Is there really not an app for this?

Why haven't websites become point and click?

When we buy Apple products, the promise is that they will “just work”, and they often make good on that. Most of us treat purchasing a car as a “buy and drive” affair — and that’s usually how the transaction goes. Manufacturing computer hardware or an automobile is a far more complex task than building a website. Why then, is it so hard to make our way online?

Is “easy” too much to hope for?

Marketing messages trumpet simplicity in getting a website up & running1. But after we buy in, and notice that the proverbial Big Mac© on our tray doesn’t match the one on the billboard, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

I want to talk about some reasons for the letdown we all feel at some point in the journey of building a website:

  1. When using a page builder app, we often don’t factor in the limitations, or consider what will happen when we outgrow them; this can create a headache when it’s time to move.
  2. Websites need more than just money - they require mental and emotional resources to fill them with meaningful content (and functions) for our visitors. We often underestimate just how much of those resources we’ll need to provide.
  3. Tech-jargon gets in the way. The level of effort to create a web-application, versus a web-site is wildly different, but we use “website” as a catch-all term.

“But I just need a space online for people to read about me/my company”, you say. “Is there really not an app for this?” If you’re looking for a template, photo gallery, and a contact page, sure: there are apps for that!2 To wit: companies like Squarespace have got your back. GoDaddy is just waiting in the wings for you to ask them. Everyone’s favourite internet titan, Google, even has a site-builder product. They probably offer most of what you’ll need out of the gate.

Using a page-builder to build a website is like leasing space at an office park. Pros: Quick set-up, and competitive prices. Plus, there is a landlord (customer support) to call when things go wrong. Cons: space for growth is limited, and the building policy will someday get in the way of your plans. (“What do you mean, there’s no support for [insert feature here3]?”) And the real gumption trap: when you do decide to make the move to a new space, it’s unlikely your digital-furnishings are a 1:1 match for the new space’s floor plan; retrofitting is sometimes as expensive as starting from the ground-up.

Earlier, we used “purchasing a car” as an example of an easy process, relative to purchasing a website. This comparison has some rhetorical value, but a website is more akin to buying a house than a car. A car can be put to use right away, but homeownership calls on us to make a greater number of decisions over a longer period, before our new purchase is ready. Like a home, a website needs us to furnish it (write content), obsess about decoration (branding/design), and fret about how many guests can visit at a time (server resources). The more choices we’re presented with, the less likely we are to characterize the object of those choices as “quick and easy”.

Compounding the expectation for speed that the marketing sets up, we access our digital creations via the internet, which has a reputation for being instant. That reputation tends to rub off on everything the internet associates with. When we complete a site, you can bet it will load fast - it’s just that to reach that stage, we need to invest considerable time and energy.

Finally - we may be describing a web application, but labelling it a website. For the majority of the internet’s short life, the description that Wikipedia offers for “website” was accurate (emphasis mine):

A website, … is a set of related web pages typically served from a single web domain.

Pages don’t imply much interactivity. However, contrast that with web application:

A web application … can be as simple as a message board or a guest sign-in book on a website, or as complex as a word processor or a spreadsheet.

If it seems like we’re splitting hairs, imagine that a website is like creating a graphic for an event, versus a web application: planning and delivering the actual event on the graphic. Two related but fundamentally different concepts.

Graphic design for an event might take place in an office or a study, usually with a relatively limited scope. Planning the event itself requires a team, logistics, and overcoming bureaucratic and political barriers. Success can depend on the whims of a committee, attendees, and maybe even the weather. It’s a bigger undertaking and requires a different skill set to deliver.

Here’s the silver lining, though: if there’s no “app for that”, it’s means your market probably isn’t saturated. If there isn’t a turnkey solution, it’s an indicator that we’re on a frontier. If we need to build something custom, we’re also building a competitive advantage.

If there’s not an app for that, then you have an opportunity to build one.

  1. “NO SKILLS, NO TIME? - NO PROBLEM.”: this is the slogan for GoDaddy’s site builder app at the time of writing.

  2. The internet, despite its relative youth, has been home to websites-that-build-websites for a long time. Geocities launched in 1994 to host personal websites, and plenty of other services have popped up in the intervening 22 years to save us from typing HTML ourselves.

  3. Some examples. Real-estate: can you place listings on a map and can your users filter through them? Retailers - how are you with abandoned cart recovery? Salons, restaurants, service providers - is there a booking and payment system?