A Simple What's What: PWA


One of the best resources for e-commerce today is the PWA, or Progressive Web Application. These function between the lines of classic website and mobile application, offering valuable features. I’m aiming to offer a quick, no fluff explanation of what it is and what it has to offer.

Some Tech Details

Although sometimes people are concerned by having App in their name, PWAs are truly just a bit more advanced of a website. They utilize different technologies than standard websites, such as Service workers for example, to provide features for a stronger web presence. They also are more secure, always operating under HTTPS.

Service workers are the handiest bit of the PWA. They create a cache of the data and network requests providing the device with a starting base of information to come around and access immediately the next time that site is run. 

How It Translates to Benefit the Users

These differentiators are typically low cost to build in both time and resources and their benefits are outstanding. Since service workers allow a cache to be built, the site can now run in low connection or even no connection whatsoever. If you’ve ever been in line at the House of Blues, desperately trying to get your e-ticket to load before you get to the front, then you can understand just how valuable something like this is. Same for someone who might be shopping on a subway, having their signal flicker in and out. Rather than losing their purchase as a whole, the PWA could maintain enough information to allow them to continue their flow.

More generically speaking, this also means a lightning fast experience. The user can always see the last bit of data they had load in before it’s updated, making page loads take milliseconds in great conditions.

If you’re even a bit technically savvy, you’re probably asking how this speed is possible on the initial load and it really isn’t - you caught me. The first load of the site will be creating the grounds for this cache, so it actually will be considerably slow. PWAs do have a solution for this one as well. A basic technique of mobile native apps is to use loading states, which visually suggests the building and loading of the page. This technique makes the load feel much faster than it is and extends the user’s patience with the load. Again, the PWAs lightweight and flexible build allows them to utilize this same feature.

Access to Push APIs is a significant feature for the PWA. These little reminders typically encourage users to return for reasons ranging between new promotions or abandoned carts. Google even features a few mini case studies to showcase successes, like Lancome seeing an 8% rise in recovered carts through Push Notifications.

Mobile native apps don’t show up in web search results simply because they can’t. They aren’t websites, so stores can’t have their products be searchable from the web. Whereas the PWA is website, they are capable of SEO. For a while it was believed that Google even provided a bump to search results for all PWAs, but it’s since been debunked. Still, having your site being crawlable is a fantastic basic to have. Although mobile native apps do have clear advantages, this isn’t their strength.

A Couple Pretend Benefits

One of my pet peeves in this subject is the incredibly long list of benefits you’re given when you research PWAs. The reality is a lot of these can be done almost, if not just as easily, with standard sites or mobile native apps.

Responsive or mobile first are typically tossed around as their best features but thats a bunch of bologna to me. Responsive development is very accomplishable for all sites and only getting easier as CSS ages. CSS Grid Layout is an amazing example of the flexibility that comes standard in website design. Mobile first itself is a concept that I’ve yet to find strength in. Mobile is extremely important and it’s importance is growing every day as we become more technically focused as a population. However, I strongly believe all breakpoints are valuable and personally I find it easier and more advantageous to design for each one specifically. Content should be crafted to the breakpoints and utilize where the user’s attention will now settle. I suppose I can save this debate for another day!  

PWAs allow an ability to download the app to the homescreen of your phone. This is usually on the top of the list for advantages, especially those looking to curb the idea of having a native app developed. Truth is, this is utilized by only 6% of the people who use a PWA. They also allow this on desktops, one example is utilizing Chrome Apps. I haven’t found much on this feature’s popularity itself, but I’ve asked around a bit and most people don’t even seem aware of it. 

Where This Differs From Mobile Native

Now this really isn’t meant to be a PWA vs. Mobile native smackdown, but I felt it’s valuable to site a few key differences in user experience. First that mobile native needs platform specific development. No out of the gate access here, if you build for iOS then only iOS users can access. If you want to expand the reach, you need to develop for Android as well. 

Mobile native gets it’s reprieve with heightened customer engagement. Most designers, marketers, or POs know the whole bit of “your top 20% of user produce 80% of revenue”. This repeats in that your most loyal customers will be app users. They’ll download the app, they’ll keep the app, and they’ll use it.

It All Comes Together

This really boils down to their relationship: they’re perfect companions. PWA has a greater breath of the audience but MN is stronger for the loyal, dedicated shoppers. The PWA welcomes and tends to the masses, it fits every generic need. The mobile native apps are the elite fighters, they tend to the most dedicated and can even create an environment that at the very least, feels personalized to the user. For the best experience, you'd have both fighting in your leagues. If you need to cut it down, PWA is typically a better bet.