The 7 Elements of Highly Retaining Apps (draft 2 of 7)

This is part of an experiment in which I write one article each week by publishing one new draft of that article each day of that week. Draft 1.

For mobile app creators, user retention is the surest signal of quality that you’ll find. Those who successfully optimize for retention are playing to be around for the long run.

But for aspirational apps — those that address some optional, aspirational goal that the user might have — apps in the health, wellness, and education categories, for example — great retention is incredibly hard to achieve.

How do the best apps do it? Having studied those apps and the words of their builders, here I present the seven elements of highly retaining apps.

Note: in this article I’m not talking about what some people call ‘utility’ apps: apps that address some unavoidable real-world problem that the user is going to be forced to solve again and again. Apps like Uber or your Bank of America app.

1. The app cultivates in the user a strong and constant sense of purpose.

Real life is hard. Often it feels like playing a video game with the difficulty level turned up too far — like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a game on hard mode when what you need is the tutorial. Other times life sucks because you don’t know what to do — maybe you know that you should be doing something, but you’re not confident in committing to a path. You can feel like a college freshman looking at the list of courses, trying to select a couple electives to sign up for. Overwhelmed. And in still other moments, life is in a weird way too easy — you know what you have to do, but there’s not enough challenge or risk in it to keep your interest. If you’ve ever worked a menial job answering phones or sorting paperwork, you know this feel.

We crave a sense of purpose — a sense that the goal we’re after is important, that we know what we have to do to get it, and that we’ll have to really try if we want to achieve it. When we’re working with a sense of purpose, we’re like the dog at the park chasing the tennis ball: we’re fully engaged, and without internal dissonance.

Great mobile apps — particularly games like Clash of Clans — create in the user a constant and powerful sense of purpose. While engaged with the app, the user constantly feels like he’s doing the right thing. And when he’s not in the app, and he is reminded that he could be in the app, that strong sense of purpose pulls him into the app so that he can complete the task he knows is the right task to accomplish.

Highly retaining mobile apps create a sense of purpose.

2. Session length optionality.

In order to get great retention, app use has to become a habit. In order to become a habit, the user must open and use the app multiple times per day. In order to use the app multiple times a day, a session has to be short enough that the user can open the app and complete a rewarding session in less than a minute — the amount of time she might have available if she’s standing in line or waiting on her computer to restart.

But if every session is short, the user won’t be able to develop the deeper engagement necessary to support longer-term projects within the app.

So it’s important that the app has session length optionality. When the user has just 30 seconds, she can open the app and complete a rewarding session. If she wants to stay longer, she can engage in another loop within the app for a deeper and richer experience.

3. Motivation loops.

This connects closely with cultivating a strong sense of purpose (so much so that I might combine them in a future draft, tk). The idea is that you don’t want to leave your users hanging without a clear pull towards a next goal that they should be pursuing. An example of a way to fail at this is to add some kind of currency or badge or experience point mechanic to your product, but for that currency to have no utility — users earn it, and then they can use it for…nothing. Khan Academy’s experience points for watching videos are a good example of doing this shittily.

Instead, you want the user to always be charged up for the next goal immediately upon finishing one goal. For example, in Clash of Clans, I might have a session like this:

  • I want to upgrade my town hall.
  • I need gold to do that.
  • I need to win battles to get gold.
  • I go battle. I win. I have gold.
  • I upgrade my town hall.
  • Holy shit! I can get a dragon now! I just need some gold…

I call it a ‘strange motivation loop’ in reference to the notion of ‘strange loops’ because from the user’s perspective, it feels like you’re continuously progressing up a hierarchy, but in actuality you keep returning to the same place.

4. Meaningful triggers.

The best kind of triggers are internal ones: a certain emotion that causes the thought of using the app to arise, or a certain recognized context, like waking up or sitting down on the train. These are good because they’re reliable — they don’t depend on a push notification being received or a friend taking some action — and they’re regular in that they occur every day or multiple times per day.

But there’s not much you as an app developer can do to cultivate internal triggers. The best you can do is try to get the user to have many rewarding sessions, and let the internal triggers develop as habits.

To get many rewarding sessions, you’ll want to make use of meaningful external triggers. [tk the notion of internal and external for triggers sucks.]

One type of external trigger is push and email notifications. Deliver these at the right moment with the right message, and the user will experience them as a useful, valuable reminder, rather than a nag or spam.

Another type of external trigger is a person’s friends talking to them about the app. This happens a lot in social games. How many times did you hear your friends talking about Pokemon Go? That was the whole reason I started using and kept using the app.

5. Meaningful social engagement.

The more you can make your app more like a utility, the better your retention will get. One of our most basic and eternal needs is for social connection. If your app becomes an instrument of furthering social connection, you can expect your users to continue using it for a long time. This happens in apps like Words with Friends as users use the game as a way to have ongoing lightweight interactions with distant friends and family, and with games like Clash of Clans when users get deep enough to form a clan with their friends and partake in regularly-scheduled wars with other clans.

6. Evolving reinforcement schedules.

In the early stages of a user’s lifecycle, you need to douse them with rewards frequently for very small accomplishments. But if you keep doing this, they’ll get fatigued and bored. You needs to constantly evolve the reinforcement schedule to shape towards the usage patterns you want for long term sustainability.

7. Effective clicker-like reinforcers.

To reinforce effectively, you’ll need the right kind of reinforcers. Good reinforcers can be delivered with temporal precision and they do not quickly cause satiety. An example of a good reinforcer is a currency in the app. But remember that the currency must have utility — it must enable the user to dosomething he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.

Honorable mention:

  • Limiting mechanic. Retention is about the user coming back to your app again and again. If you’re concerned about retention, you’re concerned about that part of her day when she’s not in your app. You want her to be the kind of person, during that part of her day, who wants to use your app more. So it’s much better for you if she can’t get everything she wants in every session — it’s best if she leaves wanting more. If so, then she’ll be waiting and hoping for another opportunity to use the app.