I'm running into the comment/question "So, is it an app?"

Well, first it will be a responsive site with some app-like functionality; then later it will also be a native app with the same functionality, plus more... but it will still be the responsive site etc. too.

So what one word or term can I use to describe it now & in the future?

  • What's wrong with calling things by their name? Being specific will only help you and everybody else. If needed, you can use the name of the app/site as a concept. Either way, I think this has nothing to do with usability, maybe try English.SE – Devin Jun 24 '16 at 23:22
  • Devin- second item first: I believe it is a usability issue (and I apologize for not specifying in my original post) because I'm getting these questions/comments from non-technical users/potential users. 1st item: because using different names for what are essentially the same thing from the non-tech user POV just confuses them. – David Albee Jun 26 '16 at 1:20
  • When I want to be device agnostic I just use the term 'application'. Is broad enough to cover them all while avoiding the mobile bias associated with 'app'. – DasBeasto Jul 26 '16 at 12:07

While there is no standard definition, this may help:

The history

Historically, a web site was a page on the world-wide-web that served content. Links where nearly the only way of interacting with each page, simply navigating you to another page.

But soon the need for better interaction was clear, and Javascript became prevalent.

Regardless, a site can only be accessed via a browser. Apps likes the Apple store, Spotify or BBC sport (which are alleged to be technologically site-based with a browser wrapped within an app) are still apps.

Content vs Tasks

In search to classify something as a site or an app, you can argue that sites are more content based (much more time spent on user input than user output), whereas apps are more task, or interaction based.

View state vs Business state

Deep within UX modelling you can distinguish between two classes of user actions:

  • Those meant to alter the view (like a collapse button). In general, the view state is not persisted (saved), although there are many exceptions to this (cookies or user view settings).
  • Those meant to alter some persisted business state that is part of fulfilling a user task (and thus - a goal). In most cases, the state being manipulated belongs to the user and isn't shared with everyone on the web (there must be a login and the user state is not all public).

Using these definitions, Wikipedia, BBC, and Coursera are all sites (so long accessed from a browser). The Ghost blog, Google Docs, or an accounting software are apps.

Even with these definitions you'll find edge cases and hybrids that don't quite fall into one category or another. Arguably, Facebook, Pintrest and Stackexchange are more sites, but mainly as the state being manipulated is shared and not part of a some business goal (even for individuals).

What to call it?

I have no idea what your product is about and how does it map to the definitions above. But if it does involve a private manipulation of a private business state as part of a user task, you may wish to call it an online/mobile app.


What about "platform" or "system"? Words like that capture the notion that there are several "sub" applications working in tandem to form something broader.

"So, is it an app?" "Not so much an app, as a platform for ______. We're building apps for each mobile OS as well as a web app."

The word "platform" is usually used to refer to the operating system and hardware, but it can also be used more broadly to refer to a base of technology on which other technologies are built. See: http://searchservervirtualization.techtarget.com/definition/platform

  • Thanks, J! Don't know why I didn't think of "platform" but I like it! – David Albee Jun 26 '16 at 1:27
  • 2
    I don't think platform really works here. Platform - "In computers, a platform is an underlying computer system on which application programs can run". So in this case "platform" could be used to describe the mobile device, the web broswer/desktop, etc. but not really the "app" running on them. – DasBeasto Jul 26 '16 at 12:04
  • Good point. "Framework"? Although the second definition on the page you linked is "A platform is any base of technologies on which other technologies or processes are built." so I think the word can also be used more broadly, since the different UIs (mobile, web, etc.) are technologies built to access the same underlying core technology/system. – J. Dimeo Jul 26 '16 at 13:36
  • @J.Dimeo Framework has a very specific meaning in UX, especially in relation to design/development frameworks, so I think it would not be appropriate, or at least it might be confusing to refer to it as such... – Michael Lai Jul 26 '16 at 14:11

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