Progressive Web Apps: Are They Market Ready?
Today’s consumers are making more and more of their purchases using their smartphones, and the increasing need for developers to offer a convenient omnichannel experience has sparked interest in progressive web apps (PWAs). Originally introduced by Google in 2015, PWAs have already attracted a lot of attention due to the relative ease of development and sleek user experience they offer. While they very much look and feel like a mobile app, they’re built using web technologies, making them operating system-agnostic. But to what extent do they currently have a business case in e-commerce?
A study by Clutch found that, on average, app users think the onboarding process should take 60 seconds or less. Typically, users must complete at least six steps before being able to use a mobile application. The user must find the app within an app store, download it and set it up before they can begin using it. PWAs, however, allow users to immediately start using them, eliminating the unnecessary downloading and installation stages. The need for regular updates is also removed, as the user’s experience will be enhanced whenever their chosen browser is updated with the latest features and APIs.
Offline capability is another area where PWAs score highly, and this helps to create a more streamlined, frictionless customer journey, particularly for those who browse and purchase across multiple channels. For busy salespeople who are constantly on the move and in need of product information, it can be inconvenient if they’re unable to load or access the information they require. Unlike a traditional web browser or mobile application, PWAs can work without an active internet connection. By using service workers, it's possible to show data that has been retrieved during previous sessions.
Furthermore, it only reloads the information that needs to be refreshed while maintaining the same application shell, providing a smoother, more native experience. Then, once the user has reconnected to the internet, he or she will then be able to easily retrieve the latest data from the server. However, this does mean that PWA users may not be able to place an order while offline, but information will be processed once an active internet connection is restored.
Another useful feature of PWAs is their ability to integrate with other functionalities on a device, whether it be an address book, payment information, camera, etc. However, to what extent depends on the device’s operating system. Apple, for example, still doesn’t give PWAs access to the full functionality of its devices, meaning the technology isn't as practical or versatile for users of iOS. This is perhaps not surprising, as Apple only announced that its devices would start to support PWAs last year. Whether this is because the tech giant is reluctant to leverage a competitor invention or whether it has security reservations remains to be seen.
While PWAs are very much a hot topic in the tech community, they’re not as prolific as it might seem, with confusion surrounding even the definition. Some companies aren’t making the distinction between PWAs and single page applications (SPAs). These are sites that offer a much sleeker user experience. When a user visits a SPA, data is sent from the server to the browser, and as the user explores the site, only the pieces of information that need to be updated are refreshed. While web users would previously briefly experience a blank page while new pages were being loaded, a SPA provides a more native experience and offers the user more continuity. While building a SPA is the first step to creating a PWA, we’re seeing many companies confusing the two. Although they may be offering a PWA-like experience with their SPA, if it comes without the offline functionality, it simply doesn’t fall into the category of PWA.
When assessing what form your next application should take, it’s important that you first identify your customers’ needs and which elements of the online buying process are most important to them, whether that be a seamless omnichannel experience, having the latest product information, or being able to work offline. However, while PWAs in theory should be more accessible than mobile apps and offer a more consistent user experience, the technology is still very much in the process of developing and maturing. While we look forward to seeing how PWAs develop and how they’ll evolve e-commerce in the future, for now, they still have some way to go.
Arno Ham is chief product officer at Sana Commerce, an e-commerce platform for SAP and Microsoft Dynamics that helps distributors, manufacturers and wholesalers succeed by fostering lasting relationships with customers who depend on them.
Related story: How PWAs Empower Retailers to Exceed Customer Expectations