Creating a Web App from Scratch – Part 1 of 8: Basic Idea and Design

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👋 Hey there! We want to give you a heads up that the source code that accompanies this series is no longer available to download. We still think there are valuable bits of information to get from the series, but given that we’re 10+ years down the road, we also think it’s worth considering a modern PHP framework (like Laravel) or even a JavaScript framework (like React or Vue) to create a progressive web app.

Today we begin Part 1 of an 8-Part series on building a web application from absolute scratch to a complete product. I am going to kick things off by introducing the idea, and then I will be handling the design, UI, and general front-end stuff. We are going to be going back and forth from here over to my friend Jason Lengstorf’s site Copter Labs. Jason will be handling the back-end stuff like application planning and database stuff. At the end of the week, we’ll unleash the actual working application for you. Here is the plan:

Article Series

  1. Planning the App: Basic Idea and Design
  2. Planning the App: Database Architecture and Development Approach
  3. Designing the App: Workflow Map and Photoshop Design
  4. Designing the App: HTML and CSS
  5. Developing the App: User Interaction
  6. Developing the App: Adding AJAX Interactivity
  7. Developing the App: List Interaction
  8. Security & The Future

It’s Easy, Right?

What we’re going to create is a “list app”. The idea being focused on simplicity and usefulness. Sign up for an account, and get started making a list in just a few seconds. Sounds easy right? Even the PHP dabblers out there probably could throw something like this together fairly quickly, right? Well the fact is, no, it’s not that easy.

First of all, it needs to work and it needs to work well. That means good back end code that does what it’s supposed to do and well. That means a good UI that is intuitive, helpful, and pleasurable to use. It means keeping the app secure and users data private. None of these things is trivial.

Through this whole 8-part series, we are going to create an app that hopefully does all these things pretty well. We aren’t out to tell you this is the greatest app ever made, but rather, we are going to use this app as a walk-through journey of the app creating process and hopefully do as many smart things as we can along the way.

The Big Idea

This “list app” is going to be called Colored Lists. Lists (in real life), can be for anything: a to-do list, a grocery list, things to bring camping list… As you finish things, you cross them off. Things on a list may be of different relative importance as well. This makes paper lists potentially messy and inefficient. With a list on a computer, we can make crossing off items just a click and we can make rearranging them a matter of drag and drop. For dealing with relative importance, we can use colorization, which could also be used for things like grouping. Computers and the web are a perfect place for lists.

Sketch It Out

No need to get fancy right away. Here is a very rudimentary sketch of what the app might look like:

Looks like a list to me. Each list item is a long rectangle because the big idea here is to colorize each list item, so putting them inside a colored box makes sense. There are some interactive elements to the left and right of each list item. Those are going to be for accomplishing the basic things we intend people to be able to do with their colored list. Let’s take a closer look.

Early UI Planning

We don’t necessarily want to be talking about specific technologies at this point, but we should be thinking about how the UI will operate, so we can make choices about technology that can accommodate our UI desires.

  • Click-to-edit
  • Drag and drop
  • Two-click delete
  • Automatic saving (after any action)

All this stuff basically adds up to a whole bunch of AJAX. We don’t want to load special screens to do relatively trivial tasks like deleting a list item. That stuff should happen seamlessly, smoothly and with proper feedback in response to mouse clicks without page refreshes. In a sense, we are creating a one-page app, where the majority of interaction with this app happens on a single page. This is certainly by design, and not trying to adhere to any particular fad. Lists are easy and quick, that’s why they are useful. If this app is complicated, it’s usefulness is diminished and nobody will use it.

The Screens

Just doing some quick brainstorming of the idea so far, we can come up with quite a number of “screens”, or states the application can be in.

  • Homepage
    • Logged out = Intro/Sales Page
    • Logged in = Your list
  • Log in page
  • Settings page
  • Lost password page
  • Account activation page
  • Emails

Yep, even emails should be considered a part of the “screens”, as they are a vital part of the process and interaction with an app.


People love “features”. Things that your app has that other apps don’t have, or that yours does better. This is just as much for marketing as it is for your actual product. All the fancy AJAX this app will have is certainly a feature, but that stuff these days is getting more and more expected rather than a feature. The one feature that we will focus on with this app is “public sharing”. Each list will have a unique URL that can be publicly shared. A visitor visiting this URL can see the list in its exact current state, but not interact with it as far as editing/adding/deleting.

Moving On

Now that we have the idea in place of what we want to build, in the next part we’ll dive into looking at what this is going to take in terms of server-side technology.

Series Authors

Jason Lengstorf is a software developer based in Missoula, MT. He is the author of PHP for Absolute Beginners and regularly blogs about programming. When not glued to his keyboard, he’s likely standing in line for coffee, brewing his own beer, or daydreaming about being a Mythbuster.
Chris Coyier is a designer currently living in Chicago, IL. He is the co-author of Digging Into WordPress, as well as blogger and speaker on all things design. Away from the computer, he is likely to be found yelling at Football coaches on TV or picking a banjo.