I'm currently sorting out a proposal for an in-house web app build, and design is a factor that I'm thinking through. I expect there's minimal budget for design, but I want it to look good, so some tips here might help me organise a good-looking app for cheap!

Now there's lots of advice out there for website design, but less so on how web apps should be designed differently.

One such point where I think the design differs - clean, flat designs are clearly the trend with public-facing websites, however I find that many business web apps tend to throw in a good handful of bold gradients, shadows, and other decoration into the design. E.g. Harvest and Xero.

Is there a good reason for this? At a guess, it might be easier on users who are used to Microsoft Office's outrageous amount of gradients and shadows. Lots of gradients & shadows = it's business time?

But flatness of a design is just one factor. How should the design for a productivity-first in-house web app differ from a normal, public website?

  • I think there is not difference between "in-house" and "agency-made", "business" and "personal". Design solution can be good or bad. Shadows, gradients, reach textures was a very popular trend. Current trend is flat and minimal. Be in trend or not is up to you. Trends is not affect seriously the quality of design.
    – Vnovak
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 5:53
  • @Vnovak I think design does need to be catered for its intended purpose and users. E.g. the menu design for an accounting application should be dramatically different from the menu on Starcraft. In the latter, users want an immersive experience, but in the former, users place higher weighting on an intuitive and fast design.
    – andrewb
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 6:17
  • startcraft menu, for sure, will be bad design solution for accounting software. I think we are not talking about game industry.
    – Vnovak
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 6:26
  • @Vnovak Definitely, though I suspect that a (much smaller) difference exists between a public website and an in-house web app. Not a problem if you don't think there's any difference, I'm curious to see if others on this site do.
    – andrewb
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 7:39

1 Answer 1


Your business app is not going to be redesigned regularly, particularly if you're saying the current budget for design is low. So ignore the trends. Focus on usability and branding consistency, in that order.

  • Make it easy to use.
  • Make it easy to understand.
  • Make it look like it's part of the company.

If the company uses flat designs everywhere, use that. If there's a mix of flat and drop-shadowed, then use whichever makes the site easier for the end user. But that's really more icing than substance. Your primary goal should be making the app workable.

  • 1
    I like the point about "looking like it's part of the company" - means I can take a lot of inspiration from the existing public website, but give it a more straightforward and functional layout. Good plan!
    – andrewb
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 0:34
  • 1
    @andrewb Consistent branding is really important. You wouldn't send out letters on stationery which didn't have the company logo; why would you have a customized app which didn't look like the company ID? Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 0:44
  • Very good point!
    – andrewb
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 4:03

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