Are the different? If so, how? What are the biggest differences and why?

For eg: In an e-commerce web app - The singular focus will be on making a sale. Whereas, on a licensed desktop app, the focus will be on utility or something else.

I'm interested in knowing about such considerations and the differences for such between web apps and desktop apps


4 Answers 4


An interesting question indeed.

UX is UX

As far as the process is concerned, it is nearly identical - figuring out user needs, task models, user testing and so on are all similar, if not identical.

The only place where differences exist is in the design process, where certain considerations have to be accounted for.

Design considerations

These are the ones I can think of right now:

  • Browsers - web application run on a browser, which means:
    • There's a back button to consider.
    • You may notice in user testing that users use the 'open in new tab' feature, and this is integral part of their usage.
    • Some keyboard shortcuts are reserved to the browser (although a web app can override these - I love the fact that command-S saves my blog entry with Ghost).
  • Display size - it is safe to assume a large display size for desktop apps, where web apps may run on a really small screen.
  • Platform guidelines adherence - a controversial one, but generally speaking desktop applications are expected to adhere to the platform guidelines more than web apps (in a way, web app are for all platforms, and I'm yet to meet a UX designer that submits variations of design per platform).
  • Immediate feedback - Many web apps suffer from lack of immediate feedback due to the time it take requests to get a server response (possibly due to slow internet connection, like when out and about). This is hardly ever an issue with desktop app - to be completed a user action doesn't have to travel through the air (wifi) and then half way across the world and back.
  • Different 'UI' approaches
    • This is somewhat of a gross generalisation, but with desktop apps one normally thinks of the viewport (the visible window rectangle) as the space available, whereas with web apps the tendency is to utilise a vertically-scrollable document. If this seems to contradict the way desktop word processor work, in fact they do not actually render anything outside the viewport, whereas on this web page, content above and below the viewport actually exists in the document.
    • Perhaps most notably, static top toolbars are common on desktop applications because the programmer can just drop them on the canvas and decide which part of the screen will be scrollable. But the document of a webpage resizes itself based on its content (and scrolls on overflow by default) and technological limitations and the HTML rendering engine (rather than canvas on desktop) mean that static element on the screen are still somewhat of a hack.
    • Without getting into too much details, layouts of a desktop app are manually crafted by the developer, whereas layouts on web applications are often automatic.
    • With all this being said, with a bit of extra effort, a developer can make a web application behave just like a desktop one, and vice versa.

Put your money on web technologies

Not tightly related to your question, but I have to state my belief:

All future applications will be 'web' applications.

This not to say that we won't have desktop applications - but they will simply be written using web technologies, even if used without an internet connection. Reasons:

  • If you've been using the NodeJS technology, it puts in serious doubt the feasibility of going through the hassle of writing a desktop applications (ie, compiled applications). Although Google is pushing things in the completely opposite direction, had they wished they could have easily wrapped NodeJS (server side) + client code into a cross-platform compiled executable.
  • There are already project out there doing just this - compiling web apps into desktop apps. Perhaps worth noting that Apple's Xcode has already got a webkit component that allows a pure client-side web app to ran as a desktop app (it's a bit of work to mimic the server side).
  • As soon as the canvas of HTML5 gets its own Graphical Editing Framework, developers would have little reasons to opt for desktop applications (in essence, the canvas of HTML5 brings desktop architecture into the web, but the latter has the extra of HTML/CSS power).

In addition, Google is pushing towards web-apps world. Although currently we're looking at 'performance-light' applications (say no heavy image processing, like with film applications), NodeJS bridges that gap, allowing taking full advantage of the machine power - your client side is only the interface.


//Edit - I misread title as Desktop vs. Mobile, so most of that answer didn't apply ...

As suggested in a previous answer, each project will have its unique challenges and requirements. You can't possibly account for/isolate/test all variables. Kind of comes down to understanding and managing expectations and considering edge cases.

What are the differences in environment, hardware, or user expectations/interactions?

  • Offline use vs. connected? Should be available at all times, but what if it's not? On a desktop w/no internet it's no big deal, but it can be a show-stopper for a web-app.

  • Manually saving (or auto-saving?) to hard drive vs. auto-saving to Cloud. Needs a "Save" button or not? Do users expect/understand version control?

  • Expectations re: being able to save/delete/protect/locate files that aren't on their computer?

  • Both the perception and the reality of security and privacy may differ for a web-app
  • UI/permissions for software updates, terms & agreements, etc may differ, so people's expectations might too. A person can usually choose not to update their desktop software, but web apps like Adobe CC or Google Docs do so automatically. How do you let them choose/know?
  • Relative limitations/differences in speed, RAM, graphics capability etc. A desktop is still faster than any browser for processor/memory-intensive tasks.
  • Far more browser versions & variations out there than operating systems. More quirks to fix.

  • On top of all that, you add the "mobile" vs. "desktop" considerations: screen size/layout, speed/RAM/battery, variable network speed & quality, use cases for various locations and tasks that differ from desktop.

  • This is a really good answer, but it focuses on differences between desktop computers and mobile devices, rather than desktop apps and web apps - one can use a web app on a desktop computer.
    – Izhaki
    Sep 16, 2014 at 22:58
  • 1
    D'oh - you're absolutely right. I didn't think of it like "Google Docs" vs "Office." Will edit.
    – mc01
    Sep 16, 2014 at 23:00

I think just looking at the literal meaning of the different terms you use and then collect some ideas / concepts that come along with them may already help to clear your question (at least for me) and maybe also provide some entry points to answers:

  • web app UX –> Online Application User Experience - e.g. 'Google Docs'

    works in a browser, needs internet connection / probably won't work offline, needs to web-load the user interface, scripts, libraries etc., files are probably stored in a cloud, …

  • Desktop app UX –> Desktop Application User Experience – e.g. 'MS Office'

    stand alone application, works offline, has all (or most) recources stored locally, loads potentially faster, files are saved locally on a hard drive, …

or am I mistaken and you actually wanted to refer to "desktop browser ux" and "mobile browser ux"?

  • No, the distinction you gave is correct. I want the difference between web app UX and desktop app UX Sep 18, 2014 at 1:38

Nielson Norman Group: The Definition of User Experience

Summary: "User experience" encompasses all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

No. "Desktop App UX" is no different from "Web App UX" in that "Desktop App 1 UX" is any different from "Desktop App 2 UX".

No user experience process is going to be exactly the same for any two products, regardless of if they are on the same platform or different platform. Understanding what "user experience" is and how the many different elements within the process can work together, when to use one over the other, and how to properly apply them is what makes up the "differences." Not "desktop app" vs. "web app".

  • Thanks for the links and answer. Let me refine my question to make more sense. Sep 16, 2014 at 21:01

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