.

While web apps were once the province of large companies with several different designers and developers on hand, with a clear design process and the right support, any business can now create an effective web app.

A 5-step web app design process that responds to user needs

Follow these five steps to structure your web app design—adapting the process to your particular team, organization, and customers—so it’s as clear and effective as possible for you to satisfy user needs. Web app design is a circular process: repeat steps and move back and forth in line with workflow constraints, as well as the user insights you discover. 

Here’s how to get started: 

1. Discover key user and market needs

Begin by understanding your users and product market. Ask yourself key web app design questions to guide your research, including: 

  • Who will use this web app? 

  • What goals do our users have?

  • What are our main organizational goals with this web app? 

  • How will our web app stand out from the competition?

Pinpoint exactly what problems your web app will solve and the user needs it will meet. Spend time researching your competitors—make sure you crawl app stores and search engines for keywords relevant to your web app ideas to see what others are doing—but focus your main efforts on deeply understanding your users and their jobs to be done. 

Start by talking to your users. Organize interviews with potential users and deploy Hotjar Ask tools like Surveys and Feedback widgets to ask open-ended questions. Focus on learning more about who your users are, what their key pain points and struggles are, and what solutions your web app can provide them.

#Hotjar's tool stack helps you create surveys that ask users about their product experience
Hotjar's tool stack helps you create surveys that ask users about their product experience

2. Define your solutions

Once you’ve conducted user and market discovery research, synthesize your key learnings by creating user personas, defining problem statements, and mapping out an ideal customer journey.

Next, generate ideas to solve the key user problems you’ve identified. Use brainstorming techniques to ideate web app features and elements that will address your users’ most urgent needs. 

You’ll likely come up with several different potential solutions. Use prioritization techniques like the 'MoSCoW approach,' where you divide ideas into must have/should have/could have/won’t need categories. This will help you decide where to focus your resources for the rest of the design process. 

3. Create a backlog for your web app design and collaborate

Once you’ve defined the solutions your web app will offer, and have a clear sense of your priorities, you can plan out the web app design process by creating a backlog—a list of ideas for new design features, updates to existing features, bug fixes, and infrastructure optimizations. Include a plan for the next stages of the product design process, including development, testing, and further user discovery. 

The best backlogs are structured but also flexible. You don’t want to get too fixated on every single web app element or concrete timelines for every single step here.

The backlog should be collaborative: involve people with different roles across your team and organization in creating the backlog. Getting input from different perspectives will strengthen your web app solutions and plan to realize them.  

Pro tip: clear, organization-wide communication is key to a successful web app design process. Hotjar Highlights and Slack integrations can help you communicate user insights and make sure the right information reaches the right department. For example, when a trial user leaves negative feedback, automate an alert to be sent to team members in design, development, and customer support roles so they can quickly respond.

#Slack integration with Hotjar Recordings

Hotjar’s automated Slack notifications keep relevant team members in the loop on key survey insights

4. Build and iterate

Next, focus on developing solutions you can test and roll out with real users. Start with mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that model the basic web abb navigation architecture and UX elements. Then, test these with current or potential users and incorporate their feedback into future iterations. 

At later stages of development, shift your business team's focus to UI design and branding elements as well as navigation tools so you can get user feedback on these aspects. 

"Web app design processes include user research, wireframing or prototyping, user testing, and, finally, UI mockup design. User testing of wireframes is an especially important phase since it helps ensure usability of the future design at the earliest stage possible, allowing for the cheapest and fastest tweaks and corrections."

Anastasia Yaskevich
Web and Mobile Researcher, Scnsoft

5. Launch and test

Launching your web app or new features is an opportunity to further test and refine your design. 

You may want to consider a soft launch, where you roll out to a small group of users first so you can fix bugs and make changes before releasing a feature full-scale. 

Developing a continuous discovery mindset is key to successful design. By constantly seeking out user feedback, you can improve your design, prioritize brilliantly, and delight your users with each iteration. 

At this stage, you should run different checks to get a full picture of how well your web app is working. Make sure you: 

  • Test key website monitoring metrics

Monitoring your web app’s performance is key to satisfying your users. Web app users come with a mission—to get things done—so it’s important you ensure that your application offers fast loading speed and quick response time, and limits downtime crashes. 

  • Observe user behavior to improve engagement  

By understanding how users behave on your web app, you can identify product blockers and opportunities to improve your design. Insights on user behavior help you to fill in the blanks between what users tell you and what they actually do when navigating.

for example, digital banner company Bannersnack used Hotjar Heatmaps and Recordings to visualize how users engaged with key web app elements. They discovered users weren’t engaging with their timeline feature because the call-to-action (CTA) wasn’t clear. So with a quick UI tweak, they boosted usage of the tool by 12%.

#Heatmaps showed where users were clicking and scrolling, helping the Bannersnack team identify web app elements that needed improvement.
Heatmaps showed where users were clicking and scrolling, helping the Bannersnack team identify web app elements that needed improvement.

Why you need a web app design process

A great web app design process helps you:

  • Solve the most pressing user problems

  • Stay relevant in an evolving market

  • Offer excellent usability and clear navigation hierarchies that let users achieve what they came to do

  • Keep users engaged with an attractive and intuitive experience 

  • Increase conversions and user satisfaction

  • Get your whole team aligned around your design backlog

  • Get buy-in from stakeholders on your ideas

Without a clear process for web app design, you may end up investing resources into ideas that haven’t been validated, creating confusion and misalignment in your team, or missing opportunities to provide key user solutions and get ahead of potential blockers.

"A key challenge in web app design is when stakeholders don't have clarity with the end objective. They ask designers to replicate the competitor’s app or just come up with something. But without proper market research and documentation, your web app design will go through multiple rounds of revisions and painful delays in development and launch. With a clear process, project brief, and research you’ll save time and bring everyone together."

Rahul Gulati
Founder, Devigntech

Put user needs center stage with your web app design process 

With a structured but flexible web app design process, you can make sure every step is driven by user needs. A user-centric design process also helps everyone on your team understand exactly why they’re working to improve your web app and feel motivated to make the end product as effective as possible. 

Tailor your design process to user needs to light a fire under your team, keep everyone aligned, and provide a brilliant web app experience that will make you stand out online.

Improve your web app design process with user insights

Hotjar’s tools help you keep your web app design process laser-focused on your users.

FAQs about the web app design process: