If you’ve never created a web application before, this is a guide to help you understand how to get started and overcome potential barriers that might hold you back. Using a no-code web app builder like Bubble, you can go from idea to fully fledged digital product in less time than it would take to find a technical co-founder and for a fraction of the cost of outsourcing your development.
How is a web application different from a website? The basic distinction is that a website is a collection of pages that display usually static content, while a web application is a piece of software with dynamic content and more complex user interactions; in a web app, you can leverage APIs or trigger actions from other software services. Both websites and web apps are accessible through your web browser (such as Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Safari, etc.).
Examples of web applications: Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Amazon.com are all examples of web applications.
Examples of websites: Landing pages for corporate brands, local businesses, or traditional blogs.
But these days, many websites’ landing pages actually have web apps connected to them.
How do I start building a web app?
Option 1: No-code web app builders
No-code tools like Bubble are a great way to learn how to create a web application. Simplifying the design, development, and deployment of a web app makes it easier and faster to get your idea off the ground. Using Bubble, you can learn how to make an app for free.
Pros of Using No-Code Tools:
- Faster development - reports show that no-code tools help people build apps 2.5x faster.
- Visual - there’s no need to learn how to code, or waste time coding the same “CRUD” repeatedly.
- Hosting and infrastructure included - no-code builders like Bubble take care of the hosting of your app so you don’t need to additionally purchase hosting from AWS or other services.
- DIY - you can customize your web app easily and iterate after launch without needing engineers or a technical team.
Cons of using no-code tools:
- Platform Commitment
- Some limitations on custom features
Option 2: Traditional coding frameworks
Pros of traditional coding:
- Open-ended customization
- Complex applications possible
- Hosting platform agnostic
Cons of Traditional Coding:
- Slower than no-code
- Choice of programming language can create future limitations
Step 1: Have an idea (that makes sense).
Not every idea needs “an app for that.” Do your research first! Ask yourself, “what is this problem I want to solve?” Look into why this problem exists and think about what technology can do to address it. Interview people who might experience that problem, and get their feedback on possible solutions. If you find the answer is obvious and a web application makes everyone’s lives easier, great! You’re now ready to move on to the next phase.
Step 2: Brainstorm key features that your app must have.
In order to address the problem in Step 1, you now need to come up with a list of features that your app will have that address this problem. Examples of basic features for an app to collect money donations for charity causes might include: the ability to create charity profiles or causes that can receive donations, the ability to link a user’s credit card to donate money, and the ability to see how much money has been donated.
Step 3: Draft up your "MVP" (minimum viable product).
If you try to imagine your app in its complete form first, you might get caught up in all the bells and whistles your platform could have (with all the integrations you could imagine) and never get your idea completed. That’s why when you’re learning how to develop an app, it’s best to leverage the idea of an MVP: a basic but complete version of your app that showcases your app’s core features from Step 2. You can even draw this out on paper with basic workflows ("when my user clicks this button, they'll go here") attached to your design. In the case of our charity platform example, you may eventually want ways to share the fact that people donated, have users update people on the results of the charity, or create even more complex features like those of Kickstarter or GoFundMe. But by starting with just your core features, you increase the chance for success and can prove your platform works before investing time into more complexities.
Step 4: Take some time to get familiar with your no-code platform.
After you register your free account on Bubble, it’s common to need a bit of time to learn some of the basics of the platform. If you have a background in design tools, Bubble's UI builder should look pretty familiar to you. Developers will probably catch onto Bubble's workflow and data logic pretty quickly, as Bubble is built as a true visual programming language. But for someone who might have only encountered basic website builders, it’s important to realize that Bubble is much more powerful than Squarespace or Wix and will require you to do a little more thinking to make the thing you want.
Easy ways to get started for new Bubblers:
- Go through the Bubble Introductory series of short videos if you are brand new to the platform, and try the newest Fundamentals course after that. You’ll be well on your way to learning how to make an app for free.
- Take the Interactive Lessons (and try them in hard mode) to learn basic tools that you'll need in any web app.
You don’t need to be an expert to start building, so don’t be afraid to learn as you go. You can always ask for help on our forums to get help from professional Bubblers.
Step 5: Think like a programmer, even without needing to code.
The most important differences between building a web app from scratch and building a simple website are the logic for the database that stores your app's information and the workflow rules that determine how users interact with your app. Database engineering isn't the sexiest stuff, but there are ways to think like a programmer would about your database while learning how to develop an app with no code.
Even before you start playing around with your web app's design, you should navigate to Bubble's Data tab, and answer these questions:
- What are the major categories of "things" my app idea needs to function? These are your "Data Types." For example, if you're building an app for people to review restaurants, you'll need Restaurants, Reviews, and Users (the User data type always comes pre-built in your Bubble app).
- What subcategories of things fall under my major categories? These are the "Fields" within your data types. Your Restaurant's Data Type could include fields for the name, address, phone number, logo image, and cuisine type for each restaurant.
- Do any things relate to each other? When two types of data need to connect to one another, you can add them as fields in the data type. For instance, your Restaurant will have a "list" of Reviews, so that a restaurant can have reviews showing on its page.
If you forget something or want to add a new thing to your database, it's easy in Bubble to add a new field or data type after the fact. (For instance, you can later include a field for Photo images to your Restaurant tab so that users can upload photos). Note: Be careful when modifying your data types after you've built workflows! This might mess with existing logic in your app.
Step 6: Design your app.
Now it’s time to start building the basic pages and reusable elements you will need. Examples for pages most web apps will need include:
- A homepage (where most users will land whether logged in or out)
- Pages your different users might see (portals, logins, profile pages, etc.)
- Admin pages for you or those with particular permissions, or pages/pop-ups with inputs that allow you to add data to your app without needing to go directly to your database
You can design these pages individually in Bubble and connect them together with navigational workflows or links in your site's header or footer, hamburger menu, or buttons/pop-ups on your page.
Pro tip: For any app that makes use of multiple repeating components (lists of movies, marketplace store items, comment threads, etc.), use Bubble's Repeating Group element to generate dynamic content on your pages.
Step 7: Activate your elements with workflows!
Workflows are where the magic happens with no-code web app builders like Bubble. In Bubble's Workflow tab, you create the logic to:
- Make your buttons clickable and specify what they do (e.g. sign a user up, log them in, log out, go to a page, etc.)
- Navigate internal pages or change how elements appear on your page (hiding, showing, changing colors).
- Send users actions like emails, change states, create new entries in your database.
- Have any inputs generate data correctly to your database.
- Activate any APIs or integrations you've set up to run specific actions.
Workflows are pretty powerful and open-ended. The Bubble UI builder doesn't assume anything about what you want to do, so building workflows will help connect your data to your design and make your app fully functional! With traditional coding, this step may be the most time consuming to specify and deploy, but Bubble's editor allows you to point-and-click through building your workflows and will have your app up and running in a fraction of the time.
Step 8: Set up your privacy settings.
Web apps need custom permissions, because (again) it's not assumed that anyone but you understands what you want your users to see or not see. Go to the Data tab and click Privacy and learn how to set privacy settings in your app.
Step 9: Test and troubleshoot.
Test mode allows you to preview your app before you publish it. Try out your app in run mode and see if it behaves as you expect. If you noticed something wrong, Bubble comes with a handy debug mode and issue checker in the editor. You should also go back to the editor to see if your elements, workflows, and privacy rules are working as intended. If you need help, visit our Support Center or ask on our forums.
Step 10: Go live!
When you are ready to launch your app or connect your own custom domain to Bubble, you can do that by upgrading to a paid plan. Plans also unlock improved analytics and other feature perks.
Bonus Step: Iterate on your app after you go live. Adjusting to user feedback after launch is easy in Bubble. Redeploying your app is as simple as clicking a button, and with version control, you can always roll back to a previous update if needed.
Bubble is designed to help you build web apps faster and more affordably, without relying on expensive engineering resources. Getting your idea out into the world with no code is no problem, if you're building on Bubble.
What’s the difference between a web app and a mobile app? There is no specific software-development kit (SDK) for web app development, unlike mobile apps made for iOS or Android. Mobile apps, also sometimes called native apps, are deployed on your smartphone via its app store (Google Play Store, Apple App Store, etc.). Web apps can still be accessed on your phone via a web browser app. If you want to turn your web app into a mobile app, there are ways to use custom native wrappers to save you time.