So you came up with an idea for an awesome app. Unlike most people, you didn’t just sit on that idea. You made it happen. You hired some developers (and hopefully some designers) and worked relentlessly to develop a product that could actually compete in the noise of today’s software applications. You even spent your hard-earned savings on marketing and sales in order to get users for your app. Congratulations, you have users and you’re the newest tech billionaire, right? Wrong. You need users to consistently use your app or it will wither and you will soon be bankrupt.
While the three initial stages of app development – conception, development, and user acquisition – are essential, I’m going to focus on the final and trickiest stage called user retention. User retention is the activity that a selling organization undertakes to reduce customer defections. It starts with the first contact a company has with a user and continues throughout the lifetime of the user. It’s also one of the hardest and most complex problems to tackle in software development. User retention especially valuable for the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model because its existence depends on loyalty. For users, it’s the difference between companies like Facebook and Myspace. You will never get that billion dollar valuation without a consistent user base.
Ok, user retention is essential, but can UX design really help solve the challenge of user retention? Let’s look at the definition of User Experience design, and I think you’ll see that it absolutely addresses user retention:
User Experience Design is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.
I’ll walk you through the 9 ways that UX design can turn your fling with users into a long-term relationship.
The first and most obvious rule is that you should design a product for maximum usability for your user. As a UX designer, I am constantly asking myself some very important questions. Am I solving the right problem? Does my design solve the problem in the best possible way? This is something every designer should bring to the table, and it’s one of the many reasons they are integral to their team.
1. Before you can maximize usability for your user, you have to know what your user wants.
Hipstamatic was an early competitor with Instagram and actually started before Instagram. On the surface, both were deceptively simple. They were both photo-taking apps that allowed users to add fun filters to their smartphone photos. Hipstamatic thought their value to the user was in providing filters so they charged for high-end filters based on that assumption. Instagram designed their service to be a network and a community for sharing photos, assuming rightly that that was the more important value they offered to users. Hipstamatic then entered into a feature war with Instagram to try to keep up and despite being the first at conception, was looked upon as a newcomer by most users. Feature wars with competitors can be a very dangerous trap for young companies because it can cause them to lose focus on usability. Keep your users happy and your company will flourish.
2. In order to continually design for your user, user testing must be an essential part of any app.
User testing is the only real way to know what is working or not working with your users. User testing should be an ongoing process and not just an initial research step. Designing iteratively can also help incorporate this user feedback, rather than relying on initial UX research. You should also have a simple process for users to report bugs. Only 16% of users will return to an app that has crashed twice, according to a survey by Compuware. If you don't have the budget for in-person user testing, you can always add Google Analytics trackers to interactions in your app so that you have metrics on the usage of your software. Don't be content just knowing what your user is doing. Iterate and optimize according to their habits. Testing and deploying regularly is the only way to ensure that your software grows with your user, and you can’t do that without user testing.
3. Beyond just designing for your user, you must also design for the device that they’re using.
If you’re designing an app that looks good on one device and bad on another, you’re going to lose customers. Make sure that you design responsively for every screen that views your app. Mobile and tablet viewing surpassed desktops in 2014 and today it accounts for more than 60% of digital media time spent in the United States according to a study by Comscore. Mobile and table formats are clearly here to stay.
If the user can’t use your app or doesn’t know how to use your app, you’re going to lose customers. In order to make your app successful, you’re going to have to make it simple to use. You will also have to do a certain amount of guiding and teaching so that they know what they can do.
4. Design your interface to be as simple as possible and don’t overwhelm your user with endless features.
Shelves and shelves of books have been written about designing interfaces to be simple and concise, but I like to keep these 3 laws of UX as a framework to help me design as simply as possible.
Increasing choices will increase decision time
The closer and bigger something is to you, the easier and faster it is for you to touch it
Users remember information in chunks
I won’t go into these in detail, but there is a great article for designers here that even gives some helpful ways to remember these UX laws.
5. User onboarding is another very important tool for increasing user’s accessibility to the features of your app that they need.
The user won’t know how to use your product if you don’t show them. It's easy to get so close to a project that you assume your users will automatically get it. If I've learned anything being a UX designer, it's that you can never assume that you know what the user knows. There are hundreds of ways to teach your user. Most companies choose some sort of initial set up process plus a combination of popovers and modals to give contextual clues. Many social media applications stress the importance of getting the user to "do something" and walk them through how to post. I wrote a previous blog post on the 4 main ways that companies do this if you're interested in learning more about user onboarding.
6. When you launch new features that the user wants, don’t forget to inform them.
If you’re constantly iterating on your product like you should, you will constantly be adding new features that the user needs to know about. If you don’t tell them, they most likely will never know. Beyond just an initial on-boarding process, you will need a way to keep users informed of changes to your app. There a multitude of ways to do this, but most choose to do this in the software itself with popovers and modal windows. I'm a firm believer that software features should be shown contextually in the same place where you use them. Simply posting videos or walkthrough documents will never be as effective as alerting the user to the exact location of a feature you want them to know about.
Beyond just making your app useful to a user, delighting them should be your ultimate goal. Every interaction between you and the user should give them pleasure. If you surprise and delight your user they will keep coming back for those moments. Let’s look at some simple way to give your users pleasure when they user your app.
7. Your users are the ones that make you money so show them that you appreciate the value they bring to you.
One of the goals of a designer is to suprise and delight the user. I think you should go even further than that and design your app to include moments to celebrate your user. One of the easiest ways to do this is to congratulate them when they post for the first time or when they complete their profile. Tumblr does a great job at this and uses GIFs to congratulate the user on posting. DuoLingo congratulates you for using their app multiple days in a row, and all it takes is a simple modal thanking you for a "multi-day streak." I wrote an earlier blog post about celebrating the user if you want to read about more ways that you can appreciate your users.
8. Give the user a human touch throughout your application to delight them and enhance your relationship.
Gone are the days of faceless corporate software companies. Today, users expect to receive thoughtful interactions and a personal tone that appeals to their humanity. InVision does a wonderful job at this. When they release new features, they include the avatar and title of the person who worked on that feature. The tone is helpful and gives a face to a feature that might have been lost in a simple alert. Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is a field of research that observes the ways in which humans interact with computers and designs technologies that let humans interact with computers in novel ways. I could go on and on about what you can learn from the field of Human-Computer Interaction, but one of the most important lessons is that you should seek to align computer interfaces with the mental model that humans have of their activities. The easiest way to apply this is to communicate with your user as if you were in the room with them. Don't hide behind corporate marketing jargon. Talk to the user in a warm, conversational tone as if they were an old friend, and they will become loyal users of your product.
9. Another great way to please your user is to actually reward them for using your app.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to give them anything of monetary value. Offering badges, points, or even just compliments will give your user that sense of accomplishment that video games have been taking advantage of for years. While FourSquare has seen its share of problems with user retention, their new app, Swarm, handles rewards in a very clever way. In addition to offering mayorships to one visitor like FourSquare did, they reward all check-ins with coins. They gamify this by showing your coin count on a leaderboard with your friends. This spurs users to compete with their friends and use the app more frequently as a result.
I hope that these 9 tips have shown you that user retention doesn’t have to be a mystical endeavor. Remember, always keep the user experience on your mind and your user will fall head over heels for your product. It won’t be easy, but having a good UX designer will certainly help.