Mobile, Mobile Apps

“What are the best practices to optimize retention in a mobile app?” Answer by @NikkiElizDeMere

First, let me state some fun facts.

  • Last year, there were more than 20 million apps on iOS App Store and 3.5 million on Google Play.
  • In 2017, the average person had 80 apps on their smartphone – but, only used half of those apps on a monthly basis.
  • The odds of someone becoming a long-term user are really slim. Only 29% of app users continue using any given app after 3 months.

In that landscape (appscape?), retention is an enormous challenge. And a lot of SaaS companies are trying techniques in Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, using push notifications and emails as “external triggers” to get people to essentially practice going to the app and building positive associations with it. Almost like building muscle memory.

Or an addiction.

But let’s look on the sunny side of the street (while acknowledging that the shady side is really dark) for a moment.

One of the ideas in Hooked that I like most is “habit testing” your product. The Habit Testing process places a lot of emphasis on understanding “Who your devotees are,” in addition to “what part of your product is habit forming, if any” and “why those aspects of your product are habit forming.”

Understanding your customer is where every retention effort should start.

Talking to your best customers to find out why they use your product, how they use it, and when is vitally important. Using that information to tweak your user flow to get your customers to their goals faster and easier is the raw material of retention.

But I would go farther. I recommend interviewing your best customers (or people you believe will be your best customers, if you haven’t yet launched) to find out what they’d really like to do, and how your app moves them closer to that goal.

That goal that lives outside your app.

Let’s take Facebook for example. My goal as a Facebook user is to stay in touch with my friends, feel a sense of community and camaraderie in my groups, and share photos of my cats. Facebook has won my long-term usage by making it easier (mostly) for me to do these things by suggesting “people you may know,” sending notifications when someone posts in one of my groups, and allowing me to upload kitten pics in HD.

And, of course, there are the psychological rewards built in – the dopamine boost of the “notifications” tab, the constant drip of “what will show up on my feed next?!”

But if it didn’t get me closer to my core goals? I could live without Facebook. Happily.

The ways in which you engage your customers should be ways that help them reach their goals. Whether those are emotional goals (I’m bored! I want to see kittens playing in boxes! Hello YouTube!), practical goals (I must budget! Baby needs a new scratching post!), self-improvement goals (I will eat kale at every meal!), or professional goals (I’m going to make Partner in 5 years!).

We can personalize in-app experiences to nudge people towards making real progress. We have that technology. And I predict that, when customers are tired of being manipulated into forming habits that may not be in their best interests, they will gravitate towards apps that are genuinely designed to help them become better versions of themselves.

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