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In-app vs push header

In-App Messages vs Push Notifications: The Differences and When to Use Them

Sarah Barber

August 17, 2023


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.

In-app vs push notifications

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.

Push notifications

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.

Two pictures of a phone screen side by side. On the left is a locked phone, with a push notification visible on the lock screen. On the right is an unlocked phone with an app open. A push notification is visible near the top of the screen over top of the open app.

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.

A web browser with a web page open. Another tab is invisible to a website, “”. Over top of the current web page is a browser push notification that reads, “Order complete via You have ordered 6 cases of bloodwine at a cost of 2 strips of latinum.”

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.

A screenshot of a Windows desktop, focusing on the bottom-right system tray portion of the screen. A Windows desktop push notification from the Outlook email system is visible. It reads, “[From:] Future Dwight Schrute. [Subject:] Urgent. [Email body:] Dwight, at 8am today, someone poisons the coffee. Do not drink the coffee. More instructions will follow.”

Desktop push notifications are displayed in your desktop computer’s operating system to provide you with information related to the system or specific apps.

In-app notifications

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.

A gif screenshot of a web page for testing toast notifications. Two text boxes get filled in: “Notification title: Request for approval from John Doe” and “Notification message: Please click here to view John’s work.” Then the Send notification button is clicked, and a toast notification immediately appears as a small box near the top of the page. It reads: “Request for approval from John Doe. Please click here to view John’s work.” It is visible for approximately five seconds before disappearing.

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 an in-app notification inbox. It is a list of four different notifications in chronological order of when they were sent. The titles of the notifications are bolded, and a snippet of the full text of each notification is visible. Some links within the messages are also visible as clickable buttons. Finally, a time is listed at the side, revealing how much time has passed since each notification was sent. The overall effect is similar to how an email inbox looks. It is implied that by clicking on each individual message, you can read the full notification.

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.

Courier offers off-the-shelf SDKs for web and mobile that make it easy for you to drop a fully functional inbox (complete with company branding) into your app.

When to use push notifications

Some common use cases for push notifications include:

  • Bringing users back to your app: If your user has been away for some time, try offering an incentive or reminding them what they’re missing out on, such as unread messages.
  • Alerting users that they have left an action incomplete: If your user began a task (such as an online purchase) and then abandoned it partway through, you can alert them of this in case they intended to complete the task but got distracted.
  • Alerting users to important things that happened while they were away: This could be a mention or notification from a colleague that requires fast action.

When to use in-app notifications

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:

  • Improving the onboarding experience for new users by guiding them to use parts of your app in a sensible order.
  • Converting freemium customers by offering time-limited special offers.
  • Announcing new features at a time that is most relevant to your users, such as when they are about to do something in your app.

When to combine in-app and push notifications

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:

  • Approval workflow: If a user’s colleague has sent them an approval request, an in-app notification alerts the approver that the request has been sent, and a push notification encourages the approver to take action.
  • Product updates and feature launches: When a new feature is introduced in an app, a push notification alerts users about it. Once they open the app, in-app notifications then guide them through the new features or updates.
  • Direct mentions: In-app notifications notify users in real time each time someone else mentions them in a comment. Meanwhile, push notifications provide a summary of information at suitable intervals, for example, “You had 15 comments on your project today.”
  • E-commerce/abandoned cart: If a user adds items to their cart but doesn’t complete the purchase, a push notification is sent after a while to remind them. If they open the app but still don’t complete the purchase, in-app notifications can be used to provide extra incentives, like discounts or free shipping.
  • Billing reminders: For apps with subscription services, push notifications serve as a way to remind users of subscription renewals, expired payment methods, or failed transactions. Then, in-app notifications facilitate the process and help the user navigate the app.

Courier helps combine your notification methods

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.

How to add push notifications to your app using Courier

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.

How to add in-app notifications to your app using Courier

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:

  • Web applications: adding toasts and a notification inbox to your web application
  • Android: adding an in-app notifications inbox to your Android app
  • iOS: documentation on how to implement the Inbox in iOS


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:

  • Set up your in-app and push notifications to be triggered by events from your customer data platform. (We offer Segment and RudderStack integrations.)
  • Create automations, which are sequences of different notifications with logic around them.
  • Use Courier’s GUI notification template builder to design your notifications.
  • Internationalize your messages so that users in different regions can understand them.
  • Work with Courier in the language of your choice. Courier offers SDKs for many different languages, including Android, iOS, React, and most popular back-end languages.

If you want to give Courier a try, you can sign up to our free tier or get in touch to request a demo or let us know your requirements.

Create Your Free Developer Account

Courier makes it easy to send SMS, email, push and in-app notifications with a single API call. We have a REST API, client SDKs and Docs that you'll love đź’ś


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