Are any of the following true for you?

  • You're about to hire someone to help you with a web project of some kind.
  • You work for a company with an online presence or product of any kind.
  • You're a designer who wants to design for the web.
  • You're a web developer.

If you said yes to any of the above, it's important to understand the difference between a website and software that is accessible on the web.

There's certainly a continuum, as shown below, where some websites do become more complex and some software products could be fairly simple. But the key here is to understand that there is a difference, and that the difference can in some cases be massive.

Websites vs web applications/software

To further break down the differences, let's look at some key elements of websites vs. software that happens to be accessible via the web (also called "Web Applications"). Note that some of these bullets points aren't hard-and-fast rules, but they should help you better understand the key differences.

A website:

  • Exists primarily to convey information.
  • Has information that is typically static and the same for all viewers.
  • May have a database but its primary purpose is to store the site's content not the user's data.
  • May have a CMS like Wordpress or Squarespace to enable updating or maintaining the content.
  • Is often relatively inexpensive to design, build, and maintain; any complexity that exists is usually a function of the amount of content on the site or things like multiple languages, etc.

Web-Based Software (or Web Applications):

  • Often requires a fee to use (although a software product can still be free, like Facebook or Gmail).
  • Often requires a login to access.
  • Has information that is highly dynamic and changes frequently based on user input and other outside events/triggers.
  • Allows users to input, modify, remove, and otherwise interact with data.
  • Frequently involves integration of data with other systems and tools.
  • Involves algorithms, computations, calculations, reporting, transactions, etc.
  • Can be highly complex and expensive to design, build, and maintain.


Let's look at a couple of examples to hopefully illustrate this more visually.

A Website

This is a marketing site, designed by a Web Designer, then developed by a web developer using a content management system (CMS):

An example of a marketing website.

Note that this site is informational. It consists of a number of pages that explain what the product does, the features/benefits, and how to learn more about it or request a demo. It isn't an actual software product. Its job is to inform, promote, and persuade. It's also much less complex compared to the actual software product.

A Web-Based Software Product

And this is a software product, designed by a UX Designer and a UI Designer working in tandem, then developed by a team of software developers:

An example of a software product or application.

Note that if you visit the link above, all you see of the software product is the login screen, behind which is a complex, sophisticated software application. The marketing site exists to inform prospective buyers about the software product. The software product itself is the highly complex tool that the buyer is paying to use.

Why it Matters

Here are a few reasons why it matters that you understand the differences between websites and web-based software:

Cost Expectations and Budgeting

If you're hiring someone to help design or build something, it's important to have an idea of the complexity of what you're asking for so that your expectations are realistic. We frequently talk to people who are asking us to design and build a complex web application but who don't understand why it will cost 10 or 20 times as much as the marketing site someone else made for them before.

Ability to Choose the Right Designer/Developer

Thinking that you want a website when you really want a web-based software product might lead you to hire the wrong designers and/or developers. There are a lot of designers and developers who can create a nice marketing website for you; there even tools that let you do this yourself, with varying degrees of success. There are far fewer designers and developers who can help you create an intuitive, user-friendly, robust, scalable software product.

Unfortunately a lot of web designers, or even graphic designers, don't really understand what UX design is nor what UI design is. One evidence of this is how often designers lump the two terms together, and do it in the wrong order like this: UI/UX. When you see that on a resume or website, proceed with caution!

Hire the wrong people and you're likely to be disappointed and waste both time and money. Many of the projects we do are for clients who had the unfortunate experience of hiring the wrong people to begin with.

Career Planning for Designers and Developers

If you're an aspiring designer or developer it's important that you start gaining the skills and experience necessary to succeed on the types of projects you want to do. It's also important to sell your skills accurately, whether to a potential employer or to a client.


As mentioned before there is a spectrum or continuum from simple websites to complex web applications. Understanding the difference is beneficial to you whether you're the one doing the work or the one hiring the people who will do it.