Jon Fletcher 2021-02-10

What are PWA’s major malfunction

Chances are you've been on a PWA today without realizing it. Twitter uses a PWA. Forbes, Starbucks, Trivago. Their mobile sites are all PWAs. They are silently taking over the Internet as apps did before them.

But during the great app revolution, when everyone got their first iPhone, apps were all people could talk about. People would proudly show you new apps like they were their firstborn child. 

PWAs are objectively a better phase of the mobile internet. They're lighter, faster, can be installed, and even work offline. For content publishers, this should be a technological leap forward like the invention of the first ball-point pen. 

If PWAs are sweeping over the mobile internet, why are they rarely mentioned, let alone paraded about like a rare Faberge egg? 

This is because better tech doesn't always win the race. Just as VHS beat out the superior Betamax, mainstream success can come down to the stupidest details. PWAs major malfunction has nothing to do with the technology, this time it's an image problem.

The problem with PWAs 

Let's start with the name. There's a real problem with the name 'PWA'. It's an acronym, another triplet to add to the pile of joyless tech terms. 

And it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. It doesn't feel good to say, doesn't stick in the memory, doesn't evoke anything positive or tangible. It's a dry signifier that covers rich functionality with a dust sheet. 

Then comes the actual wording. Let's start with 'App'. The world just spent the last 15 years dealing with apps. From a standing start, we had no idea what apps were, to doing everything through them. 

The one thing that defines apps is that they have to be installed. That's what the 'App store' was there for. And 'App' still means something you download and access through a little icon on your phone's screen. 

For a format that counts not requiring downloads or updates as a major feature, putting the word 'app' in the name is a huge misdirection.

Then there's 'progressive'. In this context, it's almost meaningless. Progressive generally refers to a certain liberal brand of political and social thinking. For the general public, progressive and technology are basically random words joined together through proximity rather than meaning. 

On first hearing, it's easy to imagine users thinking a PWA is a new type of app that contributes less to rainforest destruction or promotes better working conditions in cobalt mines. Organic, low-emission mobile technology. 

The name is really meant to hinge on 'Web'. It's expected to do a lot of heavy lifting for the confusion caused by sticking 'App' in there. Once you get to 'app' you connect the dots back to 'web' and realize that this is a crucial left turn in the usual definition of an app. 
'Ah this isn't an app like I'm used to, it's a web app so I can use it online. And, because it's progressive it probably has a lot more functionality than a normal mobile website. Cool cool cool.
Unfortunately, this thought process is not going to happen in 99.9% of people that hear the name Progressive Web App.

The frustrating problem of adoption 

While sites are adopting PWAs and users are unknowingly feeling the benefits, the lack of awareness is creating a lack of adoption with users. Users that don't know that they are on a PWA can't know the features that are available to them. 

A keystone feature of a PWA is that it can be saved to the home screen and accessed like a native app. For a publisher, creating the doorway to a daily habit like this should be a natural user goal. But, it's not well known, established, or consistent enough to be part of the average user journey. 

If PWAs were called Mobile+ or even something as on-the-nose as Supersites, came with an icon like a blue tick to identify them, users would have accepted and then demanded them as standard years ago. 

Identifying PWAs more clearly also builds a psychological advantage for sites that are PWAs. 

If they're faster, smoother then users can attribute it to something and then try to replicate it. This means either subconsciously or actively seeking out PWAs over regular mobile sites. Particularly when there is a choice of content. 

Apart from a microscopic segment that cares about the mechanics of innovation, users don't care about the workings of technology, they only want the end result. 

There's a reason Google didn't stick with Accelerate Mobile Pages. They packaged it as AMP and added a lightning icon. Users aren't interested in how CSS size limits are applied, they just know that the sites with the Lightning are known to be faster. Even if they barely notice the final result, these sites have a mark to show they are objectively better than others. By choosing the lightning site, you’re doing something right.

To draw more users to seek out PWAs publishers and developers need to make it simple, make it enjoyable to use, and connect the better performance to a single, simple cause. Link the effect of better mobile performance to the fact your site is different from the rest of the mobile web. 

Until PWAs manage to break through into the popular consciousness, there are things publishers can do to promote the cause. Make the experience consistent across every browser and every platform, use UI cues and UX copy techniques to guide users through the features. 

You can read our guide to getting more users to install your PWA here.

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