Paul Boag Answers: Do You Need An App for That?

Paul Boag is one of the leading web design gurus in the U.K.—he’s the founder of digital strategy and development agency Headscape, and he’s the creative genius behind Boagworld, a blog and podcast for website designers and developers. (It’s a great resource; you should bookmark the site.) We recently chatted by e-mail with Boag about the massive changes taking place in the interactive space right now.

Web designer Paul Boag

First, tell us a bit about yourself—your current role and your background.

I trained as a graphic designer before joining IBM to work in their fledgling digital division. At the time, the web was just emerging and I was lumbered with the job of working with it, because I was most junior and it was seen as having little opportunity for creativity.

I stayed with IBM for three years before joining a dot com. I got to enjoy the dot com roller coaster—from being told I would be a millionaire to eventually firing all of my staff.

Following that, I co-founded Headscape, my digital agency. I work with our clients to help establish their digital strategy. I’m involved in everything from web design to mobile app development to social media. I spend a lot of my time helping organizations form their web teams, run their sites and work out how digital fits into their organizational strategy.

Alongside this I speak, write and host a weekly award winning podcast over at

What are you working on right now that has you really excited?

My most exciting project at the moment is a D.C. law firm. The reason I am enjoying it so much is the challenge of balancing business needs with user goals. Most users come to the site looking for a specific attorney. The problem is that attorneys come and go, so it is important the user builds a relationship with the company and not just the individual.

Creating a user experience where the user can quickly get to the information they want (about an attorney) while still being exposed to the key selling points of the company is a fun challenge.

You’ve been working in web design and interaction since the early 1990s. So what would you identify as the one development (a tool, or a technology, or whatever) that has most radically changed the way people access and use digital content?

I think we are living through the biggest change in the web since its birth right now.

Until recently, the web was generally accessed via laptops or desktops. This allowed us to fool ourselves into believing we could build pixel-perfect design. However, that is changing. More and more devices are now connecting to the web—and that is changing everything. From mobile phones and tablets, to TVs and game consoles, the number of devices accessing websites is exploding. This is not only transforming how people see our content, it also transforms how we have to build websites. That is what I’m going to talk about in my presentation “Do you need an app for that?

So, we’re inching toward 1 million apps being available for Apple devices. Does the world really need another app? Or, more precisely, what kinds of apps does the world really need?

The number of apps in existence is not really the issue. After all, nobody asks if we need another website. The issue is that many native apps would be better off being a mobile-friendly website. Users have limited space on their devices for apps and so only install apps they are using on a regular basis. Unless you are an organization that a user interacts with daily, I don’t think you really need a native app.

What kind of content lends itself best to a native mobile app—and what works better in the form of a device-responsive website?

In my mind, native apps are for specific use cases. Most apps are task orientated (such as sending a tweet). Apps are required when you need speed, access to native features (such as the camera) and are used on a regular basis.

That doesn’t apply to many organizations. Most of the time a mobile-friendly website is more appropriate, cheaper and more user-friendly. I think we’re currently going through an app fad, where people are asking for apps without really knowing why. As the app stores become more clogged with useless apps and mobile connection speeds increase, I’m sure we will see things change.

For the U.S. interactive designers reading this, give us a sense of what the design scene is like in the U.K. right now. When you look around at your peers, what do you find that’s exciting and cool?

What excites me most about the U.K. design scene is that we have come to realize we are not print designers. Because the web was new, we kept turning to print for inspiration and guidance. However, a lot of the print mentality really doesn’t work for the web. Take for example designing in a package like Photoshop. When you first launch Photoshop, the first thing you have to do is define your canvas size. In print that’s fine. After all you know what size your paper will be. However, on the web, canvas size is meaningless. It depends on what device the user is using.

What excites me about the U.K. design scene is that prominent players are beginning to challenge these hang-overs from print and are experimenting with new approaches such as designing directly within the browser.

Design Tutorial
In his design tutorial Do You Need an App for That?, Paul Boag will teach you how to evaluate whether an app is the best solution for your users. Learn about the differences between a native and a web app, about responsive web design, and hear case studies in which other mobile web solutions were the better way to go. Sign up now!