User experience for app development: what you need to know

17 Oct 2015

App download, retention and frequent use statistics are getting a small bit better, however, they are improving from a particularly low base. App retention is the Leeds United of the digital world; slightly less awful than they were last year, but a long way from where they should be.

According to a Localytics report from 2014, 60pc of all apps are used 10 or fewer times (an “improvement” from a staggering 73pc previously) and 20pc of apps are used only once (“better” than 22pc in the previous survey). Sports and games apps endure the worst abandonment performance, with weather and social networking apps performing best, in relative terms.

This must lead us to two critical yet inevitable conclusions. Firstly, to a large extent the product *is* its marketing as its likelihood of adoption and use depends on the quality of product design and, secondly, that the app designer and developer must work like fury to ensure that they get to and stay in the retention top 40pc.

The product is the marketing

In truth, these factors are self-evident and a quick scurry around your own smartphone icons will reinforce how this looks in your world. For this digital geek, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Maps, Messenger and WhatsApp are resting snugly and smugly in the top 10pc, whereas the “seemed like a good idea at the time downloads” (I’m looking at you Meme Creator, and Dude – My Car) aren’t looking so hot.

The better news is that commercially-proven and evidence-based user-experience processes exist, which allow the customer-centred app designer to build with a focus on growth, propagation and retention.

This is work we deliver regularly at Fathom towers and below we share the processes and design focuses we have found to deliver the best download and retention performance for our various clients’ apps.

Focus on the moments of truth

On the spectrum from no awareness of an app’s existence to frequent use of an app, a user will unthinkingly pass through a number of key moments of truth, where the experience provided to them is disproportionately important. Typically these moments of truth include:

  • First awareness – the user becomes aware of the app for the first time, through word of mouth, or an app store search
  • First visit – the user looks in more detail at the app’s website or previews the app in the app store and considers if they are interested enough to download it
  • First use – the user decides to trial the app for the first time and in this situation the app needs to get the value exchange just right, asking as little as possible from the user and giving as much as possible in return, in order to make the user feel good about the download
  • Frequent use – the user is convinced of the app’s value and wants to use it quickly and easily
  • Consider how the user’s questions, motivations and needs change throughout the journey and how the app and associated communications must alter accordingly.

Identify assumptions

In every product design, project assumptions must be made, risks assessed and gaps in knowledge identified. Some of these knowledge gaps will be unimportant, others will be vital. It is essential that gaps in knowledge are identified early in the design process and if tagged as important or vital that a learning plan and programme of research is established in order to plug gaps in understanding. Getting a product to market is difficult enough without the product carrying unnecessary risks into a ruthless, impatient, difficult-to-impress marketplace. (Typically we lead clients through the “we know we think we don’t know” exercise to start this process).

Design specifically based on known factors of innovation adoption

In this regard, we know of no better source material than Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations published in 1962 and which cites the five characteristics of successful innovations, specifically relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability and observability. Any app product design must meet and exceed each of these characteristics.

Design theorists are at pains to reinforce the importance of designing with specific intent. In particular, for the early phases of app development, design processes should be crafted specifically for adoption, propagation and growth. Approach it any other way, and like our Yorkshire football friends, you might find yourself spending a decade fighting for mid-table mediocrity in the Championship, whilst your competitors eat at the Premiership’s top table.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user-testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Escher Group. Visit Fathom online at

Main image via Shutterstock