How to Scale the Happiness of Your Users:
Lessons on long-term engagement from MyFitnessPal
Posted by Mauricio Vergara and Context Partners
Retaining and engaging users is a struggle developers consistently face. To help, Google Play has collaborated with insights and engagement agency Context Partners to take a look at how some of the best apps and games have endured and thrived.
This article is the second in our series on optimizing your app for sustainable engagement and growth, with each one inspired by different developer stories and topic experts. So if you find these insights helpful, stay tuned for more content on how to meaningfully engage your users and grow your business sustainably!
Fifteen years ago, MyFitnessPal’s founders created an app to help themselves lose weight. That idea quickly mobilized a user base that would go on to include 160 million members, lead to acquisition by Under Armour in 2015, and keep MyFitnessPal at the top of Google Play’s Fitness and Wellness charts. Steven Spraragen, Director of Customer Happiness at Under Armour Connected Fitness, recently shared a few of the ways MyFitnessPal fuels sustainable long-term user engagement.
MyFitnessPal (MFP) works a lot like a gym. People sign up, feeling optimistic — but unhappy. If they don’t quickly find motivation, they leave.
So the challenge is simple, but hard: get people engaged, keep them motivated, help them find happiness, and keep them coming back. MFP relentlessly focuses on users’ fitness, wellness and happiness, and understands that cultural connection shapes the whole business. For MFP, culture is just as important as code. Here are five rules MyFitnessPal lives by:
1. Keep it simple.
MyFitnessPal believes that simplicity and substance, not gimmicks, keep users coming back. The app’s core function keeps track of daily calorie consumption and exercise — that’s it. And it’s wildly effective. According to MFP, a whopping 88% of new users who log what they eat in MyFitnessPal for seven days straight lose weight. So the MFP team focuses on building that habit, and they don’t put that essential functionality behind a paywall.
The simplicity, effectiveness, and consistency of calorie tracking gives users a common, and easily shareable experience that inspires them to bring more people into the MyFitnessPal fold. And that works, too: 70 percent of new users come to the app through word-of-mouth.
2. Bring your community in-house.
It’s easy to think that community management and customer service can be outsourced, but don’t treat them as an afterthought. MyFitnessPal wants to learn from users constantly, so they keep customer support in the building. Steve Spraragen’s Customer Happiness team of 21 full-time employees — comparable in size to MFP’s development team — exists to foster user satisfaction, build community culture, and improve the app.
The team engages with users who have issues and concerns, but that’s not all. Customer Happiness runs quarterly user panels, pays attention to user hacks, and tracks the features that users want most. With an average tenure of four years, Customer Happiness team members understand the community’s deeper needs, and they translate that bond into insights that help shape the long-term trajectory of the app.
“We want our members to feel connected to a human agent as soon as possible, but it’s in the details of resolving the needs of our members and taking the time to do it that allows us to learn from them, leading to new ideas and policies that help our community thrive.” — Steven Spraragen
While not every app can keep customer support in-house, there are other ways developers can ensure the customer’s voice permeates the organization’s walls. Ultimately, the lesson here is that spending time with your users makes it more likely that they will stick with you for the long-term.
3. Let your users tell the story.
Strong word of mouth taught MyFitnessPal that letting users tell their own stories is the best form of marketing. MyFitnessPal’s forums, friend features, profile feeds, and private messages let users share challenges and victories, ask questions, and support one another.
“Our members are like walking billboards for us — billboards that happen to take selfies and share themselves online too. They have always loved to tell their own stories and we give them the tools to do that.” — Steven Spraragen
Of course, it’s easy to say you want to elevate user stories. It’s harder to do it — especially when discussions can range into personal and sensitive territory, like fitness, wellness, weight loss, or body image.
For MyFitnessPal, that means community guidelines might be the most important “code” of all. Working with users and volunteer moderators, the app developed robust and evolving rules for public forums where people genuinely feel safe enough to ask questions and tell stories about weight loss.
The sensitive subject matter shapes the rules in very specific ways. From, “I won’t use any aspect of our service to promote anorexia, bulimia or any unsafe dieting practices,” to “Keep it classy (we mean your images),” the guidelines are distinctly tailored to host open conversations about often-difficult subjects.
Working to give users safe and supportive spaces to share and connect reflects a key distinction: MyFitnessPal thinks of itself as a fitness and wellness company, not a weight loss app. It aims to help its community live healthier lives overall — even in internet forums!
4. Do the right thing
Nurturing an online community dedicated to fitness and wellness is a big responsibility. MyFitnessPal does things differently to reinforce key values while growing.
Many fitness apps use competitive leaderboards to motivate users. And that kind of head-to-head gamification is great for an app focused on athletic performance. But competing with others isn’t a good fit for losing or gaining weight at a healthy pace.
Instead, MyFitnessPal users treasure their “streaks”: the consecutive days they’ve logged their calorie intake and exercise using the app. This feature allows members to demonstrate personal accountability while reinforcing the behavior that matters: logging calories consumed through food and expended through exercise.
MyFitnessPal now lets users modify missed days to keep their streaks alive — after people frequently contacted Customer Happiness, worried that travel or internet disruptions would keep them from logging in.
It’s good to give people motivation to keep them coming back — but for MyFitnessPal, the fitness and wellness of individuals and the broader community shapes how that motivation works.
A few years ago, MyFitnessPal changed the pronouns on its app to be suitable for transgender and non-binary users.
This was harder than it might seem. The app needs to gather a user’s sex at birth to make its core data-based tracking function work for that person. And changing pronouns required intensive revision of both code and copy. But the issue came up in user forums, and MyFitnessPal looks to its forums as a barometer of its broader community. Inclusion frequently came up in the forums as a way to make people feel at home, and to support their fitness goals. So the team decided that separating one necessary data point from how the app addressed its community was the right thing to do. This is an example of where the forum users, while a small fraction of the overall community, signaled a broader community priority.
MyFitnessPal doesn’t specifically advocate for particular weight-loss strategies or exercise regimes. This helps bond users who might be excited about different methods, like low-carb diets or intermittent fasting, while keeping the core calorie tracking feature simple for everyone.
The app also recognizes that success looks different to different people. Developers have created a number of ways for users to share and celebrate “non-scale victories”: achievements like recovering from surgery, or getting married, that speak to a broader and more holistic conception of wellness.
In this way, MyFitnessPal shows how thinking beyond their main benefit, diet tracking, actually makes them a bigger part of their users’ lives. As a developer, think about how you can underscore your value by creating unifying moments outside your app’s core function.
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
“It’s easy to forget this step, but we put our own oxygen masks on first. If we want to cultivate happiness, we have to be happy ourselves.” — Steven Spraragen
Finally, and importantly: the MyFitnessPal team members model that being fit (whatever that means to you) is great for your fitness, wellness and overall well-being, but that being happy is essential.
The Customer Happiness team has beer and bread every Friday at 4pm. (They log those carbs in the app, of course!) They also encourage playfulness in their community, with members generating thematic groups that keep one another motivated.
MFP also worked with a partner to develop a forum filter that replaces any instance of profanity with the word “kitten”. This filtering takes care of explicit language in a way that delights and doesn’t interrupt real-time discussions. Pretty *kitten* cool, huh?
5 Ways to fuel long-term engagement
- Keep it simple.
- Bring your community in-house.
- Let your users tell the story.
- Do the right thing.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
For the MyFitnessPal team, community and culture are at the forefront — values and connection are core to their business, permeating every aspect of the organization. What community-minded approaches are you taking to increase the happiness of your users for the long term?
Check back in on this series where we’ll be exploring sustainable growth and engagement by looking at the examples inspired by three more developers.
What do you think?
Do you have thoughts on long-term community engagement? 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.