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The fundamentals of building a 'sticky' app

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Mobile applications have, for more than a decade, been an essential for any organization seeking to establish a full digital estate to support and market their product. They have also been integral in reaching target audiences on a unified singular application with a more engaged mode than traditional CRM, and without depending on the algorithmic whims of major social media platforms. 

In recent years, though, their popularity has spiked tremendously. A recent study by App Annie highlights that global users are now spending an average of 4.2 hours each day using apps on smartphones – a 30% increase relative to just two year prior. 

Further research found that mobile users are, on average, spending the overwhelming majority of their screen time (87%) in apps, demonstrating their inherent value in reaching and engaging both new and existing users. 

The issue faced by businesses, creators, and developers is simple: creating an app that is ‘sticky’ enough to compete for attention on their users’ phones. After all, the average smartphone user will have 80 apps on their phone, but open only 30 on a monthly basis. 

Traditional marketing structures and ever-more sophisticated user data makes achieving impressive download figures a simple process – the real challenge is in attaining valuable long-term user retention.

The fundamentals  

User engagement is, of course, the key ingredient in a sticky app. The foundations on which engagement is built is user experience (UX), and great UX design will afford users an intuitive understanding of the app and the utility on offer to them. For a likely initial point of direct contact between the platform and user, this is a crucial first impression. Conversely, the attention span of most users for new content experiences is notoriously short and fickle – unintuitive or frustrating UX is likely to result in users abruptly giving up and deleting the app. 

It must also be noted that this is not purely about design and ‘feel’ – this initial contact is also an important moment to address potential user concerns. For instance, signposting a clear, concise and transparent data retention policy, alongside a simple approach to necessary data collection will put users at ease, increase trust, and provide the likeliest pathway to full registration and routine app usage.  

A smooth onboarding process is essential to win the confidence of new users, and some developers might be inspired to break away from the traditional flow in order to achieve this. Rather than onboarding users in a single phase, starting with a ‘soft’ onboarding process, whereby users are given the opportunity to test the app and its features before committing fully, can be a beneficial intermediary step that showcases the utility of the solution. Once individuals are convinced by its value, businesses can then request the necessary details to complete the registration process and unlock the full suite of features available.  

One of the main factors in the popularity of apps in user generation is also their adaptability. The temptation, particularly in the ‘fail fast’ world of digital content, CRM, and audience building, will be to adapt the UX and user interface (UI) at pace in response to any identified flaws or potential improvements. Of course, updates and iterations will always be necessary as user journey and experience data is observed and mapped onto long-term growth strategies, but the risks to existing users can be higher than the potential upsides to onboarding new target demographics. The danger of flooding users with too many, or too radical, updates is frustrated and disengaged users, and potentially an exodus of a hard-won user base.

Building on the foundations  

Addressing the content itself, it is important to strike a balance between innovation and familiarity. Many creative design and development processes can suffer under the burden of too many ideas – even good ones. Swamping platforms with too many new concepts will almost certainly prove unnecessarily complex and alienate the ordinary user. At the same time, over-familiarity will border on the obsolete, as the application market is crowded. While future iterations may build on this once an engaged audience is in place, a single clear utility built on the familiar visual and user journey language of applications is the strongest place to start. 

The adage of the digital age is that content is king. This is a succinct, but somewhat reductive way of expressing the reality of achieving sustainable engagement. Take YouTube as a heightened example, which has more than 500 hours of video content uploaded each minute. In the case of any user, some of this will be relevant and interesting content – but much will not. In any case, this avalanche of content is too much for any individual to sift through. For this reason, curation plays the role of coronating content. Typically achieved through artificial intelligence (AI), curation processes bring relevant content more readily and efficiently to users – automatically generated Spotify playlists, Instagram discover channels, and YouTube recommendations are noteworthy examples.  

In the case of some applications, for instance news or cooking recipes apps, a hand-curated approach may be more beneficial, though user information should always take an informative role. This can be realized by promoting the editor’s content, which creates a powerful and consistent visual for users to return to. Once a solid level of engaged users is achieved, businesses might then opt to promote user content to create a more community feel and provide users with the inspiration or information they are seeking. The challenge here is to create coherence, to ensure that the content remains visually appealing. 

The most important element of a sticky app is to avoid crowding it. The growing supremacy of apps over browser platforms is down to accessibility, convenience, and simplicity – so these should be developed as such. Adding unnecessary functions will distract users from the critical functions that motivated them to open the app in the first place. It should be noted that increasing session lengths are not an objectively positive metric, and are certainly not the antithesis of ‘stickiness’ – they may result from disordered architecture leading to confusing user journeys, or confusion in trying to access the core utility of the platform. 

The obstacles which make developing apps with enduring user engagement are challenging, yet equally, present a great opportunity for developers who keep these fundamentals in mind. App stores are awash with inefficient or bloated apps, which will be increasingly eschewed in a fast-paced digital landscape. Developers who seek to concentrate on perfecting and focalizing their core functions will naturally create better user outcomes, addressing directly the challenge of sustained user saturation and engagement.

Ritam Gandhi, Founder and Director, Studio Graphene (opens in new tab)

Ritam Gandhi is the Founder and Director of Studio Graphene – a firm that specialises in developing amazing blank canvas tech products. Prior to this, he worked as a consultant for a decade for the likes of Accenture and Bank of America Merrill Lynch before.