Web based applications should look like websites

The title for this post, obviously, reflects my opinion, but it is not just a wild guess. Through the years I have worked with a lot of different web based applications, from many different vendors. I have seen a great many people start using them and watched how the process evolves.

Most people prefer to access applications through the browser, rather than using clunky desktop interfaces. Of course, not all desktop interfaces are clunky and many applications are better served by a traditional native interface. At this time I would say that office productivity tools are one of the main groups to fit in that category.

Most business applications however, can be implemented gracefully as web based applications and the use of Ajax and such techniques allows for the creation of very responsive interfaces. Recently I took part in a discussion about having web applications that mimic desktop applications or that look like websites. I consider this a matter of personal choice, but I believe that web applications should look like websites. Right now, I’m writing this article inside a browser and I am quite happy with the interface that is provided. It behaves as I expect and thought I would not want to write a book in this interface, it feels quite okay for writing a blog post.

The fact is that I have never seen a web based application that mimicked a desktop interface and that felt natural. Quite the contrary, actually. They normally feel slow and unresponsive. It might be due to the fact that you expect something that looks like a web page to have small delays in responding to your commands and when it behaves better than that it is a nice surprise, but the opposite is true for something that looks like a desktop application. If something looks like a normal windows application, you expect it to behave like one. In this case, even the slightest delay will fell odd and make the application seem to be unresponsive.

The more logic you implement on the browser side, the more responsive your application tends to be. (As long as you know what you are doing. :-) ) In building an application that will be available through the Internet, it is inevitable that there will be a slight lag anytime you need to do a round-trip to the server to obtain data. This is one of the main reasons why applications that try to simulate a regular desktop application are going to have a hard time being appreciated by end-users.

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9 Responses to Web based applications should look like websites

  1. Chrisranjana says:

    Yes correct. It all boils down your personal choice. But normally people do not know the difference between web and applications. For instance google docs has bridged the gap to some extent in providing office applications on the web. Even though flash and activex are present it is miles to go before a seamless entity becomes a reality.

    Web Company

  2. Mauricio Longo says:

    It is quite true that people don’t much know the difference. But fact is that most people are less “scared” of the Web then of applications. I guess it comes from the fact that most frequently there are no options in web applications that let you delete lots of information by accident. Not that it couldn’t be done, of course. :-)

    I’ve noticed that people tend to feel more at ease in using web applications than desktop ones. Though some people comment that the Web has no interface standards, I feel it does indeed. They are not formal or rigid standards and some people ignore them, but there definitely are standards.

  3. edgarjph says:

    A bit of a problem will arise when users already familiar with desktop applications expect the same interface when these apps are ported to the web. It is tempting to write web apps that mimic their desktop counterparts just to capitalize on this familiarity.

    However, we have the luxury of desktop apps’ responsiveness even in data-heavy settings. But you are also correct in observing that users are expecting website-like behavior when they are running apps inside a browser.

    The final appearance of a web app, especially a database one, might be something in between or a mixture of a website and desktop app. We need to consider the users’ familiarity with the desktop interface, the app being browser-based and the slight lag in responsiveness.

    Not to mention that I still don’t have a name for the interface element that looks like a link but behaves like a button. ;-) I need this in writing help and docs.

  4. Mauricio Longo says:

    I generally agree with the concept that web based applications which are port of desktop applications should try to take advantage of the user’s experience. I think that the interface, in general should be a web-rendering of the desktop application. I think the best example of this is GMail Gmail gives you an interface which is mostly familiar to people that use email clients (apart from the tags/labels instead of folders) but which doesn’t try to pretend that it is a desktop application.

    As for the control that looks like a link and behaves like a button, I think you should just refer to it as a link and describe that when clicked it triggers such and such actions. :-)

  5. edgarjph says:

    I agree. Web mails are the best examples of how a web app should be. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail — they are very good.

    By the way, have you tried the Projects or Planner apps of Zoho? The web apps I made (almost) with Morfik (and the succeeding ones I plan will) exactly behave like them. Their ephemeral (or hover) controls which are a new addition to web apps’ interface are very practical.

  6. Mauricio Longo says:

    I have tried Zoho and I generally like all their applications. Their online editor was not up to Writely (GoogleDocs) standards, the last time I checked, but I generally like their applications.

  7. edgarjph says:

    I found this Coding Horror article that discusses this topic:


    And its discussion at Hacker News


    How do I make the links clickable?

  8. Mauricio Longo says:

    I find myself, not surprisingly I guess, more in agreement with the first than with the second discussion. I’m not sure the robot/android metaphor is one I would have used, but I think it kind of describes my feeling about this pretty well.

    There are some fine points made in the second discussion too, but even the flash based application used as an example doesn’t look that much like a true desktop application. On the other hand I have always believed that flash based apps are in a category all of their own. They don’t feel like web applications and they don’t look like desktop applications.

    On the last point you touched… I don’t know if it is possible to make links in the comments clickable. :-)

  9. edgarjph says:


    href html tag :-)

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