An introduction to the user journey for mobile apps

Part 1 of 4: A guide to the user journey for Google Play apps and games

This piece is part of a series of articles by the Growth Consulting team at Google Play and focuses on increasing Google Play app performance by optimizing the user journey. (You can also catch up on our previous series about understanding KPIs for apps and games by reading the article series or watching previous webinars.)

No app can achieve long-term success without an active user base. In order to build a robust and active user base, and keep people around and spending, it’s critical to understand users’ motivations and expectations.

To better understand your users, you have to appreciate their journey through your app.

This article serves as an introduction to the app user journey and its various stages. It will answer questions like:

  • What are the different stages of user engagement and disengagement?
  • What criteria can be used to classify users as ‘committed’?
  • What are some things to keep in mind when reactivating users who have churned?

We’ll be following this article with more deep dives on each stage. Let’s get started!

The user’s journey, visualized

From the time a user installs an app, every user goes through a journey. It is the goal of app developers to help users realize the value of an app as quickly as possible and to keep them engaged after they’ve found it. The series of steps each user takes along the way is referred to as the “user journey.” Mapping the user journey, including identifying its discrete stages, helps developers craft the most relevant experience and keep users sustainably engaged for the long term.

Here on the Google Play Growth Consulting team, we like to use the flow diagram below to depict the discrete stages of the user journey and the movement of users between them. This flowchart shows the major stages of an app user journey, beginning with installed, on the far left of the middle row.

The App User Journey
The App User Journey

Each box represents a stage in a user’s journey. A user enters a stage after they’ve completed that stage’s action or met certain usage criteria. For example, a user enters the installed stage after installing your app and enters the onboarded stage after completing the onboarding flow. A single user can only occupy one stage at any given point in time.

Defining the stages of a user’s journey

Installed and onboarded are both stages designed to educate the user. In the former, a user has decided to download and install your application; in the latter, a user has opened the app, been introduced to the UI and the core action of the app. The term ‘core action’ describes an app’s most important action. Here are some examples:

  • In a ride hailing app, the core action would be completing a ride.
  • In a dating app, the core action would be swiping left or right on possible matches.
  • In a language learning app, the core action would be finishing a lesson.
  • In a farming game, the core action might be plowing a field, planting a crop or harvesting a vegetable.

Simply put, once you’ve identified your app’s core action, design the app’s onboarding to introduce the app’s core action as quickly as possible (we’ll dive deeper into this in the next article of this series).

Activated is a term we use to describe onboarded users who have interacted with the core action of your app enough to understand the app’s value proposition. Onboarding educates users about your app; activation is making sure they got it! Activation is key to all the other stages of the user journey. We’ll dive more into activation, but first let’s take a second to define the term ‘value proposition’ . A Value proposition is the proposed value that an app will deliver to its users, should they choose to use and pay for the product. A fitness app, for example, may offer a value proposition of getting in better shape by organizing health or diet information. You can tell if a user understands your app’s value proposition by how often she or he engages in its core action.

Committed users are your app’s most loyal users. They are among your most engaged and devoted users and have fully committed to the app’s value proposition. We differentiate between activated and committed because committed users are less likely to churn and are more likely to convert into paying users. How do you know if someone is committed? We’ve identified three qualifications to classify users as committed (you can customize these requirements based on your app or game’s design):

  1. Recency of use. We want to ensure that we only qualify users that have used your app recently as committed. For example, anyone who has completed a core action at least once in the last few days depending on your app’s designed usage (e.g. if your app is a daily, weekly or monthly destination).
  2. Frequency of use. We also want to make sure that we include users that use the app at a frequency it’s intended to be used (e.g. daily, weekly or monthly destination).
  3. Tenure. We recommend not including any users who have been using the app for less than a 30-day period as committed users. This will ensure that you are excluding newly installed users who typically have erratic engagement patterns.

You and your team have the most visibility into your user base, so you should come up with a definition of each of these three qualifications that makes the most sense for your app. Identify and monitor your committed users, because they serve as the bedrock of your user base and community in the long term.

Lapsed and churned are stages of user disengagement:

  • Lapsed users are those that show initial signs of disengagement such as not using your app at the same level of frequency.
  • Churned users are those that are no longer active users of your app as defined by an extended period of non-use.

Remember that it’s normal for lapsed and churned users to make up a large portion of your installed base, especially if your app has been live for a while. In fact, for a lot of apps on Play, reactivation is a big opportunity for growth; lapse and churn aren’t final, just normal stages in a user’s lifecycle. Users’ needs change over time, and that’s expected. (Perhaps a user churned but can be incentivized to come back later when the time is right.) Later in the series, we will dig into ways to segment your disengaged user base so you are targeting users who are likely to be ready to start using your app again.

Uninstalled has probably the most straightforward of all stage definitions: when a user removes your app or game from their device. Note that if a user uninstalls your app, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are dissatisfied (for instance, uninstalls are more common on devices that have less storage space) so there is an opportunity a user will reinstall again.

Re-installed and re-onboarded serve similar purposes as installed and onboarded, respectively, although you may have slightly different experiences for returning users. For example, re-onboarded users could be subjected to unique messaging (e.g. “Welcome back!” instead of “Hello”), reminded about any recent updates (e.g. “Here’s what you missed”), or guided into their next action (e.g. “Let’s pick up where you left off”). Don’t forget to design this re-entry with the core action in mind so re-onboarded users can soon graduate back to the activated stage.

Re-activated refers to users who have been resurrected after disengaging for a period of time. The goal would be to guide users back to activated and eventually to the commitment stage as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Now that we’ve defined the main stages, let’s return to the master flowchart for an App User Journey and look specifically at the directions in which users travel through them.

The App User Journey
The App User Journey

Applying user journey stages

Here are a few additional reminders:

  • Your app should optimize UI/UX flows to graduate users to higher engagement stages (e.g. from installed to onboarded, from activation to commitment).
  • Once a user achieves commitment, the goal is to keep them engaged there.
  • There will be opportunities to win back some users and guide them back to commitment through targeted re-activation campaigns and optimized re-onboarding flows.

As stated earlier, understanding and studying your users’ journeys helps you craft targeted experiences that will keep your users engaged for the long term.

What next?

Follow our Medium publication to catch future articles in this User Journey series:

  • The User Journey: Onboarding and Activation
  • The User Journey: Commitment
  • The User Journey: Disengagement and Reactivation

We’ll walk through how to optimize each of these stages, how to avoid common pitfalls, and also some interesting case studies from our developer community that we look forward to sharing with you!

What do you think?

What metrics are you most or least familiar with when analyzing app performance? Tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.

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Tips, trends, and industry thoughts for app and game developers building businesses on Google Play.

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Chetan Maddipatla

Chetan Maddipatla

Ex-Disney, Zynga and EA. Now at Google Play.

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