What is web development and how is it different to software development and web design?

The terms software development, web development and web design are often used interchangeably but there are differences which can be important to understand

IT OutsourcingUPDATED ON May 30, 2022

John Adam K&C head of marketing


4 tiles QA and software testing

Web development is often used interchangeably with software development and web design. But while there is overlap between all three terms, there are also differences in focus that can be important to understand in specific circumstances.

For example, a company that positions itself as a web development agency would be likely to have a slightly different focus to another that styles itself as a software development company. Alternatively, depending on your needs, it might make the most sense to contact companies that describe themselves as web design agencies.

So let’s concisely define the differences between software development vs web development and web development vs web design.

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Web Development vs. Software Development – What’s The Difference?

As a term, software development has a broader scope than web development, which is a sub-sector of the category. Software development can mean the design and creation of any and every kind of code that fulfils a particular function.

That could include the embedded software that we have little or no interaction with but machines and IoT gadgets from cars and smart toasters to robotics on a production line rely on to run. Or it could mean the operating system of a laptop or smartphone, Or a machine learning algorithm.

By contrast, web development is a sub-category of software development and refers specifically to software designed to run on an internet browser. It’s still a rather broad sub-sector and “web development” can mean anything from a simple website of 5 pages, a blog and an off-the-shelf CRM to a sophisticated, cloud-native SaaS product like Salesforce.

But a native app designed for Android or iOS devices, or a Windows app like the desktop version of Microsoft Office, would not count as web development. These apps run directly on the operating system of a device and not via a web browser. Developing native apps usually means using different programming languages, app architecture, tools and technologies compared to those used for the development of web apps.

In summary, web developers are software developers – they both create software. But not all software developers, engineers and architects are web developers. A software developer specialising in developing software built to run on a particular operating system, such as a Linux, Windows or macOS desktop OS, or native mobile operating systems like Android or iOS, isn’t a web developer.

Web development, by contrast, is platform agnostic. As long as a device has an internet connection and a modern web browser installed, the software will run.

Web Development vs. Web Design – Not To Be Confused

There can also occasionally be a degree of confusion between the terms web development and web design. Even Google’s search engine can confuse the two, offering up web design results for web development queries. Or its algorithm is simply responding to user intent and expectations because many people use the two terms interchangeably. But there is a difference.

Web developers have a very different skill set from web designers, though both contribute to the creation of web-based applications and a development team will usually feature both roles.

A web designer’s job is to create the visual or aesthetic appearance of a web application. That can, especially in smaller teams (the roles are more often split for larger projects), also involve designing the user experience (UX), how intuitive and convenient it is for a user to use a web app, as well as the purely visual appearance of an application.

Web designers are not developers, though most senior web designers usually do now need to have a reasonable command of programming and scripting languages including HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP. But the core of a web designer’s work is with design software to create visuals. Front end web developers are then responsible for bringing that design to life as a functioning website using code and tools.

If we use the analogy of a car as a web app, web developers would be responsible for everything under the bodywork and interior of the vehicle – the engineering. Web designers would be responsible for how the vehicle looks from the outside and its interior.

The design has to take into account the car’s electrical and mechanical engineering. For example, it has to leave enough room for the engine, fuel tank and so on. And it also has to take functionality into account. There’s a reason why sports cars have a particular aesthetic and off-road vehicles have another.

A vehicle’s design goes a long way to defining how it handles and what its strengths and weaknesses are. For example, if it is low to the ground or more or less aerodynamic. It is also the design that will make the first impression.

Web design is the car’s shell and surface-level interior. Web development is the mechanics and electronics that make it go. The dynamic between its aesthetics and how everything else underneath supports and interacts with that design is what defines the car. Something similar can be said of a web application.

But don’t web design agencies also do web development?

Web design agencies don’t just create the visuals and UX of web applications for them to then be handed over to a web development company. They build fully functioning websites and web-based apps.

That raises the question of what the difference between a web design and a web development company is, practically speaking? While it’s not a hard and fast rule, the difference is usually a matter of emphasis and focus.

A company that describes itself as a web design agency can usually be said to be design-first. It is positioning itself as a specialist in creating web applications that are outstanding from a design and (ideally but not always) UX perspective.

On the other hand, a company that describes itself as a web development agency is usually development-first. The emphasis is on the functionality and performance of the web application.

A web design agency may well also have very good web developers. And a web development agency could employ fantastic web designers. But the former is most focused on the quality of the design and (hopefully) UI/UX of the applications they build. The latter emphasises the quality of the technology under the application’s hood.

In conclusion

If you want to build a web application, eg., a company website, for which a standout design is a priority but doesn’t involve anything too technologically complex, you should probably work with a web design agency. But if you are building a larger more technologically sophisticated web application, a web development agency is probably best suited.

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