Progressive Web Apps: Worth Their Weight In UX

When it first became possible to go mobile, people were excited. Carrying the power of the Internet in your pocket was mind-blowing. Businesses responded to this enthusiasm, asking their web developers to build separate mobile websites that would be graphically manageable on a tablet or phone. These early mobile sites suffered from slow loading and connectivity issues, and before long, native apps offered a tempting alternative.

The Apple App store opened in 2008, only one year after the first iPhone launch. Both mobile web and native app technology continued to develop along parallel but separate paths, and abundant “Native vs. Mobile Web” comparisons sprouted up within tech forums and publications.

Each of these options meets a different set of functional needs, and dual approaches, for a while, seemed cumbersome. But it’s the nature of technology to resolve double pathways and to discover a single integrated channel, moving forward. Starting about three years ago, that integration began to happen. The unifying technology is called a progressive web app (PWA). And with its early-stage kinks straightened out, it’s trending in a major way.

How PWAs work:

PWAs are websites that communicate with features on your mobile phone. They also use a JavaScript “service worker” technology, enabling some of their functions (such as push notifications and cached content) to continue working even if you’re offline.

PWAs are like mobile websites.

There are several ways in which PWAs promote the convenience of a regular mobile website:

  • Reach: In highlighting the flexibility of PWAs at Google’s 2017 I/O conference, product manager Sam Birch pointed out that mobile websites receive 11.4 million unique visitors each month, whereas native apps receive only 4.0 unique visitors.
  • Launch speed: PWAs are websites, so they don’t have to go through the app store approval process. They allow businesses to develop a mobile presence more rapidly.
  • Low friction: Users can immediately begin interacting with the PWA, and no  downloading (or subsequent updating) is required.
  • Browser-independent: Users can access the PWA from any mobile device. It gets built once, and works anywhere.
  • Searchable: Like any website, PWAs can be found through search, and links can be shared.

PWAs are also like native apps.

PWAs also behave like native apps in several crucial ways. Here are a few:

  • They have the same sticky engagement factor as native apps: Google’s numbers show that users stay engaged with their native apps for far longer than they do on mobile web sites. With a PWA, they have this native-like experience as soon as they land on a website.
  • Device actions: Push notifications and an icon on the home screen give PWAs some of the same advantages as native apps when it comes to capturing users’ attention.
  • Home screen presence: Users have the option to install an icon on their home screen, increasing their relationship with the company.
  • Offline content: The Financial Times uses a PWA, and it syncs with the user’s device while online. Later, the user can read FT articles (or listen to an FT broadcast) on their phone even while offline.

Already have a mobile site and an app? PWAs are still something to consider…

If you substitute a PWA for your current dual digital presence, every user gets the benefit of both sets of functionality. Someone who lands on your PWA for the first time will immediately have a deeply engaging experience. Even users who would never consider going to the app store and downloading native apps — and there are a lot of people in that category —  will be able to have an equivalent experience. Additionally, you’ll reaching your audience on whatever device they happen to be using, offering a high-quality, personalized experience.

Freedom from rounds of app store approval for future upgrades doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Not to mention you don’t have to constantly convince your users to download the latest version.

PWAs weren’t available sooner because we weren’t ready.

Until recently, our physical infrastructure couldn’t have supported progressive web apps. On the the mobile phone side, PWAs rely on ever-increasing processing speed and diversified functionality. The improved wireless infrastructure is also important because it allows for rapid transmission speed and reduced latency. Now that we have these factors moving forward, at speed, it’s easier to go progressive.

Progressive enhancement provides more UX insurance.

Developers create a single version of the PWA, using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It will behave the same on every device. The updating process is based on a “progressive enhancement” approach. This means that advanced functionality is automatically available as browsers become able to use it.  Revisions and updates can be made as they can on any website, without any disruption of user experience.

Everything is personal–we like it that way.

Personalization is a big part of what consumers crave, and PWAs deliver a personal user experience without the friction of having to go to an app store and download a native app. With the Forbes PWA, for example, the user can specify what topics they’re interested in, and only relevant content appears, going forward. Speed is also a vital element for users, and PWAs load significantly faster than mobile sites.

There are some great role models driving the future of PWAs.

Online leaders achieve their success by always being ready to embrace vital new technologies. Recently, some of these leaders have shared some exciting results after transitioning to PWA experiences. A few examples:

  • Alibaba, the world’s largest B2B marketplace, has adopted a PWA. They report a 76% increase in total conversions after this change, as well as a 30% increase in active users on Android devices, and a 14% increase on iOS devices.
  • Flipkart, India’s biggest e-commerce site, switched to a PWA and found a 40% higher rate of re-engagement among its first-time visitors.
  • Lancome, the international luxury cosmetic brand, showed a 53% increase in mobile sessions and a 17% greater conversion rate. 

The catchy PWA tune helps drown the “native app vs mobile web” noise. If you’re interested in exploring a powerfully engaging, cost-effective method of connecting with your users, a PWA is a solution worth the investment.

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