Why Your Website Should Be More Like an App

The term “web app” has been floating around for several years now. It has been derided as simply a trendy term for a website featuring lots of user interaction, or as a way to charge more for websites, but in a December 2013 poll on the developer site css-tricks.com 72% of respondents thought that making a distinction between “web sites” and “web apps” was useful.

While I’m not sure I agree that a distinction between the two (being able to put a particular web “thing” into one category or the other) is useful, I do think that thinking about your website as an “app” is helpful — especially for folks who are not developers.

At Webskillet, we always work with clients to identify the purpose, goals and audience of any new or revamped website. But those things can pretty easily mushroom. Thinking about your website as an app forces the question: what do you want people to do on your website?

One of the distinctions proposed between “sites” and “apps” is performing tasks vs. providing information and content. But, of course, finding and accessing information is itself a task – one whose difficulty is often underestimated. When we redesigned the National Domestic Workers Alliance website last winter, we realized that their work had gotten so complex, with so many different projects and audiences, that the navigation system on their old site (a traditional menu across the top with secondary sectional navigation on the sidebars of interior pages) made it really difficult to find information about any particular project. Thinking about navigation as an app to find content, rather than where to put things in a menu structure, helped us design a much better navigation system, featuring megamenus that help group and categorize the many projects and initiatives at NDWA.

And, of course, apps are generally written to do a particular thing – listen to music, share short status updates with the world, send email, etc. So the question to ask is not only what you want people to do on your website, but what is the one thing you want people to do on your website.

This also helps the explain the recent (and, in my opinion, good) trend towards “microsites” – small sites, sometimes with only a single page, but certainly no more than a few, that serve exactly one purpose. Just as my co-worker Bekah recommends that emails only have one ask to avoid “decision fatigue,” I think it’s great that people are creating sites that are dedicated to just one purpose – that give the visitor exactly one task, and focus on making that task as easy as possible for the visitor – whether that task is learning about Burlington’s livable wage ordinance or convincing people to join a new effort to hold local politicians accountable.

But thinking about your site as an “app” doesn’t need to be confined to microsites. One of the largest and most-used websites, Wikipedia, is really just an app for finding information.

Another website that we have done recently where thinking about the site as an “app” has helped us create a really focused website is Spoiler Alert! This site is, essentially, an app for exploring a recently published report about pop-culture strategies for the progressive movement. The animation and inclusion of video, Storify content, and other multimedia create a much more dynamic experience than simply downloading a PDF (although that option is there).

So, if you are thinking about a new website, or a redesign of your existing website, take some time to consider what the one thing you want people to do on your website is. And let me know if I can help you think about it.