How Companies Can Build a Successful Web App

There’s no denying it: Mobile computing is here, and it’s growing.

Smartphone sales in Q2 2013 were up almost 50 percent worldwide from the same time last year, according to research firm Gartner, and tablets were up 43 percent, according to The Next Web.

Many companies have chosen native mobile apps over web-based applications, but businesses are starting to see the benefits of robust web options that offer both browser and mobile support. Additionally, by building a web app, companies aren’t beholden to app stores, which may block applications for vague violations or be slow to roll out updates.

But where should a company interested in building a web app begin?

Hit the Ground Running

The biggest problem with web apps isn’t a lack of features or content — it’s poor implementation. If applications don’t address a specific need or attempt to do so and then fail because of a dismal user interface (UI), a company loses money. And since it’s easy to spend anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000 developing a web app, it’s critical to get design and implementation right the first time.

In other words, to hit the ground running, companies need to start by taking it slow. First, they must strip away expectations and focus on the basics: data. At the core of any app is the ability to take data from users, process or store that data and then output a result. Web design site Six Revisions uses Instagram as an example; the site captures photos from users, processes the photos to add effects or filters and then outputs a modified image for users to view. Companies need to reduce their prospective web applications to similarly basic terms.

Pick Up Your Tools

Next, companies need to decide what framework to use for their apps and whether to build an application tool in-house or use what’s already available online. PHP is a popular option if you’re looking for code simplicity, while niche options like Clojure offer improved app performance at the cost of greater complexity for in-house IT to handle. In the middle are standbys like Python and Ruby on Rails, both of which have die-hard supporters and active forums.

With a basic framework chosen, tools and third-party application programming interfaces (APIs) are next in line. Some companies choose to code their own app tools, but in many cases, this isn’t necessary, because basic functions, such as auto-complete text, picture carousels and collapsible panels, are all available, most of them for free.

Using an API allows businesses to access the data of an external web service, such as Facebook or Twitter. Companies should use caution here, however, since APIs are, by nature, resource-intensive and operate solely at the discretion of their owners — meaning terms of use and service can change without warning. Simply put, the right API can elevate a web app’s performance; the wrong choice can bring it to a halt.

Optimize Prime

Apps need to work better than they look. If your app looks shiny and new but takes too long to return results, it’s going to fail. To combat this problem, web applications need to be optimized for speed. Start by using a service, such as ChromeDev Tools (included free with Google’s browser), that analyzes web apps and makes recommendations. Minimizing cookie size, specifying image dimensions and making use of browser-side caching can all improve the speed of an app.

And according to Search Server Virtualization, companies may also want to consider moving an application off local stacks and onto a virtual machine (VM) or outsourcing app hosting to a third-party provider, depending on the desired speed threshold.

Practically Perfect

While no app is flawless, there are several stellar examples of successful web apps for companies to reference before building their own. On the small-business end there’s Asana, which provides collaborative project management oversight, helping teams stay on time and on budget — and it’s free. For bigger businesses, examples like from Salesforce fit the bill; the app is designed to “drive more business with goals and real-time coaching,” according to its website, and the app does so by providing front-end employees with gamelike content they can complete to earn badges, recognition and even prizes.

[image: graphicnoi/iStock/ThinkStockPhotos]