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Will progressive web apps be the next step in customer interactions?

(Image credit: Image Credit: TeroVesalainen / Pixabay)

For many of us, digital transformation has been little more than marketing jargon thrown around at will. However, our recent research makes it clear that the pandemic has renewed the focus on digital, with many brands overhauling their strategies to keep up in the post-pandemic landscape. Whether it’s using analytics to personalise customer interactions or AI-enabled chatbots to supplement traditional customer service channels, we’re finally beginning to see brands make good on the promises of digital transformation.

While the economy has begun to reopen, the pandemic has ushered in irreversible changes to consumer behaviour – eCommerce has surged and brands know they must take advantage of this. In the hunt for the next step in customer interactions, progressive web apps (PWAs) have emerged as a contender likely to bring in transformative change.

Businesses which can make the most of PWAs will put themselves leagues above the rest which begs the question: What do we mean by PWAs and what’s the big deal?

Moving beyond native apps

The reality is that app fatigue has well and truly set in. Consumers no longer want to download and install countless native applications on their mobile devices – most downloads are now to new devices or involve restoring a user’s existing apps on a replacement device

PWAs act as a cure to this fatigue. Announced by Google back in 2015, PWAs have been referred to as ‘experiences that combine the best of the web and best of apps’ – they essentially act as high-functioning and extremely responsive websites.

They are able to reach anybody, anywhere, on any device with a single codebase and should be thought of as capable, reliable and installable – these are the three elements which make them feel more like native applications.

But PWAs are more than just up-to-date web apps. As a web-based application, they can be used across the multichannel landscape and compliment a world where omnichannel rules the roost – they will change the way that consumers interact with brands on the internet, their mobile devices, tablets, desktops and all other eCommerce channels that we use.

The next step in customer interactions?

One of the most prominent benefits of PWAs is their lack of reliance on third-party arbitration. Rather than relying on the likes of Apple, Google or Microsoft, developers are free to publish anything at any time, and it’s up to the users themselves to determine whether it’s worth the clicks. But beyond this, there are common characteristics and benefits which make them vastly superior to native applications.

For a start, PWAs can be built using universal web languages with which every developer is familiar such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. This means they can be built, launched and maintained by existing teams and, once launched, will run everywhere and anywhere, whether it’s on Android, iOS or desktop computers.

What’s more, the user experience of a PWA is second to none in many respects. The foundations of most are built using service workers, by which we mean a script that a browser runs in the background which opens the door to features which don't require a web page or user interaction, enabling them to enhance or augment traditional UX. They function without the need for an open web page or user interaction and allow for other services such as capturing user actions while offline, which can then be delivered when the user is back online. Their caching abilities also mean PWAs can achieve extremely fast loading times – useful in the eCommerce space given the link between page load times and customer conversion. But perhaps the largest UX enhancement of a PWA is its ability to engage customers with push notifications – while these have been available on native applications for some time, this means they can now be encompassed across all devices.

Bringing PWAs into the mainstream

For all the transformative change that PWAs stand to bring to businesses across every industry, that’s not to say they aren’t without their issues. There are various challenges that brands face with deployment which hold back widespread adoption of PWAs.

Part of this centres around an inertia from brands to move away from native applications, who instead take a ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it approach’. Brands typically invest a large amount of money into sophisticated and long-established native apps, and so there can be considerable pushback to make the move. Additionally, there are those in the industry who say that in some respects, the UX is still catching up with native apps – PWAs miss out on some key features such as file system access, and not all user experiences work well within a browser.

The reality is awareness is still nascent when it comes to PWAs. A large number of eCommerce players recognise they are a viable solution to slow page speeds and a poor UX for some native apps. However, the industry will need a critical number of developers working on them to get ahead. This means having a community base where developers can address problems, share best practices and leverage expertise.

Taking them to next level

While the technology foundations are well and truly laid, PWAs are yet to be brought into the mainstream. Part of this centres around an inertia from the developer community to take the technology forward as quickly as they could or should – moving beyond native applications will take a determined brand with a clear idea of what they want to achieve.

We know that app fatigue is here, but becoming an early adopter of disruptive technologies requires ambition and clear direction. Many brands will be waiting for the competition to make the opening moves – they should use this time to consider why they would want to develop a PWA, where it may fit into wider commerce strategies and what new opportunities it would bring. The brands which become the ‘not-so early adopters’ are sure to reap the rewards, and those who take the first steps will likely be the spark which takes PWAs to the next level.

Paul Bidder, Senior EMEA Director, LiveArea

Paul Bidder is the Senior EMEA Director at LiveArea.