What Makes a Great Web App

If you’ve hung around Web.AppStorm long enough, you’ve surely come across a few web apps you’ve thought looked nice. Hopefully you found some you kept using, but odds are, you quit using most of them right after you tried them out.

There’s the web apps we use all the time, like Gmail and Facebook, that we can’t imagine not using. Then there’s others we like, say Evernote or Google Reader, that we might like but we tend to use through native apps. And then, there’s the dozens of apps we’ve used but don’t keep using forever.

So what makes a great web app, and why do some seem to click while others never find a place in your toolkit?

Web Apps?

First off, what is a web app? Gmail’s a web app; we all know that. How about Evernote, or the Facebook app on your smartphone? Jarel Remick did a great job summarizing what makes a web app, so if you’re wondering, go check out the article and then come back. The article could be easily summed up with the following definition:

A web application is an application utilizing web and [web] browser technologies to accomplish one or more tasks over a network, typically through a [web] browser.

Tons of apps we all use every day are web apps, and many of the native apps in App Stores are really front-ends for web apps. Then, even more of our native apps, such as Mail or Calendar apps, rely on web services for mail and calendar sync. Facebook’s mobile apps are native apps using UIWebView, while Evernote has both a web app and native apps that sync with their could service. Dropbox and other file sync and backup apps are cloud services, even if you’re not usually using their web app interface. And even if you use Google Apps via native mail programs or Skype and other chat/VoIP tools, the cloud service behind them is still important.

So, for all of these, what makes one web app or service stick with you over another?

It’d better work

New apps have a very, very short window of time to win most of our trust. First appearances really do matter. By the time I’ve clicked the signup button, I’ll have noticed what the site looks like, what features the app includes, and how complicated the signup process looks. If I need to enter my address and 15 other things, odds are I’ll just close the tab. And so would most users.

Then, over time, apps need to continue to be useful. If Skype cut off every 3rd call you made, or Gmail lost one out of every dozen emails you sent, you’d never have found them useful. Web apps will always be dependent on your internet connection, but they’d better load rather fast on standard connections or most people won’t use them. They also need to work in most major browsers with flaws, and can’t lose data. It’s a lot to ask, but to make an app a part of your essential toolkit, it’ll likely need to have all these things.

It takes a village

Why do you use Microsoft Word? You might not use it now, but chances are you’ve used it at some time or another? Why? You likely didn’t go out and compare word processors and chose Word as the best one. Instead, you used it because everyone else uses it, and if you need to share documents with other people, you need to make sure they can read them too.

It’s the same for web apps. If you’re using a collaborative tool or social network, it’ll only be useful if your colleagues and friends are using it. If you’re using a productivity app, it’ll only be really useful if you can still easily share your documents and images and other creations with others. Even apps like Dropbox benefit from the network effect: sharing folders only works if others are using Dropbox, and since Dropbox de-duplicates files, your file uploads will be quicker if more people are using it.

Every app doesn’t need a village, and some of the apps I use would still be very useful even if I was the only guy using them. But it’s still an important factor for web apps, especially since networked apps are usually designed to let you network with others. And this is a big part of the reason Facebook and Tumblr and many other popular web apps are essential: everyone else is using them.

What do you really need?

At the end of the day, though, what really matters is what you need. You can have the best designed web app that includes all types of amazingly revolutionary features, loads instantly, and everyone else on earth is using it, and you’ll still end up not using it. Don’t feel bad. Everyone doesn’t need a crosscut saw either.

We’ve each got different things we need to do, and different ways to do them. The tool that works great for someone just might not be the tool you need, whether we’re talking about normal tools or web apps. It’s easy to read reviews of awesome apps and try to integrate them into our workflow just because their available. Don’t. Instead, find the tools that work for you, and if that means using Aol. email even after everyone else has switched, more power to you.

Case in point: Lucidchart. I love Lucidchart, it’s backed by a great team, and it’s easily one of the most advanced web apps I’ve used. It helped me get through a college class that required Visio; needless to say, Lucidchart took me minutes to learn, after spending hours trying to figure out how to do anything in Visio. But you know what? I hardly ever use it. I’m a writer and tech support guy, and frankly don’t need to create diagrams every day. I’d recommend Lucidchart to anyone, and fire it up whenever I need a diagram, but it’s never going to be as important to me as Simplenote and Assistly and WordPress. And that’s fine.

Conclusion

It’s the great web apps that keep us writing, and keep our review queue filled with exciting new apps to try out. We all love getting invites for new beta apps in our email, and can’t wait to share the latest apps we’ve tried. But only the best will really stay put in our normal workflow, and the best ones for each of us might be different.

Developers, thank you for your work to make such amazing web apps. Even when we don’t end up using your app daily, we’re sure glad you went to the trouble of making it for those who will use it daily. Thank you for pushing the envelope, for inspiring us with cutting-edge tech and intricate designs. And readers, thank you for sharing our love of web apps. We hope some of the apps we review prove useful in your toolkit, even if we don’t end up needing them over time ourselves.