Why design is crucial to avoid churn

Simon P P Williams
Dec 13, 2017 · 6 min read
Photo by abi ismail on Unsplash

Online games are very sensitive to churn.

When I first started working in online video games, churn was already a big deal. Gradually the term has spread until it seems to be referenced regularly across all industries — but for online games it meant one thing: people leave a game as new players join.

A video game has a very distinct lifetime for each customer. For your typical AAA console title, that lifetime is measured in hours. 20 hours is pretty normal for how long it takes to finish a game, although in recent years roleplaying games particularly have extended that length to 100 or 200 hours!

For huge licensed titles like the Harry Potter franchise, the amount of time a player actually spends playing the game can be pretty varied. With some games like that, there are gift purchasers and copycat buyers that just want to own the most popular games, even if they never even play the thing.

Fervour for such titles can be driven by hardcore players that play the games over and over, streaming speed-runs and writing constantly about their experiences on social media.

Online titles are a bit different.

They tend to have the sort of curve that many other industries are familiar with. A big spike upfront and a long tail.

This is largely because initial excitement fuels purchases and brings in new players in one big splash. Many of those initial players then stop playing and the long tail is driven by the churn.

Because an online title can be discovered at any time and often stays live for everyone over a period of years, new players come into the title and the only difference to the initial surge is that the game is full of experienced players.

That phenomena is a double-edged sword. New players encountering established players can create a helpful learning environment that welcomes the new players into the appropriate social grouping and helps them become accustomed to the gameplay quickly.

Or established players can be rude, unhelpful and dominating — making new players feel as if the entire online game is a waste of time and a toxic environment.

Obviously you want to foster the former version of an online community because a reputation for a toxic environment spreads quickly. Most importantly, you want the best new-user experience because the reality of churn is that every business needs to deal with it to an extent.

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

Even small agencies experience old clients leaving and new ones arriving as time goes by. While hardware business models tend to have a different adoption rate (e.g. the iPhone has gradual peaks with each model), there is also a minor churn effect continuing alongside growth as customers switch to competitors (e.g. from Apple to Samsung).

Understanding how churn works and what you can do with it is important in every aspect of running a business — not just games. Even media consumption is subject to the effects of churn. Whether you are writing a blog, sending out a newsletter or trying to attract attention to your website, you will often have a splash of new viewers that turns into a long tail where regular consumers drop away as new ones join.

So the question that all designers then must face is ‘retention’. How do you keep the customers you do have for as long as possible?

One of the least understood aspects of churn is the variability in customer engagement timelines. The most common reason for a high churn rate is a problem with the new user experience. It’s essentially the same set of factors that affect purchase decisions and new business engagement. If the new user experience is bad then you lose that customer almost immediately. And the issues that a new user will face are similar to those of a potential customer who hasn’t yet committed to a purchase.

If the potential customer doesn’t understand the product, finds it difficult to use or (even worse ) hard to purchase then you lose them before they are even on board. In the same way, if a new user finds it difficult to understand the product and hard to use it, then you will lose them quickly. That creates a fast churn effect where your new customer engagement rate might be very high, but you lose just as many each day.

Which is why it’s a design problem.

You need to get the experience right — from when the customer is passively looking for a product or service to when they actively make their purchase decision (in order to avoid losing a potential customer).

And you need to get the experience right from when the customer starts consuming the product/service all the way to repurchasing (the ideal goal).

User experience design is the foundation of good customer retention and a curve that looks more like a gradual climb than a short spike and fall-off.

There is a negative to having a successful product with lots of customers. When a new customer comes along they have an expectation that the product/service is a good one — after all you already have so many existing customers. If their new user experience is bad, then they are likely to jump from ‘Lots of people want this, I want this too’ into the less useful, ‘I don’t understand why so many people like this product’.

Photo by Luisa Rusche on Unsplash

In today’s fast moving age when technology provides what we want at the touch of a button, you need to make sure your customers are getting the product/service as quickly as possible (with the least friction). Which requires a lot of research into what the customer wants and how they can get it in the most pleasurable way.

There’s a reason people switched to using Uber in droves. It’s cheaper (in many cases) and while price is always a huge factor in customer choice, there is also a vast difference between hiring a taxi using a traditional purchase process and hiring Uber.

Hiring a taxi either involves standing with your hand out hoping that the taxi which has its sign lit will actually stop (and not just ignore you), or calling a telephone number and speaking to a harassed call operator who may not have any taxis available right now.

A lot of that friction is removed from the Uber service.

You don’t need to communicate to a person where you want to go. You tap that into your phone. You don’t need to ask whether a taxi is available now, you can see the Uber cars moving around the map. You don’t need to ask the price, it’s decided for you using a common algorithm.

The app is very simple to use, but even so they have put effort into making the new user experience quick and effortless. You can go from installing the app, to getting a ride in minutes. I did exactly that. I downloaded the app while standing kerbside, typed in a few details and five minutes later I was in an Uber car.

You may not have used a UX designer to analyse your new user experience, but you will have gone through some of the principles behind UX design. You will have considered how the new user finds your product/service, where they purchase it, and how many steps they go through between selecting the product/service and paying money. And what those steps are.

Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

However, like most things in life, if you want a really good new user experience, you need to have someone with expertise design it for you.

And if that’s not you — go hire one!

Simon P P Williams is COO of Mitenkai — Find Your Way

Simon P P Williams

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Curious about the world and how we can change it for the better — using research, understanding and technology.

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