Why apps stick

There are more than 1,000,000 apps for mobile phones out there. Those apps were downloaded 31 billion times in 2011 with only a handful that have reached household name status. This is a lottery for sure but there are a few simple things that should be kept in mind when trying to crack the sticky app riddle.

Not rocket science but in the craze that has been the app economy, the basics seem to have been forgotten so let’s bring focus back to them right here.

It has to be easy to use

We have entered into the age of the user interface, brought on quickly by the size of the screens on our phones and tablets. Real estate is precious, fat fingers dominate and time is limited so it needs to be well thought out and continuously tweaked and tested.

Making it easy to use doesn’t mean the technology can’t be complicated. It is hard to make something easy but very easy to make something hard to use. Take a look at a seemingly simple application like Shazam. All it takes is one button to activate but the technology behind it that identifies your location, time of day, the audio it hears and then brings back an answer within seconds is the perfect balance between simple user interface and complex algorithms that gets you your answer.

The complete opposite of a good interface is the common remote control we use to change TV channels – the worst offender being most Google TV remotes. I’ve often pictured an engineer looking at a number of open precesses and lazily terminating it by adding one more button to the remote. Don’t be afraid to use software. Which would you prefer to use? Apple’s version of the remote or Google’s?

Working backwards from the ideal way users should engage with your mobile product and confining the visible technology to this will go a long way to making your mobile product something people feel comfortable using.

It has to be a part of our day

Mobile product development is a subtle dance between the digital and terrestrial worlds. Products that have succeeded and will continue to succeed need to be constantly aware of this nuance.

There are certain classes of apps that will only be used when needed – a perfect example of which is the travel category. We can track flights, book hotel rooms, rent cars and download city guides but most of us don’t need to do this every single day. These apps become transient or temporary while there is a need and are the first to be deleted when the travel has passed.

These types of apps – the transient ones – make the category they live in some of the most competitive real estate in mobile. The apps in this category have the added challenge of remaining relevant long after their value has expired. These apps are very important and have high usage for a short time and then become quickly dismissed until the next time they are needed.

Sports fans, weather nuts, news junkies, athletes, productivity gurus and social mavens are perfect examples of clear targets for app developers where frequency of use is very high. They are obvious and, next to games, are probably the most populous app categories. The success or failure of these types of apps boils down to tapping into an existing habit and extending it to mobile – often times making it easier/better/faster/more accessible than the old way of doing things.

Finding a perfect fit to do everything for everyone is doomed for failure. Focus on doing something that fits into someones day many times during the day.(WEAK)

It has to do something that needs to get done

Success in mobile product development is about making something that fills a need for the intended customer. This might sound like a flippant, simple statement but too many of the applications sitting idly in the various app stores didn’t take this into consideration. Many are one-time use apps or once a week/month use apps so they never become a habit. Screen real-estate is precious and those apps that aren’t used regularly will eventually fall off and out of favour.

Weather apps and the clock are taken care of so what is it about your app that will make people use it every single day – and ideally many times throughout the day.

It can’t make us think to much

Apps without a pressing reason get forgotten quickly. Apps that make users think too much or require too much explaining have the same effect. Most mobile users are looking for reasons to use their phones – find an address, get something for cheaper, make a statement, have their voice heard, organize a meeting, text a friend, tweet, like, email, call, log a workout, review a restaurant or make a buying decision for example. Where do you fit in on this spectrum. If you can’t answer the simple question of why someone would download and launch your app neither can they.

A perfect example of this is the app OINK (the team behind Oink was purchased by Google and the app is no longer being supported). The user interface of this app was beautifully crafted, it was easy to use and was developed by a well-respected entrepreneur but it didn’t work. Why? Because the developers didn’t identify what its primary use was. You have to give someone a starting point. The concept that you can rate everything everywhere at anytime is like saying you have no competition. Confusing, doomed and a lie.

Without a focus, without identifying initial boundaries you are asking too much of your users and they will abandon their effort to change their thinking to bring your product into their lives. Make it the other way around and you could be on to something.

Don’t be limited by how we do things today

Mobile is different – it isn’t just about accessing the web on the train. It is transformational at its lowest level and it will change the way and how long we live, interact, buy, communicate and play. Don’t treat it like the web or like a phone or like a contact manager and it will treat you well.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • I heard someone say that the age of “features and benifits” has been replaced by the age of “user experience”.

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