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Websites vs. Web-Apps vs. Native Apps

Posted by Matthew Farleo on 21st Jan 2018

What’s the difference between a Website, A Web-App and a Native App?

TL:DR Digital products come in all shapes and sizes, from single page websites to billion dollar endeavors like Snapchat. From a high level, this wide breadth of digital products can be sorted into three main categories, namely; Websites, Web Applications or Native Apps. Each of these categories has strengths and weaknesses, while some have some feature overlap, each is distinct in practice. However, design is a universal language and good UX design translates across digital mediums, but understanding the machinations of various platforms can provide a designer more knowledge of the fundamental users.

Websites vs. Web-Apps

Probably the two most commonly confused items in this topic would be the difference between a Website and a Web-App. Both are digital applications that live on the internet and are viewable by a host of devices, but they have subtle differences from each other. Honestly, if you ask ten different people in the industry you’ll probably get more than a few different answers to the question what’s the difference between a web-app and a website, but they generally boil down to a few common points:

  • Websites are focused on being informative.
  • Web-Apps are interactive.

What this means basically is that a website is primarily a static page (or series of pages) that exist to convey information to the users, generally through written words or imagery. A good example of a common website would be a restaurant website that has the location on a map, hours of operation and menu. While a web-app would be more robust in terms of interaction than a typical website, yes it will convey information but the user will need to provide input in order to use the product. Using the same example of the restaurant web presence from above, instead of just using their website to have the location, hours and menu, the website also allows users to book a table or order food online for delivery, that is an example of a web-app. All of that being said, if you download an app from the app store to get food delivered from said restaurant (like GrubHub) you are using a Native App.

Native Apps are native to mobile devices

Typically this is what a person would think about when they think of the term “app.” A native app refers to an app that is downloaded via a mobile device’s app store (IE Google Play, Apple App Store, etc). Generally speaking, when creating native applications separate development professionals are needed to create each version of the app (if available on multiple devices). This is because native apps are downloaded directly onto the mobile device's hardware, and as such these applications have been custom created for each specific device’s operating system, the two most popular I’ve outlined below.

  • Apple (iOS) Apps

    Apple devices like the iPhone that download their applications via iTunes or the Apple store use the iOS operating system. These applications are generally built using the Swift language using Apple’s integrated development environment, xCode.

  • Android Apps

    Google and Android devices use the Android operating system, which boasts itself as the most popular mobile operating system on its website. These apps are built on the Java language usually within the IDE built by Google, Android Studio.

UX Design for a variety of Digital Products

When starting a digital project it is important to consider what touchpoints will be most effective for engaging your targeted users and use the technology best suited to do that. That being said, the underpinnings of digital products can vary widely, but the fundamental psychology of users as they are using your product remains the same. Basically, by following the principles of user experience design, a team should be able to produce a positive user experience regardless of technology, that is to say, good user experience is platform agnostic.

A user experience designer’s position requires them to understand the user, their needs, and expectations, first and then design solutions best suited to those needs. However, it is a benefit to the design team to understand the fundamentals of how their designs will be built in order to ensure that the digital product can be created within the scope and timeline of the project.