Designing for Retention & Growth

Chloe Cathcart
Jan 17 · 8 min read
blades of grass reaching toward the sun
blades of grass reaching toward the sun

Designing for growth is a unique and challenging focus in product design, and it’s one I think more designers should feel empowered to explore. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, because there are incredible creative opportunities when you’re designing for growth.

What is a growth team?

First, let’s talk about what a growth team is and what it does. Growth teams usually consist of designers, software engineers, product managers, researchers, content designers, and analysts who optimise a product to increase signup, engagement, and revenue for a product. They often rely heavily on experimentation and data analysis to do so.

The four pillars of product growth are:

  1. Acquisition (when users sign up to use a product)
  2. Activation (when users get acquainted with your product)
  3. Engagement & Retention (when users establish a routine of repeated use)
  4. Monetization (when users find enough value in the product to pay for its use)

Many growth teams, including the one I’ve worked on at HubSpot, are divided up into smaller teams, each one focused on one of these pillars alone. The pillar I’ll be focusing on now is retention.

What is retention?

Retention refers to how well a product can keep its users active over a specific period of time. A product has good retention when users keep returning and find value from their use of that product. A product has bad retention when users stop using your product and perhaps start finding value with your competitors instead.

Imagine you release a mobile app, and you get a million downloads. Sounds like it’s a huge success, right? But what happens if none of those users come back to use the app after that download? It might look great from the outside, but that app is ultimately heading towards failure.

Whether you’re on a growth team or not, as designers we need to look at the retention and usage data behind the experiences we design so we can see how our users are interacting with our work over time. It’s the only way we can really understand the health of our product and how we can improve it.

The Four Stages of Retention

Every user goes through a certain lifecycle when using your product, and it’s important to design different experiences with the right stage in mind. Are you designing a flow for users who are just getting to know your product, or are they users who are more familiar with your product already? Each stage requires a subtly different approach.

a simple graph showing the decline in retention over time through the four stages of adoption, mid-term, dormant, long-term.
a simple graph showing the decline in retention over time through the four stages of adoption, mid-term, dormant, long-term.
Stages of retention

Stage 1: Adoption

This is the very beginning of your user’s lifecycle, when they’ve either only just heard of or just started using your product. Your job is to get them to see your product’s core value quickly. In this stage we need to answer the question: “Why should I use this app in the first place? What does it do for me that nothing else can do?”

Example: You’ve just designed a new gym app for a startup. There are hundreds of gym apps on the app store, but the main selling point of yours is that the user can build custom workouts. How do you get your users to understand this key value as soon as they download your app?

Action: Design an onboarding experience that shows your user the core value proposition of your app as quickly as possible. For instance, guiding users through building their first custom workout.

Stage 2: Mid-Term Retention

At this stage, users should understand your core value proposition and be starting to build a habit of using your app. Your job now is to help them answer the question: “When and how often do I want to use this app?”

Example: Your user has set up a custom workout in your app, and they’ve been using it in the gym to track their workouts. Great. But how do you make sure they keep up that momentum, keep getting value, and want to stick around?

Action: You might reinforce the value of using of your app through carefully designed notifications to keep your users engaged and motivated. For instance, you might use push notifications when users haven’t tracked a workout in a while.

Stage 3: Long-Term Retention

This is one of the most important stages in a user’s lifecycle. It consists of you proving your app’s continued value to them over time. They’re starting to ask the question: “Why might I switch from this app to another?” Creating an experience that extends to and properly supports these users ensures that retention stays high.

Example: Your user has formed a solid habit of tracking their workouts using your app, but you know there’s stiff competition on the app store. How do you make sure you give these users a reason to keep using your app?

Action: Design experiences that complement the core value proposition of your app and reinforce your user’s habit of getting value from your app. For instance, you might design a feature that allows users to track their meals.

Stage 4: Dormant

There will always be users who don’t stick around. In this stage, you need to design to answer the question: “Why should I give this app another shot?” It’s up to you as a designer to change these users’ views and get them back on board.

Example: Your user has stopped using your app to track their gym workouts. How do you get them to see enough value again for them to return?

Action: You might design a resurrection communication strategy through email or notifications. For instance, you might send an email offering dormant users a free month if they resubscribe.

How do I measure retention?

Once you understand the stages a user goes through, you can start looking at the numbers for each different stage.

The metrics that matter

The main metric we’re focused on is engagement over time. We look at the number of users who have activated (signed up to use the product) against their engagement over time (user taking action on your core value proposition that leads to forming a habit).

Event examples

  • Activation: User who has signed up to your app
  • Engagement over time: User logging workouts in your app

Standard retention charts

A common way of analyzing retention is to look at the retention curve for a cohort of users.

A good retention curve should flatten out and continue to do so over time. In the best case scenario, this curve would trend upwards and form a smiley face over time. This would mean your resurrection strategies are working and old users are returning to your product, in addition to all the current users staying on board.

But when your retention curve trends down toward zero, this indicates that something’s not right. Your users are disengaging with your product over time. Retention charts can give you insight into where the sharpest drop in user retention occurs.

Simple graph showing slight differences between poor to good retention over time.
Simple graph showing slight differences between poor to good retention over time.
Types of retention curves

The role of design

Retention is a big part of supporting your company’s growth. It’s about finding the biggest possible overlap between increasing revenue and the customer’s needs. These are not necessarily competing interests. And as a product designer, I find it interesting and challenging to balance both of these needs. Finding that overlap is exactly the sort of thing designers do well.

How can designers contribute to the success of a growth team, solve for the user, and help their companies grow?

Be the voice for your customer

It can be hard to balance business drivers with a great user experience, but being the voice for the customer on a growth team can help you get there. Designers are often the voice of the user on the teams we work on, and our presence on growth teams ensures that the needs of the user are given their due.

Avoid growth hacking

Some short-sighted companies try to grow their business through growth hacking instead of user-centered design. This can lead to some pretty bad user experience decisions, as growth hacking emphasises revenue growth over solving for the real user needs. Designers need to know the signs of growth hacking and stand up for the user on their growth teams.

Understand your product’s health

Once you’ve built something you think your customers will love, we need to put it to the test. We closely monitor retention metrics to see if the experiences we’re designing are actually contributing to the return of those customers over time. We can also look at usage data to see where users are struggling in our product, and helps us make informed decisions quickly.

Grow as a designer

As you gain deeper insight into how the business is performing and understanding the impact of the experiences you’re designing, you in turn will grow as a designer. I’ve learned valuable skills in data analytics and experimentation that have influenced the way I work and that I’ll carry with me wherever I go.

Define your personas

One of the biggest things we learned on the growth team at HubSpot is that not all users are the same and they all have different needs. Designers can help clarify and articulate the needs and goals of your users so your team can tailor the experience to set them up for success. You can do this through persona mapping exercises with your team.

Design for the aha moment

Every user needs to see the value in your product as soon as they can. Designers can play a significant role in creating an onboarding process that delivers on your product’s core value proposition as soon as possible, thereby increasing the likelihood your users will return again and again.

This usually means guiding users to perform an action that makes clear what sets your product apart from the rest. Maybe your app can do something others can’t do. Maybe it does it much more quickly, or effectively than other tools do. Find the aha moment in your app (it might be different for different users) and guide your users to it as quickly as you can.

In closing

Designers have a lot to offer to growth teams. Our presence on growth teams can help keep the user’s needs at the forefront of how those teams operates. And working on a growth team has helped me become more data-driven, strategic, and aware of how to balance user needs with business goals.

Resources

Building a team of growth at HubSpot: https://product.hubspot.com/blog/building-a-team-of-growth

Growth framework: https://growthrocks.com/blog/aarrr-framework/

Avoid growth hacking: https://neilpatel.com/blog/why-growth-hacking-is-failing-you/

Getting users to the aha moment: https://www.appcues.com/blog/aha-moment-guide

HubSpot Product

Lessons from shipping at HubSpot.

Chloe Cathcart

Written by

Product Designer @ HubSpot

HubSpot Product

Lessons from shipping at HubSpot.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade