There are many web apps around, some good, some bad, some are kind of life-changing while others lay almost forgotten, but making a SaaS app is something definitely bigger; a good programmer and a talented designer are not enough. The concept of Software as a Service looks far ahead and, consequently, the design process itself has to get rid of the burden of the past.
In the beginning, is was just websites, then new web technologies allowed us to create web apps; basically supercharged websites, very focused on one or two features built with advanced script usage. A SaaS solution is one step beyond; a web app even more focused and more advanced. Technically speaking, it is still a website, but built with dedicated technologies and built around just one feature, the service. This does not mean that SaaS is simple; it may be as simple as a mobile application, but also as complex as a full software solution like Google Sheets.
Typical SaaS users are millenials; not just people born in the year 2000 (a common misconception) but the generation born between 1980 and 2000, and they still remain among the top users, but others are starting to creep into their turf. Since it's the millennials who are still working the most with SaaS, let's take a deeper look at what makes them tick when it comes to platforms like this one. This kind of user is less tied down to the monolithic conception of traditional software; they were raised when the internet had already left its pioneering stage and had started to be part of everyday life. They are more focused on the task itself, rather than on the tools. It's a bit a hard to admit, but the former generation has always looked at web-based services as a less powerful version of their desktop counterparts, without actually checking them. Millenials don't have this kind of preconception; they are the ideal SaaS users and, when it comes to choosing the right tools for a project, they are more willing to leave the comfort zone, compared to former generations, often stuck with the same software over the years and abiding by industry standards.
When we design a SaaS solution, we should do it from a millenial's point of view, not because they will be the main target group (well, potentially they are) but because they will naturally embrace our product and feel comfortable using it.
The main concept that points out the difference between a standard website and a SaaS site is intuitivity. At first, one could think that a generation born surrounded by technological gadgets finds itself at ease with lots of submenus and endless lists of nested features, but this is actually a misconception. Badly structured software and clumsy UI/UX are a legacy of the past; nowadays, software design patterns are thoroughly applied, and properly trained UX designers are indispensable in every product team. Millenials expect our SaaS products and platforms to work flawlessly and usable to their full extent in just few seconds; at least for their main function. When you open a car sharing app (on mobile as well as on desktop) you expect to be able to book your car rapidly; if you need to watch a tutorial for that, it's conceptually a failure. A golden rule when designing SaaS products and platforms is to constantly and obsessively focus on the purpose of the service upfront and design everything else around it. Don't let yourself divert from the main path; all other features should have secondary importance and be off the main stage.When we design a SaaS solution, we should do it from a millenial's point of view, not because they will be the main target group (well, potentially they are) but because they will naturally embrace our product and feel comfortable using it.
Not all SaaS products and platforms are single purpose; we may want to build a replacement for a desktop software application and we cannot focus just on one feature. But even in this scenario (pretty different from a single-purpose app), intuitivity, along with simplicity, plays a special role. It's not easy to replicate all the features of a desktop software solution in a browser, so we must concentrate on a subset and develop it to the highest level; less features but properly refined. The onboarding process and the UI are the components into which most effort should be invested. As a general rule, the onboarding process should be easy, fast and flawless, but on a standard website there could be many reasons for a slow onboarding. For a typical SaaS solution, this is one of the most crucial parts of the design process. The UI is another delicate point to handle; desktop software is famous for not prioritizing features whereas websites are full of links and interactive areas. In a SaaS solution, the UI must be very clean and simple: "less is more" is a principle that should be followed. A desktop solution is conceived to be powerful and meant to be explored, a SaaS solution is designed to carry out a specific set of tasks quickly and efficiently.
Even if a SaaS solution may seem like a lesser version of its desktop counterpart, the former has many advantages over the latter that may justify its development. A desktop application lives in the computer and, if we update the operating system there may be incompatibility issues; if we buy a new computer we might have to reinstall the software, also we cannot use it on mobile devices. A SaaS app lives in the cloud and runs in the browser, and if we start working on a desktop computer, we can resume our job on mobile or using a different computer: office, home, or on the road, the software always follows us. Another point for SaaS is that there are a lot of developers specialized in web technologies, and they can work in an existing infrastructure; this keeps costs for developing SaaS solutions lower.
The final choice depends on what our final goals are, and these have to be clearly defined: trying to build CAD software that must challenge the best-in-class… well, it can be an overwhelming challenge and an SDK surely offers more possibilities than web programming languages. Building an app as a SaaS solution must have clear advantages over desktop. It may be a very specialized app that offers the same experience on every device or it could be just a reduced version of a desktop application, less powerful but easier to use and, thanks to reduced development, maintenance and distribution costs, much cheaper (or even free).