It has never been more important for a business to have a strong online presence, and today one of the best ways you can attract and engage new customers is by offering custom web and mobile applications. Now that COVID has hastened the demise of the High Street and traditional business patterns, focusing on your organisation’s internet profile can be critical for your ongoing success. However, the thought of investing heavily in web development still puts off some small and medium sized businesses. Thankfully, it is easier than it has ever been to undertake sophisticated web development without having to write all your code from the ground up. In fact, modern development techniques provide an opportunity to level the playing field with bigger competitors.

What is a web app?

A web app differs from static website pages by taking input and doing something with it. That dynamic interaction with the user makes it an “application” like those on your computer desktop. A website that just shows products is really just a stack of documents, but if it goes and finds the product the visitor wants it is an application. Most modern websites are responsive to at least a little user input – such as a search box or a shopping basket – but the trend is toward more concise and sophisticated functionality. Good examples include outlook.com – a well-known online email application, or reverso.net – an online translator.

Web apps may provide functions for customers or your own employees. You can write code that allows them to query your databases remotely or control an automated production line. During lockdown, many of us used Zoom to video conference or Microsoft 365 – a whole suite of web applications. Your web app service may be central to your business processes, or just a utility distributed as a marketing tool. Web applications work particularly well on mobile devices where cumbersome websites struggle.

Web application frameworks

There is little point in reinventing the wheel. Content management systems like WordPress allow you to drop in a lot of functionality as plugins. If they do what you want it is quicker than writing and testing your own code. Anything cutting edge will require a coder, but learning to code is nowhere near as difficult as many believe – if you have the time and enthusiasm. Even when you code you do not have to begin from scratch: web application frameworks save time and money and help you avoid mistakes.

A framework consists of a library of modules, templates and code snippets that you can freely adapt to build your own product. Popular choices are Django, Angular, Ruby on Rails, Meteor, Vue, Bootstrap and Flask. Most are based on the Python programming language but you will also need a basic understanding of PHP, HTML, Javascript, CSS and SQL.

Development is often divided into “front-end” and “back-end” and each may use a different framework. The front-end is where the app interacts with the user, and the back-end handles data stored in databases and other resources.

Testing is all important

While coding may sound challenging it is less important than design. Before you begin you must have a good idea and then detail precisely how to build it. Testing should begin almost before coding does – by running it past potential users to see if it will answer the need you think it will. How you are going to continue testing it during development should be part of your initial design plan.

A rewarding challenge

With many tools and guides freely accessible online, and large communities of fellow developers, building your own web application is achievable and could save your business substantial amounts of money. Even if you do hire outside developers, it is vital to work closely with them all the way to ensure the final result fulfils your initial vision and satisfies customer demand.