In both the Android and iOS ecosystems, push notifications have carved out a place as effective tools to capture users’ attention and draw them back into your app. Yet, beyond the mobile realm, browser and desktop notifications serve as their underexplored counterparts. They, too, can be leveraged to maintain user engagement and interaction, particularly within the context of web applications.
There are many types of push notifications and in-app notifications, and both types can be used across Android, iOS, and web apps. So, what are the differences between in-app vs push notifications? And what is the best way to implement them?
This article provides insights into the different mechanics and uses of push and in-app notifications. But it only scratches the surface of what developers need to understand when integrating these technologies and blending them with other notification channels, such as email, SMS, and chat.
That’s where platforms like Courier come in. Courier is an all-in-one product notification platform designed for developers. It offers a robust API that supports over 50 providers, allowing for seamless integration across all communication channels.
At the end of the article, we’ll provide a variety of developer resources to help you implement both in-app and push notifications — whether you’re an iOS, Android, or web developer.
Diving deeper, let’s look at the unique features and functions of push notifications and in-app messages, highlighting their unique characteristics and optimal use cases.
A push notification is an alert-style message that a user sees on their device but outside your app. They have to have your app installed on their device but don’t necessarily need to have it open or be using it to see the notification.
Mobile push notifications:
These appear on your phone or tablet. They are displayed on your lock screen if your device is locked; if your phone is unlocked, they appear at the top of your screen over the top of other apps.
Mobile push notifications are displayed on your lock screen if your phone is locked or over top of existing apps if your phone is in use.
Browser push notifications:
These, by contrast, do not require the user to have your app installed on their device. To receive these, they need to have a web browser such as Chrome open. They also need to have accessed your site and agreed to a pop-up message that asked if you could send them push notifications.
Browser push notifications are displayed if you have a web browser open and have agreed to receive the notifications on a pop-up message on a website.
Desktop push notifications: These messages pop up in the user’s operating system, such as Windows or macOS. They are often used to warn users the battery is low or prompt them to run a system update or backup.
They can also be used to alert the user to something new happening in an app. In Windows, the Mail app typically sends desktop push notifications for each email received.
Desktop push notifications are displayed in your desktop computer’s operating system to provide you with information related to the system or specific apps.
Unlike push notifications, in-app notifications are messages that a user sees when they are inside your app. These can include any type of message, from ephemeral “toast” messages all the way to a fully comprehensive message notification center or in-app inbox.
These are small pop-up messages that appear over the top of your app for a few seconds and then fade away.
This is a screenshot of a web page for testing toast notifications. When the Send notification button is clicked, a toast notification briefly appears near the top of the page and then disappears.
In-app notification inbox: Modern app development standards often expand the scope of in-app notifications by incorporating an “in-app notification inbox.” This is a notification center for all messages that a user can receive from your app. The basic functionality of an in-app notification inbox is providing a history of all in-app notifications. However, depending on the app, some useful extra features can be added.
An example of how an in-app notification inbox can look.
Courier’s inbox, for example, becomes the central place to view all notification types, meaning that notifications sent by email, by SMS, or to chat apps such as Slack or MS Teams can all be viewed in a single location. This is particularly useful for workflows that involve multiple notification channels, as it ensures no information gets missed.
With Courier’s inbox, all your notification channels are seamlessly integrated. If a user reads an email that is also available in the notification inbox, the message becomes marked as read in the notification inbox, ensuring no messages get read twice.
Some common use cases for push notifications include:
When done well, in-app notifications greatly enhance the user experience. When done wrong, they have the potential to cause endless frustration for your users.
Some reasons you might use in-app notifications include:
For the best user experience, you should use a joined-up strategy for in-app and push notifications. Some notifications are more appropriate as push notifications, whereas others are best sent in-app, and this becomes clearer when combining these communication channels. To give you a flavor of how to decide, here are some examples of when both types of notification might be used together:
Coordinating different notification methods to function flawlessly together is integral to delivering an optimal user experience. This requires meticulous orchestration — sequencing notifications appropriately, selecting the right channels, and ensuring cross-channel and cross-platform awareness.
As developers, we routinely encounter complexities when working across varied ecosystems like iOS and Android. These challenges go beyond basic implementation, encompassing the design of nuanced interactions across different mediums and channels.
For example, if a user engages with a notification in your iOS app, you want to ensure that this notification is marked as read in the in-app notification inbox and that the same notification is not sent as a browser push or toast notification in your web app.
This is why a platform like Courier is critical for developers building notification experiences.
Whether you’re an Android or iOS developer, we have some excellent guides to help you get started with push notifications using Courier. We’ve also got your back if you’re a cross-platform developer using Flutter.
Courier offers an in-app notification inbox for web applications (using React) and iOS and Android apps. For web applications, it also offers toast notifications, which interact seamlessly with the notification inbox. Check out our guides that are specific to each language:
The use cases of in-app vs push notifications differ, but using both together often provides the best user experience, particularly for more complex workflows.
You can get started adding push or in-app notifications to your app using Courier’s various SDKs by following our handy guides above.
As Courier is multi-channel, you will benefit by being able to use the exact same API for your push and in-app notifications (as well as for other channels if you choose to use them, such as email, SMS, Slack, and MS Teams).
Courier is a full-fledged notification platform, so it offers many more features than just a simple notification API:
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