A woman uses and app on her mobile device. Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Progressive Web Apps: Smarter Than Your Average App

Whenever a new tech trend emerges, there’s a period of cautious evaluation. Some things are easy to spot as flash-in-the-pan trends: They burn bright, but the tech community quickly figures out they’re more gimmick than anything else, and they disappear as suddenly as they appeared.

Others take a slower burn: They’re evaluated over a longer period of time, proving their worth as they steadily gain ground, followers, and market share.

The majority fall somewhere in between: People express some interest and enthusiasm at the outset and they achieve moderate traction for a period of time before being replaced by the next, more relevant solution or offer.

But there’s one more category that stumps and defies: Some tech trends appear and strike such an obvious note of excellence that folks — somewhat counterintuitively — hesitate to get fully on board. They fear they’ll turn out to be a gimmick like so many others, so they hold off on investing, certain the other shoe will drop eventually. And the din of incredulity grows steadily louder—What’s wrong with this? Where are its flaws? I know they’re here somewhere!—until one day it stops altogether and the tech community collectively wakes up wondering what took so long for everyone to get onboard.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) fall into that camp. Few people realise this, but it was over a decade ago, with the first iPhone OS, that PWAs made their debut. It was quiet and imperfect and largely went ignored. (The first iPhone had some profoundly impressive innovations, you may recall, so it’s not really surprising that PWAs didn’t end up being the big take-away from that debut.) But now, ten-plus years later, PWAs are all anyone seems to be talking about.

We’ve written before about why a native app — for all its bells and whistles — may not be the best choice in a lot of circumstances. More costly to develop and maintain, not always what the user needs, difficult to version control and nearly impossible to have parity of experiences across platforms: there are plenty of reasons native apps are something of a mixed bag instead of the silver bullet app solution of the future. And that’s part of why we love PWAs.

PWAs are the happy medium between web apps and native apps. They offer users the features found in modern browsers but the experience and operability offered by a mobile app. They are game-changing in their ease and simplicity, when executed on effectively. They are more flexible and more affordable than their native app counterparts, while still managing to be more robust experiences than most web apps.

But there are a couple of more specific reasons we find PWAs compelling.

“A man in a white sweater wearing and using an Apple Watch with a black band” by Crew on Unsplash

Smarter Interfaces

Nowadays, when people hear the term “smart” they immediately leap to AI and machine learning. It’s understandable — the conversations around artificial intelligence have reached a fever pitch in the last 12 months. But “smart” can actually have a lot of meanings. And for us, a “smart” thing is something that makes use of technology to act on your behalf, regardless of whether or not it uses AI.

What does this have to do with our discussion around PWAs? Glad you asked! Two of their most compelling features — push notifications and offline operation — are things that allow the technology to act on your behalf. PWAs are smart.

The first point, the ability to include push notifications, isn’t revolutionary in the world of apps. Native apps have had that feature all along and those notifications are a big part of how Instagram and Facebook (for mobile) and Snapchat have achieved such success.

But with a traditional web app, push notifications are a non-starter. Which is why it is somewhat revolutionary to have them with PWAs. Notifications can suddenly be standard fare with this form of web app, just as they would be with a native app, and that can make a big difference to user experience and engagement.

The second super-compelling feature we mentioned is that PWAs are offline functional. Unlike a traditional web app, which needs connectivity to load or function, a PWA can operate in offline mode. Users can make changes or updates within the app the same as they always would, and when the device is back online later, it will function as though it was always online. Information saved, updates and changes in effect.

Imagine you’ve got a workplace app in a manufacturing setting. Device connectivity is typically spotty on the manufacturing floor, but the need to regularly update inventory or line information is paramount. A progressive web app would be the perfect solution, offering offline operability that could sync when connection is restored.

There are countless other workplaces this holds true for as well: forestry, mining, farming, fishing… industries with lots of data and information to share, store and analyze and not a lot of steady, stable connectivity. And it’s not just these specific environments that could benefit from a PWA. Never not working is a fairly desirable state of affairs for any industry.

Consider this: you wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a brutal toothache. You try and ignore it, but by sun-up the pain is too awful and you call your dentist to make an emergency appointment. As you get on the subway, you realize you need to cancel your first meeting of the day and book the morning off for the dental visit. Logging into your company’s employee portal, you’re able to do both of those things and later, when your phone is back online and out of the tunnels, you receive a notification letting you know the time-off has been approved by HR and your revised meeting time was accepted by the other attendees.

A man checks the markets on his mobile device. Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

With a PWA, that experience is seamless. With a web app, you have to wait til you’re back above ground and online again to submit the initial changes and requests, and then you have to check back in throughout the morning to find out if those changes and requests were approved. It’s tedious and inconvenient. But it no longer has to be.

Henrik Joreteg, who developed the Starbucks PWA and is a champion of the PWA cause, makes another compelling point, this one about users and their core goals. “If I’m visiting Portland, I want their public transit app. But I certainly do not want it as soon as I’ve left. If I’m at a conference, I might want a conference app to see the schedule, post questions to speakers, or whatnot. But wow, talk about something that quickly becomes worthless as soon as that conference is over! As it turns out the more “ad hoc” these things are, the better.”

The amount of money and effort that goes into building a native app experience would be wasted on these one-off situations for most people. And as we’ve discussed, a traditional web app wouldn’t be able offer things like push notifications alerting you that your parking is about to expire or that the next session you saved in your conference schedule begins in ten minutes. But a PWA would.

“Once it’s on their device, [users] don’t care whether it’s powered by web tech or is running native code for their platform,” Joreteg notes. “We can now build the same experience and deliver it in less time than it takes to load the typical boring ol’ website.” Web experience, native feel and operability. PWAs offer the best of both worlds.

And maybe most important of all, as Joreteg notes, “User acquisition is hard enough already, the more time and barriers that can be removed from that process, the better.”

With a native app, the user has to find the app in the app store, download it, and then deal with having a massive, memory-hogging app on their device they may or may not use regularly, but which is regularly getting updates pushed to it. It’s not a great end-user experience in a lot of instances.

With PWAs, users get the advantages of native apps (like push notifications), and they can use the app even in non-connective situations (on the subway, in an airplane, on a manufacturing floor), and they get all of that without massively depleting their device’s memory stores. For businesses looking at how to best reach their audiences, progressive web apps are an increasingly smart option.

Business that want to stay connected to their consumers know that being useful in the moment is essential. Part of being useful to your users is about recognizing whether or not they would even want a full app. They might, and then it would be worth it to go the route of the native app. But they might not — so maybe it’s time to consider a PWA?

This statement, taken from an article in UX Planet, sums it up nicely: “If you want to be ahead of your competitors, it’s about time to consider building a progressive web app.”

Thanks for reading. Be sure to 👏 and share the article.

And if you’re interested in finding out more about how PWAs could make a difference for your business, talk to one of our experts today.

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