When you start thinking about developing a website, you start learning about the technology you want to use, the features you want to integrate, and the overall design and user experience. Of course, you want to make it the best, but you also start thinking about whether you should create a separate native app or not. After all, native apps are fast and offer a great user experience.
But then you learn about PWAs, and how several brands have improved their engagements by developing a PWA. If that’s the case, is a native app needed at all? Can PWAs replace native apps?
In this article, we get into the basics of PWAs—what a PWA is, how they work, the difference between a native app and a PWA, and what makes a good PWA.
PWA stands for Progressive Web App, a term used to denote web apps that are integrated with the device using a web browser. Progressive Web Apps can be ‘installed’ on your device—they look and feel like a native app, with features like push notifications, offline support, background sync, etc.
PWAs return better engagement metrics than typical websites. Many companies like Twitter, Starbucks, Nikkei, and Hulu have already shifted to PWAs, and they all report significantly better engagement than their previous non-PWA websites. For instance, Twitter saw a 60% increase in pages per session and a 70% increase in tweets after introducing their PWA. They also reduced their app size by 97%.
Native apps are platform-specific; you can’t run the same app on both iOS and Android or Windows and macOS. Of course, there are shortcuts, but they all have their own limitations. Building and managing native apps for different operating systems rely on in-depth knowledge of different technologies.
On the other hand, PWAs are web-based applications and are integrated into the device using a browser. Most web browsers support the same set of web-based programming languages, so each PWA can work seamlessly across all devices and platforms. You only have to manage the web-based PWA, which looks and feels like a native app installed on the user’s device.
Generally, PWAs serve pre-cached static data when you don’t have an internet connection, but add the elements of a native app such as a home screen icon, a splash screen, and launch the web app without the URL bar.
PWAs have three major components: HTTPS, a web app manifest, and a service worker. Depending on the features you’re including, you may want to use some enhanced web Application Programming Interface (APIs).
All PWAs must force HTTPS to ensure security—most browsers consider non-HTTPS websites as less secure, and it is vital to protect the personal data of the end-users. PWAs can access a lot more data than websites and web browsers, and so web browsers have made HTTPS compulsory for PWAs.
A web app manifest is a component that adds native app experience into PWAs. It’s usually a file named manifest.json, and it includes the app appearance configuration such as home screen icon, splash screen, start URL, display mode, background color, theme color, images, and icons.
The service worker handles all the background activities and manages different tasks to provide a seamless experience. The service worker manages push messages, notifications, and sync in addition to app-specific services.
Generally, a PWA app refers to the component of the web app that is ‘installed’ on the end user’s device. On smartphones, users can’t tell the difference between a PWA and a native app as they all look the same on the app drawer. On desktops, PWAs appear as shortcuts.
A PWA site refers to websites that are built with Progressive Web App development technology. Pinterest, Twitter, Hulu are all examples of PWA sites.
Performance and usability are at the core of any online experience. The whole point of PWAs is to compete with native apps with a seamless, fast experience coupled with a user-friendly interface. Slow-loading websites are losing customers and SEO rankings and experiencing high bounce rates, and PWAs come as the solution to most of these problems.
A good PWA launches fast—the splash screen won't appear for more than a couple of seconds, and it will display the home page without any delay. Users will never wonder whether their interaction with the app was registered or not.
One way to improve the performance is to pre-catch the critical pages that users can access from your home page.
As mentioned earlier, PWAs use relatively new technologies, and not all browsers support all the technologies used in PWA development. Safari browser, for instance, supports only a few functionalities to ensure data security. However, the supported technologies are enough to offer a good user experience.
When building a PWA, make sure that you use the simplest of technologies. One way to counter the lack of support is to identify the core functionalities, make them available using simple technologies, and then enhance the experience when possible.
A good PWA adapts to different screen sizes without compromising on usability or user experience. Smartphones, laptops, and desktops come in different screen sizes, and it is necessary to make sure all the content and features of your website are usable at all viewport sizes.
However, if your website offers complex functionalities, it may not be possible to include all of them on smaller screens. You can rearrange the content on different viewport sizes; you have to prioritize which functionalities to include if that doesn't work. Starting small and going large actually helps in such cases.
Since PWAs are platform-independent, your app must be equally usable with a mouse, keyboard, stylus, or touch. Input methods should not depend on the viewport size either—even small screens should support mouse and keyboard.
A good PWA also supports input-specific controls and shortcuts. For example, pull-to-refresh is specific to touch input, and you can use it to enhance the user experience.
It is obvious, but having an offline page and offering the content even when the device is offline can have a significant impact on user experience. You should never show the browser’s default offline page—it should always feel like a native app.
You can display the previously cached pages and content when the device is offline to enhance the user experience. It’s always better to let users browse through the content than to display a ‘you’re offline’ notification.
PWA users engage better than website users—when the user installs the PWA on their device, they see your brand logo(or the app icon) more often. The app runs in a separate app window and appears in recent tasks, just like any native app. For these reasons, PWA users yield better engagement metrics than website visitors, often at parity with native app users.
The benefits of making your PWA installable include more repeat visits, longer session times, and higher conversion rates.
Progressive Web Apps are already proving to be the future of websites. Yes, they have their limitations at this time, but they do offer a significant improvement in user engagement, experience, and conversion rates. And, that is exactly why many businesses are turning their websites into PWAs.
Starbucks or Uber are some good PWA examples. If you are interested in learning more about PWA, continue reading “When to Develop a PWA? 10 Pros and Cons Before Building a PWA”.