Progressive Web Apps: What’s the Big Deal?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a new user experience that is at the forefront of the way users and companies engage with content via mobile. I’m talking about the revolutionary potential of Progressive Web Applications (PWAs).

PWAs represent an exciting intersection between web browsers and native mobile apps.

Apps vs Browsers: The Dilemma

When it comes to mobile, apps beat browsers. Mobile users spend most of their time in native apps.

You don’t go to a browser to access Google Maps on your phone, you go to an app. But a big problem with software apps is distribution. A website can be searched and used directly without the fiddly and time (not to mention storage) consuming downloading of apps.

That said, mobile users visit around 100 sites per month, whereas most users only download around 1 app per month and the majority of users’ time is spent on their top four or five apps.

Native apps have higher capabilities than websites. They can be browsed offline, send push notifications to users, and make better use of user data. Push notifications alone can have a big impact for your business, increasing customer purchases by nearly 10% and can increase user spend by 16%.

And offline browsing ensures a smooth user experience that will keep users engaged even in patchy signal areas. What’s more, smart data capture can retain user data entered whilst offline. In such a competitive market, anything that significantly improves the data of user’s experiences with your brand is to be welcomed enthusiastically.

So it’s clear that if you could combine the reach and accessibility of the web with the functionality, capability and dynamism of apps you’d be on to a winner. And that’s where Progressive Web Apps come in.

What is a Progressive Web App?

In a nutshell, a Progressive Web App is a combination of a web page and a mobile app. It is underpinned by web technology but has an app feel.

It’s very much a best of both worlds. Unlike a mobile app, it does not need to be downloaded, but unlike a web page it has a host of functionality that makes it simultaneously more dynamic and consistent.

To speed things up PWAs use technology known as “service workers” to cache key resources to enable faster app loading.

Apps are so effective because they offer users a degree of integrated functionality that can’t be provided by a website. PWAs are rapidly closing the gap between websites and apps.

The road to using an app can be a tortuous one for a user, 20% of whom are lost at each step between initial awareness of the app, installation and usage. This means you can lose around 70% of users from app-awareness to use.

User Benefits

The user benefits of PWAs are many and varied:

  • Increased user retention
  • Consistent performance
  • No downloading/installation required
  • Push notifications to maintain user engagement
  • Offline browsing functionality
  • Fast load times
  • Works cross-platforms, including Android or, Apple or PC (though sadly some features don’t work with iOS because Apple is hesitant to support Service Workers at this point in time)

Examples of Progressive Web Apps

The Twitter Lite PWA allows users to open the app and load its data which can then be read offline. This is particularly useful for text heavy sites like Twitter, as well as news sites.

Source: AppInstitute

The Washington Post uses a PWA that pulls in lots of third-party content, which can often slow performance due to the various third party scripts being used. WaPo’s PWA uses Service Worker caching to maintain fast load times and stay resilient.

And the WaPo take advantage of the Offline Google Analytics Library to gain insights into user metrics generated from offline app usage. This avoids the nasty habit that some web browsers have of forcing a page reload whilst offline (an upshot of this can be the Google Chrome “downasaur” which is at least as addictive as Twitter.)

Beauty company Lancôme redesigned their website as a PWA, leading to a 17% boost in conversions, with push notifications leading to an 8% increase in conversion rates for recovered carts.

Benefits of PWAs for Businesses and Developers

PWAs don’t need to be sent to an app store for approval. In fact, they don’t need to be sent to an app store at all.

PWAs have helped companies like Google and FlipKart boost their conversion and retention rates by anything from 50-100%.

Around the world, mobile has the lion’s share of time spent online according to Smart Insights. This means that the importance of creating user experiences which can seamlessly straddle desktop and browser functionality and work across all platforms cannot be overstated.

Data from The Guardian shows that, on an average weekday, just over 40% of its visitors are reading their site via a desktop, with the rest using tablets or smartphones. That figure drops to under 30% on weekends.

This means that it’s absolutely crucial for sole traders, small businesses and professionals to ensure their ebsites are mobile friendly and have multi-platform functionality. This is reinforced by the fact that Google prioritises mobile friendly websites in its search results. Well, a PWA can solve all these problems.

Limitations to PWAs

One road block in the wide scale uptake of PWA’s is Apple’s resistance to support Service Workers on iOS. This inhibits the functionality of PWAs on iPhones and iPads, such as push notifications, home screen installation and, crucially, offline browsing.

There are some workarounds for developers however, such as wrapping PWA’s in a native app’s skin to allow push notifications, and manually adding home screen installation.

Despite the limitations of using PWAs on iOS, there’s still an argument for doing it anyway. Lancôme’s decision to rebuild their website as a PWA saw iOS sessions increase by 53%.

Progressive Web Apps: The Way Forward

Performance matters. The majority of customers who experience poor URL performance say they’re less likely to buy from the site in future.

There are many challenges facing small businesses in today’s omnichannel environment.

The trick is to keep an eye out for developments that will give you an extra edge.

Getting a Progressive Web App for your business is a step that could do just that. There’s an exciting future approaching!

Ian is the Founder and CEO of Appinstitute, one of the world's leading DIY app builders. Naylor has founded, grown and sold 4 successful internet and technology companies during the past 18 years around the world. An expert authority on mobile app trends, Ian is a regular speaker at numerous industry events. Appinstitute has been named in the top 50 creative companies in England by Creative England.