Identifying a Progressive Web App (PWA) Opportunity

Serving your mobile users

As mobile usage skyrockets many companies have rushed to build native mobile applications, only to discover that creating a successful native app can be harder and more expensive than they expected, especially in comparison to the web platform they already have.

Mobile app development isn’t easy and technical talent is hard to find and in-demand. It requires significant effort to maintain mobile products, as major mobile updates need to happen at least twice for the two dominant operating systems (iOS and Android). This means even if a large and growing proportion of your traffic is mobile, it may not correspond to great returns on a native mobile app investment.

Yet if your mobile traffic keeps rising ‘do nothing’ isn’t a reasonable strategy. Simply being a responsive web property isn’t going to allow your site to compete with native apps as a web destination for mobile users.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are an emerging technology that deliver a user experience that’s like a native app, but rely on the mobile web browser. They can work offline, have a responsive design, and may be launched from the mobile desktop via a shortcut.

A progressive web app provides an app-like user experience that is low friction and is built using modern web capabilities and hosted on the web and can become an app on the user’s system over time. – Stack Overflow Tag Info page

While they can’t provide the full immersive experience of a native mobile application, they hold the promise of being faster to build and deploy. This tradeoff between native experience and development effort means that there’s a unique opportunity for PWAs to be a viable solution to provide an excellent mobile experience while avoiding the drawbacks of native app development.

Let’s look at three scenarios in which PWAs represent a promising alternative to developing native mobile offerings.

1. Rising mobile traffic

A basic web analytic metric is mobile traffic sources. Looking at your data aggregated by month over the past three years (assuming you have a record that long) it is possible to identify how much of your traffic comes from mobile users and whether there is a significant trend in that traffic. 

The more quantitatively-inclined product manager may want to detrend their data from the overall rise in web traffic. This will allow better understanding of whether your mobile traffic is increasing at the same pace as the traffic on the web as a whole, or if your users are increasingly likely to be mobile users than average.

By allowing a native-like experience, a PWA can provide additional value to your mobile users when your analytics indicate they are a large and burgeoning portion of your audience.

2. Lack of substantial benefit you can only get with a native application

Thoroughly explore what a mobile app will give you that a PWA can’t and whether these features provide significant value to your user. The majority of applications won’t need the phone’s accelerometers, 3-D touch, address book access, and so on. Significant value to the end user may be provided by PWAs with the added benefit of being easier to maintain than native mobile apps. If you are looking for what is essentially a mobile-optimized webpage with retention-focused features like desktop install, notifications, and offline functionality, a PWA can fulfill your needs.

3. Link-in Traffic

Alex Russell describes PWAs as “ …zero-friction, zero-install, and easy to share.” PWAs do not have an App Store standing between the user discovering the app and getting value from it.

Your mobile traffic sources and product use-case may indicate a PWA opportunity when link-in data suggests users are coming to your site from social platforms. Content-driven webpages are a prime example. Their users are often being fed links through social platforms, whether they’re networks like Twitter or Facebook, or messaging services like chat and email. PWAs mean your users can immediately enjoy an app-like experience without the download / install process getting in their way, along with retention-focused features like notifications and homepage icons.

PWAs are a nascent web technology at this point in time. But as they become established, I anticipate they will come to occupy a neat middle ground between native apps and web pages, offering the key user retention benefits of mobile apps with less development effort.