‘Digital media usage time is exploding right now, and it’s predominantly being driven by mobile apps’ says the 2015 Mobile App Report from Comscore. The report goes on to say ‘mobile now represents almost 2 out of 3 digital media minutes, and mobile apps alone now constitute a majority’. Apps dominate the mobile web in time spent – mobile app users spend 18x more time on apps than mobile web visitors.
Mobile apps have become a critical aspect of many businesses, especially in services & utilities. They have also become a part of our everyday lives with many of us turning to them for news and getting things done. But the big picture tells a different story when it comes to apps and user engagement.
Nearly 4 out of 5 smartphone app minutes are spent on the individual’s Top 3 apps, despite the average smartphone user visiting 25 apps per month.
Statistics aside, our personal experiences would validate such. We access only a handful of apps regularly. A vast majority of apps on our smartphones & iPad lie unused, uncared for. Most smartphone users are cautious about downloading an app (hardware space, memory and data usage concerns) and download them only if there is a compelling reason to do so. Also it is clear that a majority of the apps on the App Store or Play Store do not bubble up to the top (discoverability is a real issue) and are plain mediocre or bad. App download size, broadband speeds & costs are also barriers for downloads. Only a small percentage of developers build apps which make money and they do so due to a combination of product quality, smart marketing, money muscle and luck.
Different swipes for different folks
While on the subject of user engagement, some truths need to be borne in mind. Not all apps are meant to be used multiple times a day or even once a day. So what constitutes ‘engagement’ will vary between categories and apps. The chances of using some apps arise only on certain occasions – e.g apps which help file income tax, book train tickets or pick up laundry . Sure, if a person has a frequent need for such niche utilities and services, the use cases will also be high.
So if a person eats out very often the use case for food ordering apps is high. But home repair, of example is unlikely to be an everyday need. So such apps have their own unique strategies to increase the chance of app usage and keep the brand top-of-mind when the need arises. Mobile games, which are meant to entertain especially during moments of boredom or waiting, have their own set of truths. A lot of apps are fighting to be that one go-to app during such gaming moments.
Going back to the basics
In my view, the fact that a majority of apps are plain mediocre should not come as a surprise – that is the norm with most ‘creative’ industries anyway. A majority of the ads, books, movies and music simply go unnoticed. I believe this is so primarily because most creative products are created with a tick box mindset – only a few creators have the passion, strategy and talent (aided by luck) to create an outstanding product.
In order to improve overall user engagement with apps, I feel the ecosystem needs to re-focus on the fundamentals of design – I mean design in the ‘planning’ and focusing on ‘how it works’ (to borrow from the Steve Jobs quote) sense. Some of the questions which need to be asked even before pen is put to paper are:
Why does the app exist?: What pain point or problem does it meet?
What is the true opportunity it taps into?
Can a user make do with a mobile web instead of an app? What can the app do which the mobile web cannot?
What specific job will the user ‘hire’ the app for?
Is there an inherent need for the app to be used regularly? If not, can it be encouraged without being annoying?
The ecosystem of brand owners, strategists, designers and developers need to spend a disproportionately large amount of time on these aspects rather than trying to fix features and design elements after the app is released.
Branded app: double the effort
While the above issues apply equally to branded apps (bespoke apps from consumer brands and services) they have extra hurdles to cross. They need to figure out how the app benefits the brand and what aspect of the brand idea or advertising idea they should reflect in the app. Very often brand owners jump into the app bandwagon without thinking through the need for an app and why it stands a chance of being used regularly. Brand owners in the consumer goods and automobile domains have created bespoke mobile games too. Here the challenge is of a different kind: how can the game beat the attraction and addiction of some of the biggest games in the world which have marketing muscle behind them too? It is not easy for a confectionary brand to create a mobile game which beats Angry Birds, Candy Crush and such like in terms of features and production values.
Yet there are great examples of branded apps done right:
Swedish Snow Rescuers by Audi: In order to drive home the safety features of Audi Quattro, the brand set up the Snow Rescuers in Sweden to provide aid to non-Audi drivers stuck in the snow this winter. Non-Audi owners send out a notification through an app, which will alert the nearest Swedish Snow Rescuer.
L’Oréal Makeup Genius App: the app allows users to try on 4,500 of the cosmetic brand’s catalogue of products using their smartphone or tablet. While make up apps have been around, what seems to be the clincher here is the technology used: augmented reality technology captures facial points in real time so that users can try makeup looks and products on themselves and see them in real time.
Post launch engagement
Assuming there is a need and a market for the app, it is critical to make a good first impression. The app icon, screen shots, app descriptions and right the on-boarding experience make a difference in this context.
Many app owners see notifications as a panacea for all user engagement problems stemming from the belief that a periodic reminder will do the trick of repeat usage. In the bargain they end up annoying the user with excessive notifications, some at the most inappropriate moment. Personally speaking I have not understood the practice of asking for notification alerts immediately upon download and launch – even before providing any opportunity to try the app.
Mobile handset storage and memory woes, broadband speed and related costs are issues which will continue to impact app downloads and consequently user engagement. But chances of improved user engagement is linked to better planning much before a single line of code is written.