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8 web app design best practices for success

What’s the best approach to web app design? Should you prioritize several different features—or a streamlined user experience (UX)? Should you focus on intuitive design patterns that your users are familiar with—or offer them something new? Should you cater primarily to mobile or web users?

Last updated

1 Jun 2022

With so many decisions to make, it’s hard to know where to start in designing your web app. Applying tried-and-tested best practices can help you structure the process and home in on what’s important.  

Implement these eight practices as you design—or optimize—your web application to give users the best possible experience.

Make sure your web app design delights your users

Learn how Hotjar’s user-centric insights tools can help you build web apps that stand out.

8 best practices to create a web app your users will love 

Web apps are dynamic, full-scale solutions to user needs that offer users interactive ways of manipulating information and elements to perform tasks—think of Canva, LinkedIn, or Google Docs.

There are no one-size-fits-all best practices for stellar web app design: every practice should be adapted to your user and business goals. But once your priorities are clear, these eight best practices can guide your workflow and ensure every design decision delights your users. 

1. Focus on solving user problems 

Web apps don’t just provide users with information—they let them accomplish tasks. That means understanding your users’ jobs to be done is extra important in web app design. User needs should inform your entire web app design process, from ideating your key features to validating design concepts and building an effective user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). 

So how can you implement this best practice? 

Talk to your users—and keep talking. Run user interviews, send out surveys, and dig deep into which problems users want your web app to solve. Once you’ve created user personas and customer journey maps, make sure you keep updating them: user needs will change and develop as they use your web app. 

Google Docs is a great example of solution-focused web app design. The design idea solves a major user problem: allowing different people to collaborate on the same document either at the same time or asynchronously. The UX and UI are based on empowering users to navigate features that solve their problems. 

Google Docs also does a great job of responding to new user needs as they arise. For instance, their team discovered that many users want to be able to continue using web app features when they have low or no internet connectivity—so they developed robust edit-offline capabilities so that users could keep doing tasks even when they’re not online.

Take a look at our guide to inspiring examples of web app design for more use cases!

Pro tip: use Hotjar Surveys to hear what your users have to say in their own words as they interact with your web app. To get the full story, gather voice-of-the-customer (VoC) feedback and combine it with user behavior insights. Combining Hotjar’s Ask and Observe tools gives you a comprehensive picture of what users are doing and what they’re saying, which is a great way to pinpoint exactly what your users need (not just what they think they need).

#Proactively collecting feedback with Hotjar Surveys is a great way to establish user trust and show you care about customers’ experiences with your product.

Proactively collecting feedback with Hotjar Surveys is a great way to establish user trust and show you care about customers’ experiences with your product.

2. Draw on tried-and-tested design patterns 

Excellent web app design strikes a delicate balance between tradition and innovation. If your design is too novel, it can confuse users—they won’t be able to navigate effectively if you don’t offer familiar elements. 

That’s why drawing on established web app design patterns is a good best practice so your users intuitively understand what to do. 

For example, you should: 

  • Standardize your design for checkout or signup forms with simple, clearly labeled fields and autofill patterns

  • Use a traffic light color system for alert icons: put warnings or error statuses in red, less urgent advisory alerts in yellow or orange, and success notifications in green

  • Deploy familiar navigation patterns—like including a 'back' button in the top left corner that lets users return to the previous screen  

  • Use split-screen design to introduce users to two different user paths

3. Add unique elements 

While familiar design solutions offer a great starting point, don’t blindly follow a web app design template without making it your own. Your web app design should be engaging enough to create a fresh experience for users and tailored to their specific needs.

For unique design, you should: 

  • Deploy tools like surveys and ask your users what else they'd like to accomplish

  • Explore competitors’ web apps and see what you could do differently to stand out 

  • Prioritize creativity and experiment in your design culture—create a learning environment where your team is encouraged to try new things and fail

  • Use techniques like brainstorming, storyboarding, and mapping to get ideas flowing

The Philips Hue web app is a great example of how unique elements can generate opportunities for customer delight. While key navigation features like adding products to cart and checking out are fairly standard, product pages for their smart light bulbs offer an immersive, interactive experience. 

Users can dynamically play with different colors and light intensities and see how each light option looks in real rooms. By responding to their users’ specific needs (to visualize how smart lights look and feel before making a purchase), Philips added unexpected and effective design elements to the customer journey.

4. Build in responsive feedback cues 

To interact with your web app features effectively, users need to get a clear response every time they take an action. 

Make sure your design is responsive to user behavior, and incorporate feedback cues that show users the results of their actions. 

When they click a button, for example, they should see an icon or feel a haptic click sensation that confirms their click’s been registered. Design buttons and CTAs to change color or size when users hover over these elements. When a state is loading, use a classic loading wheel or transition pop-up. For important actions like adding a product to their cart, a pop-up showing users what’s been added, along with the quantity, provides extra reassurance.  

This all helps users feel confident that their actions have been recognized so they can navigate clearly. Without feedback cues along the way, users often get confused and stressed and end up rage clicking. 

User interfaces that don't provide any feedback leave consumers confused about whether to restart the device, refresh the website, or simply close the window. Make sure you provide loading animations and descriptions of what to expect for your users.

Daniel Foley
Director, Seo Audits

Pro tip: filter Hotjar Recordings to see where users rage clicked and understand why they’re frustrated. It could be that you have a broken link or button—or it could just be that they haven’t received feedback cues so they’re not sure their action’s been registered.

Hotjar Session Recordings help you go deeper into how users experience your product

Hotjar Session Recordings help you go deeper into how users experience your product

5. Streamline features and buttons

The best web app design balances a feature-rich design with a clean, simple user experience. Web apps often have more space constraints than regular websites (especially if they’re viewed from mobiles or tablets) so you have to be really careful you’re not overloading the user with too many options and dropdowns. 

Prioritize the most impactful features on your web app’s homepage and basic navigation and dashboard menus—you can offer other options in an advanced features section or direct users towards integrations.

Once you’ve prioritized the key elements to highlight, design a clear menu hierarchy with only the most necessary buttons. For a streamlined experience, use plenty of white space on your pages, and don’t use too many distracting visuals like popups or videos. 

The best tip for great web app design is embracing minimalism—not because it’s a trend, but because it actually helps. Removing all unnecessary components from your web app simplifies users’ interactions with the app. If they have to solve big puzzles to find what they want, they’ll be more likely to just leave.

Erin Neumann

6. Keep the look and feel of your web app consistent 

Make sure your web app looks and feels consistent across different devices.

If you have a native app or website as well as a web app, you should ensure the visuals are similar so your brand identity is credible and easy to recognize. But it’s also important to make sure the navigation logic works the same way across your sites and apps to maximize ease of use. 

Prioritize internal consistency by ensuring your UI design is steady across the entire web app—for example, when users click one option, it shouldn’t take them to an entirely different screen with a different design. Key menu options and buttons should stay in the same place on every page or screen. 

To ensure a consistent web app UX, test it—a lot. Users will find those discrepancies for you. It’s hard to see errors if you stare at something for hours or days on end, so it’s really necessary to get a fresh set of eyes. Get feedback from actual end users to find where those consistency hiccups are happening. 

Cheyenne Nolan
UX Designer, Slingshot

7. Strengthen navigation and findability 

It’s easy to lose your users with a confusing or complex web app hierarchy. Make sure it’s easy for users to see exactly where they are on your web app, go back to the last screen they were on, and find the homepage or user dashboard in a snap. 

Guide your users through your app with a clear top menu, and use ‘breadcrumb trails’—secondary navigation menus that show users exactly where they are in their journey.

Making it easy for users to find everything on your web app will also have a huge impact on UX. 

Group similar elements—such as different types of products or tools—together so users can intuitively navigate. Include simple but highly functional search filters to make sure users can get to what they need as quickly and easily as possible. 

For a clear user journey, also pay close attention to empty spaces and in-between states where customers might get confused or lost

If you show users blank space when they’re waiting for something to load, looking at fields they haven’t filled out yet, or get an error page, they’ll get frustrated—and you’ll have missed an opportunity to show them what to do next. 

Design for empty states: include clear labels and messages that show users what’s happening or model what they could put in empty space fields in forms or user profiles. 

Pro tip: if the worst happens and your users get an error message, make it a useful one that helps them get back to what they were looking for and helps you understand why it happened in the first place. Include suggestions or a search bar on your error pages so users can find what they need and get back on track. You can also place a Hotjar Feedback widget on error pages to give users a chance to tell you exactly what happened and what they were trying to find.

Hotjar’s feedback widget lets your customers share their opinions 

8. Regularly test performance and the user experience

Maybe the single most important best practice for web app design is to test, test, and test again to make sure your design is meeting user needs—and make improvements if it isn’t.

Regularly run web monitoring tests to check that your web app is available, secure, and running at high speed. Set up alerts so you’re the first to know if a feature isn’t working, a security certificate expires, or if your web app is experiencing downtime. 

You should also test new concepts, updates, and aesthetic choices with users to ensure your decisions make a positive impact. 

Testing is crucial for initial concept validation and at the prototyping and minimum viable product (MVP) stages; but even once your web app is live, keep running feedback tests. 

You can use A/B or multivariate types of product testing to decide between different design choices, deploy product experience insights tools, and run usability tests to determine changes to make and improve the overall UX. 

It’s important to combine quantitative analytics with qualitative product experience insights based on users’ opinions, which give you a deeper sense of user needs. With Hotjar, you can conduct both qualitative and quantitative user research, and synthesize the results to understand exactly which actions you need to take to improve your web app design. 

Use these best practices for customer-led design

It’s easy to jump on board with trends in web app design and waste resources on fancy features and menus that may not actually be what your users want. 

Your users—rather than the flashiest tech—should drive every design decision. Let their feedback, behavior patterns, and underlying needs guide your web app design so you can create an application your users will love.

Make sure your web app design delights your users

Learn how Hotjar’s user-centric insights tools can help you build web apps that stand out.

FAQs about web app design best practices