Offline-First Apps: Why Should Apps Be Made to Work in an Offline State?
Mobile users often experience network or connectivity issues. The article discusses how it can be minimized through offline-first apps.
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People often experience network or internet connectivity issues while traveling, most often when they are on a subway. But not only in this particular case — one can encounter such issues anywhere where the network connectivity is poor. Browsing a mobile application in those situations can lead to a poor and frustrating user experience if it doesn’t possess the ability to work in the offline state. This is where the role of offline-first apps comes into play.
Users carry a strong negative emotion for apps that are not optimized for low connectivity. And do you know latency is the number one reason why people in the U.S. decide to bounce from mobile pages? Though the stats don’t reveal whether it is when they are stuck in a low network area or it is the application’s slow nature despite a good network, the point that we want to put stress on is that a mobile app’s inability to load quickly can leave users highly dissatisfied and compel them to abandon the application. This, along with an increase in churn rate, can result in revenue loss as well. This has pushed "appreneurs" toward adopting an offline-first approach or building offline-first apps to tackle limited connectivity issues.
What Are Offline-First Apps?
Unlike traditional applications which access a database located on servers and provide requested data to the users, an offline-first application is an app that is built to function even without an internet connection so that mobile app users do not face browsing inconvenience even in areas with low or poor network connectivity. They still require a server connection, but need not require a consistent internet connection. The data gets downloaded on the user’s device and can be accessed offline.
Technically, offline-first apps download updates from the server in the availability of a connection, and at the same time, upload changes (made by the users) to the server when offline.
Most app developers do not consider creating an offline experience when designing apps, or consider it insignificant. However, it is also true that mobile networks aren’t always reliable as the network strength varies from region to region. With an offline architecture in place, mobile apps can be powered to address network failure and latency issues. This provides users with the opportunity to browse an application despite low network strength, sync their data, receive updates, and so on. In addition to these, offline architecture offers several other perks such as reducing roaming costs, minimizing data usage on maps, lowering battery consumption, and more.
Generally, offline application development revolves around a few assumptions:
1. Users are offline; experiencing latency issues or are in unreliable network conditions.
2. Fetching the data over the network will be slower than fetching it from a local source.
3. The app users should be informed about the low network conditions but it shouldn’t be a hindrance to their objective.
4. Users’ network and battery status are taken into account, and thus only the data that has changed since the last synchronization should be synced.
Approaches to Developing an Offline-First Architecture
The chief assumption in offline-first architecture is that the data is stored on a local server. However, the way the data is stored, synced, and accessed can vary depending on the server type, architecture, and device.
There are three approaches that are commonly used for an offline-first architecture:
The elementary approach to storing and helping users access data offline is caching. The process involves storing temporary data on a local server or browser to help apps load faster. It makes it easy to access data locally rather than having to re-download it every time you visit the app. Also, this prevents blank screens during the offline state of the mobile app.
2. Edit Offline and Sync Online
This approach is used for apps where users can edit data offline. Once the network connectivity is restored, the marked changes get synced through a push and pull operation.
3. Users Can Edit Other Users’ Data Offline
Under this approach, the data upload or sync takes place automatically. The changes are sent in minor binary format between the device and the server, but only a few operations are synchronized after assessing the information intended for a specific user.
To-Dos for an Offline-First App
An offline-first app is built differently than a traditional mobile app. It requires a different approach and a different mindset altogether. Here are a few points to pay attention to when developing offline apps.
1. Display Message When the User is Offline
If users aren’t shown any information, how would they know that the internet connection is absent for the application to work? In fact, they would think that there’s something wrong with the app only. To streamline things, make sure to notify the app users about no or low internet connection.
2. Make Static Information Available
For applications working with limited connectivity, the static information gets downloaded and stored locally when it loads. This information is not altered, frequently. One such example is Google Maps, which has the option of “Offline Maps” through which users can navigate to places even if they don't have a stable internet connection.
Benefits of Building an Offline-First Application
In times when the internet connection is unstable, slow, or lost, an offline app is a great help. Take a look at some of its benefits:
1. User Experience Isn’t Much Affected
Since offline applications tend to work in low network conditions, the user experience isn’t much affected during the switch in the network strength. This is probably the most important thing from a user as well as a business perspective.
2. All Data Doesn’t Need to be Stored on the Server
Storing all the data on the server calls for a powerful network and stable connection. By developing an offline app, you will have to update the information on the server only when necessary and possible. Just make sure to choose the right local database.
3. Saves User’s Device Battery
An offline app prevents battery level drainage to a certain extent as it doesn’t count in several other things running in the background when the device is connected to a high-speed internet network.
Although offline apps do come to the aid in times of need, they cannot be tagged as a better solution than traditional mobile apps. An offline app isn’t a universal solution to every problem that comes associated with a poor or unreliable network.
Building an offline-first app makes sense because it is likely that, at times, the users would be in areas where the network connectivity is poor. Also, if you are planning to build an app that doesn’t require users to stay online every time in order to use it, going for an offline-first approach can be a pretty good idea.
Published at DZone with permission of Manish Barthwal. See the original article here.
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