By Andrew Falconer
Brands today have a wide array of options when it comes to formulating a digital and mobile experience technology strategy. Like most decisions involving technology, there are many solutions that reach the same result, but those decisions can cause unintended consequences for users and how they engage with your brand. Specifically, one overlooked area that brands should carefully evaluate is their overall mobile app experience strategy.
Over the past ten years, mobile devices and their related app UX/UI patterns have reached a relative state of maturity. But one approach that continues to evolve are websites capable of acting more like native apps. This approach is known as a Progressive Web App (PWA), and it has been gaining ground on the more familiar native app strategy for serving mobile audiences. As mobile browser technology and standards have advanced, more and more brands are discovering the benefits to adding a PWA approach to their mobile experience strategy.
So, what’s the difference between a PWA and a native app?
A PWA is a website that takes advantage of certain web standards to enable that site to act more like a native app (but using a web browser and modern HTML5 standards and APIs). These standards include the ability of the browser to recognize that the site is configured as a PWA via a manifest file, the ability to store data and core app interface components offline, to provide the user with some measure of functionality without a network connection, to allow a user to add an icon to their home screen, and to send users updates or reminders through their device’s native notification system.
Native apps are typically installed through Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store or even your company’s internal app store. Native apps are compiled application bundles that install the full codebase onto the device and will have access to the full range of device features made available to it by the software development kits provided by the operating system platform. Users expect native apps to still work even if their device can’t access the Internet.
A great example of native apps is email functionality—I can still read emails that have been downloaded to my phone through a native app, but if I try to open gmail.com through a browser and don’t have a signal, I won’t be able to read my email. In this scenario, a native app is clearly more useful.
With the emergence of PWAs, however, the gap between capabilities available within the browser and native apps is rapidly closing.
As brands evaluate the best mobile app experience and approach, here are some key criteria to consider.
1. User needs and desires
Your mobile strategy should continue to be focused on real user needs and desires, and which technology solutions can best serve those needs. How can this technology help your company more effectively engage users? When is it appropriate for a brand to encourage a user to transition from a passive or casual user, to a power user? How does your product’s holistic user journey support these decision points?
So before you go all-in to the latest trend or product, marketers should be considering the end goals for the experience—and how those goals are best reached—rather than the form factor of website vs. native mobile app.
2. Goals and audience
Will your experience or app focus on a specific audience, or are you trying to reach the broadest possible set of users?
A native app approach may be appropriate if your product involves deep or frequent user engagement, and you anticipate providing a service that users will want to integrate into their daily lives. This also means you’re providing continual value to your users through frequent interactions.
An important consideration with native apps: The amount of time users spend on their devices has increased, but the core group of apps they spend their time in has remained about the same. This “winner-take-all” ecosystem of mobile app engagement often means a successful native app with broad audience engagement is about as common as a winning lottery ticket.
If you’re a typical mobile user, you probably have a couple dozen of these apps that dominate your time spent on that device (typically over 80%). The rest of that time is spent on various mobile web experiences, where engagement can be very broad but is often shallow. Users have shown they have a very different expectations for the mobile web, where you typically have about three seconds to get and retain a user’s attention before they task switch into one of those core apps commanding their attention (hi, Facebook!).
On the other hand, if your goals are broad reach and mass accumulation of users, PWAs can be highly effective. PWAs allow users to quickly access your service or product and information about your brand, therefore accomplishing much of the same native app experience with far less friction.
If your brand tends to provide content-heavy experiences, you can greatly benefit from a PWA approach. With a PWA, you’ll serve double duty as a mobile website for devices that don’t yet support the standards that enable PWAs, while providing more robust app-like functionality and features for those that do. Some examples of brands using a PWA strategy effectively:
Aliexpress is Alibaba’s B2C e-commerce site; it achieved broad reach and improved engagement by building a PWA mobile experience.
- Increased new user conversion by 104%
- Increased time in app by 74%
- Doubled site pageviews
Forbes just recently rolled out a new PWA experience to replace its native mobile application to improve the overall app performance and to lower the friction to engaging with their content.
“The new mobile page loads completely in eight tenths of a second, considerably faster than nearly all other news media sites. Forbes’ new technology approach will enable the site’s more than 38 million monthly mobile readers to save anywhere from 2 to 10 seconds with every pageview.”
Lyft is currently working on a PWA that will have the same features as their native apps.
- Initial PWA load is less than 1MB, compared to 17MB for their Android app and 75MB for their iOS app.
- No app store friction; discovery and access is just a website.
- Single codebase to maintain.
3. Transitioning users from website to app experience
Every brand needs to question: how realistic is it to ask users to behave differently when moving from a web experience to an app?
Mobile web users are often prompted to access content through a native app instead, but these prompts often create a barrier to engaging with the very content or experience you’re trying to get users to read or interact with. Determining when in that user journey to offer the transition to a power user (native app user) is arguably as important as the efforts to acquire new users.
And proving value—or enough for a native app user—has proven tricky. Time spent in native apps has grown year-over-year, but the number of core native apps users engage with has remained static. It’s a big commitment to ask your audience to make that transition, and fewer apps are getting more of a user’s time. A PWA strategy can give you the best of both options: lower discovery and engagement friction, with the ability to provide a long-term experience for your dedicated users.
4. Device features that impact decision making
Device features that typically have only been available to native app developers are increasingly available through web browser standards and HTML5 APIs. While Apple’s Mobile Safari browser doesn’t (yet!) support a couple of the key standards—namely the manifest file and background service workers—that make PWAs behave more like a native app, your underlying experience is still a website, which will work just fine in Safari.
Another potential benefit of a PWA approach is the ability to repurpose UI and UX work that has already gone into your responsive website, giving you a head start to organizing your experience into a Progressive Web App.
Depending on your specific experience requirements, PWAs may not have complete access to the native device features your app depends on. In this case, native apps are still the right approach. But if a primary driver for building a native app is that you think users expect you to have one, it may be time to rethink your approach and consider PWAs in your overall mobile experience strategy.
Overall, brand leaders should be aware of the many technology paths available to arrive at engaging and successful experiences, and as long as user needs are prioritized in development, brands will have a more successful results.
Andrew Falconer is Associate Partner, Technology at VSA Partners. Andrew has 20 years of experience as a web developer, leveraging a wide range of technologies to create meaningful user experiences. Andrew leads the VSA Development Discipline and works across the Technology Practice to evolve VSA’s capabilities, ensuring consistent delivery of client- and server-side code and best practices for VSA clients. Since joining VSA in 2010, Andrew has led VSA development teams on a range of projects for IBM, HHMI, Harley-Davidson and CME Group.
Contact Andrew at email@example.com