Apps have a big problem, and it’s not what they think.
I know I’m not making an earth-shattering statement by saying that mobile apps today have a problem. But the real problem is that they don’t understand what that problem actually is.
You see, app owners are facing a pretty dire reality. People aren’t just downloading apps like they used to, and experts are predicting an app-ocaplypse (see what I did there?) or downright pronouncing the industry dead . Unless an app is Facebook, Snapchat, or the occasional PokemonGo —it’s going to be struggling to get users (and struggling even harder to keep them).
But app owners are entrepreneurs and have contracted a mild case of Baseless Optimism, as entrepreneurs often do. They’re determined to be the outlier and have the last laugh at reality. They’re going to get more users, whatever it takes.
Depending on the resources at their disposal, they have a few tools at they could use: Advertising online, on social media, even in podcasts. Writing content to support their app and give them an online presence. Going to events and conferences with the hopes of getting “discovered”. And countless other methods and strategies.
Humanity and technology have made great advancements, but those do not converge in the world of mobile.
One strategy that’s gained popularity recently (and rightfully so) is the attempt to make an app as viral as possible, by prompting users to share the app with friends or help improve its ratings. This is seemingly a no-brainer — if I have X users and each one brings a friend, I get 2X users. And if each of the new friends brings a friend, I have 3X users. Mathematically speaking, if I can optimize this to produce, on average, more than one friend per existing user, I’ve got exponential growth on my hands. I don’t know about you, but I like exponential growth.
But there is one thing that’s often overlooked, something that once pointed out, should seem so glaringly obvious.
I’m not talking about UX decisions, like what is a better CTA button color and which way should a user swipe to take a certain action (although those are important in their own right). I’m talking about something way more basic — the way an app communicates with the people using it.
It’s funny, really. In 2017 we as the human race have managed make great advancements both in humanities and in technology, yet somehow these domains do not converge when it comes to mobile apps. We know how to land a man on the moon, share photos of things dear to us in real time, connect more than half the globe using balloons, organize to fight for human rights, and make a computer teach itself to recognize cat memes — but our apps still ask us “Please share this app with your friends” with the same generic, faceless message, more often than not coming at just the wrong time.
Like my public transportation app, that without fail will ask me to rate it Every. Single. Time that I’m running to the bus station, trying frantically to figure out if I’m making my usual bus or if I should use a different route. HECK NO I will not go into the app store to rate you now! All I’m looking for at that moment is the ‘x’ button to close this thing that’s covering the timetable I’m trying so desperately to see. Yes, I wouldn’t be in such a rush if I had woken up 15 minutes earlier. But I’m a tired working-mom-entrepreneur, and you as my app are supposed to be my accomplice for sneaking in more sleep and still making my meetings on time.
Or even Twitter, who showered my cofounder’s screen with balloons on his birthday… Every time he opened the app that day. It was utterly delightful on the first open — it actually cracked a physical smile. The second time was endearing. After eight times, it not only was downright annoying, but also completely cannibalized the inital charm from the first time. They didn’t ask for anything, but they let their automatic tools make them look like jackasses. What felt like a personal human gesture at the beginning now made us users even more awkwardly aware of the Matrix that their app is made of.
Are these little betrayals from our apps the biggest problem my cofounder and I had that day? Of course not. Would we think more favorably of the app and be more inclined to say “Yes” to their requests had they bothered to give these things a second thought and take us as people into account? You bet.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
Yes, apps need users. But what they REALLY need is to stop treating them like “users” and start treating them more like “people”.
What exactly does that mean? In one word, this can be boiled down to Empathy.
If you want the people using your app to share and recommend it, they need to feel good about it. If they are going to feel good about it, it’s not enough for it to just be useful or beautiful or intuitive. They need to feel that when it speaks to them – and it should speak to them – it’s speaking their language; they need to feel as though it’s not a machine, for they are not machines. Even the most pristine UI and slickest UX become pretty worthless if you ping them with a share request the third time they use the app without any additional context.
Make no mistake — this isn’t just about your brand’s “voice”. It’s about when your brand chooses to contact them, how much your brand invests in connecting with them prior to asking them for favors, and to what degree your brand is associated in their minds with a real, live, human being. In other words, how much you care about them personally. Because this will inevitably determine how much thought you put into your app’s interactions with them. The amount you care truly comes through in your execution of the in-app interactions. And that is a huge deciding factor in how your app will be perceived.
So no, there are no silver bullets. Your app needs to be well designed, not crash, and solve a problem or a need. But if you were to do just one thing to improve your app’s metrics, it’s this — stop looking at the numbers and start seeing the people — and caring about them. The numbers will follow. They will.
Full disclosure: Wombat is an in-app engagement platform that lets you easily connect with your app’s users the way you would with people in the real world. I love our mission, our company, and our clients, and can’t wait for the shift in attitude to finally take place. I hope we will play a major part in it.