5 principles for apps to survive and thrive

Insights on what users value most in apps and how to build sustainable engagement around them

Successfully engaging and retaining users is a core challenge for many developers. We commissioned a consumer research with Sparkler, a digital insight and strategy consultancy, to understand why some apps become favorites while others are quickly forgotten, deleted, or replaced.

What we’ve learned is that just as in nature, apps exist in a ruthless and unforgiving environment. They have to struggle to endure in a crowded, constantly changing world where only the fittest survive and thrive. Through this research we’ve identified five principles for developers, based on how users engage, what they value the most, and what keeps them coming back to certain apps, while abandoning others.

Read on to find out how you as a developer can build an app experience that survives early days to go on to thrive in the long term.

Principle #1: Be clear about who you are

People are more likely to keep using an app if, from the outset, they feel it has a simple and clear purpose that communicates its value to the user immediately. They are fast to make up their minds about an app’s usefulness — 2 in 3 users admitted that unless the main purpose is clear and easy in the first few tries, they’ll give up on it. Things like too many features can be distracting, and confusing — obscuring the key purpose of the app and making consumers question its value. (1)

The most valuable apps are more than just functional — 66% of users admit that the best apps feel personal and when they have a good connection, they’re less willing to look for alternatives. Apps that have strong brands at their core build the strongest and most emotional relationships with users, so building a strong identity for your app from the onset is crucial. (2)

Principle #2: Be intuitive and reliable

When people are getting to know an app, they are highly sensitive to usability and quality issues. It may seem basic, yet these remain the main causes for early app deletion. Perceptions of how frequently an app crashes or how much data, memory, and battery it uses weigh heavily in users’ first impressions. And expectations for subscriptions apps are only higher — not only around the amount of features and content, but for quality as well. 82% of users claim that quality is their top priority. (3)

Overall, intuitive apps are just easier to fall in love with. People struggle to embrace apps if they need to put unnecessary time and effort into them just to get started. For over 50% an ‘easy to navigate’ interface is seen as the most important driver of everyday app value. (4)

Principle #3: Don’t stand still or run too fast

Providing new content and developing new features is crucial to sustain interest in an app over time. Users rank them as the top reasons for remaining engaged with an app in the long run. (5) If an app is slow to evolve with new offerings, it starts to feel stagnant — and users will start looking for better alternatives.

However, not all updates are perceived the same. While regular content updates are generally welcomed, feature updates can more easily overwhelm. Users expect apps to evolve, but at a pace that’s slow enough to keep them feeling more in control and comfortable with the app. They can easily be thrown off by significant redesigns or too frequent small changes.

Principle #4: Be part of the user ecosystem

Apps don’t exist in isolation — an app that can embed itself smartly within the user’s wider tech or life ecosystem is less likely to be replaced. Users want to see their tech come together through things like apps that utilize existing phone features (calendar, camera, etc.) or which work with other apps and devices (voice tech, wearables etc).

And it goes beyond the tech ecosystem. When an app helps users connect to other people, its perceived value increases. 54% of users agree that they get more involved in an app if it can be used with friends and family. (6) However, simply adding a chat function is unlikely to be the solution. Social options will only drive desire if they build on the core purpose of the app and strengthen its performance.

Principle #5: Personalize while keeping the user in control

Personalization makes users more emotionally attached to an app over the long term. 64% of users find apps more valuable when they can save preferences and become more personal (7). These apps are perceived as more tailored to users needs, embedded in their lives, and less easy to abandon.

Though personalization is generally appreciated, users want to remain in control of what data the app is accessing and how that data is being used. That’s why users overwhelmingly prefer active to passive personalization (37% vs 27%) so they can see, confirm, and adjust settings. (8)

Final thoughts

Building sustainable app engagement is about responding to what people value most in their experience: clarity of purpose, intuitive and reliable services, balanced pace of updates, integration within their ecosystem, and delivering personalization with control. Focusing on those needs can help improve user engagement and build loyalty to your app in the long term.

To learn more about how people prefer to engage with apps and consume content and what apps can do to thrive over the long-term, check out the full research report.

Data Source:

  1. Sparkler Research 2018, Q24. To what extent do you agree with the following statements… Base: Total Sample N=2996
  2. Sparkler Research 2018, Q24. To what extent do you agree with the following statement… Base: Total Sample N=2996
  3. Sparkler Research 2018, Q28. To what extent do the statements describe how your expectations change when you pay for an app compared to when an app is free? Base: Total Sample N=299t6
  4. Sparkler Research 2018, Q9. Which of the factors below are important for an app to be a valuable part of your everyday life? Base: Total Sample N=2996
  5. Sparkler Research 2018, Q11. Thinking of apps you’ve been using for a long time, which of the factors below have been most important to their longevity? Base: Total Sample N=2996
  6. Sparkler Research 2018 Q14. To what extent do you agree with the following statements? Base: Total Sample N=2996
  7. Sparkler Research 2018 Q14. To what extent do you agree with the following statements? Base: Total Sample N=2996
  8. Sparkler Research 2018 Q14. To what extent do you agree with the following statements? Base: Total Sample N=2996

What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on any of these insights, or have your own tips on how to engage app users in the long term? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev, and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.