Every app is competing with Facebook

Very few app producers or start–ups may recognise the fact, but far from offering a unique experience to users, their apps are vying for attention with the giants of digital – Facebook, Instagram, even Candy Crush.

Any app that manages to make its way on to a user’s device automatically becomes a direct competitor to dozens of other apps, all within a thumb’s reach and all with the potential to use up those few minutes that the user has to spare at that point in time.

Combined with research that tell us apps feature an abandonment rate of around 95% overall, and that 1 in 5 apps are used only once, this is chilling stuff for any app producer. So while the user’s decision to download an app remains a landmark moment, the battle for engagement has only just begun.

Some months ago Vibhu Norby, founder of start–up EveryMe, wore his heart on his sleeve in a blog post, letting the world in on adoption rates for the app that had to date secured $3.6m in funding. Those of a nervous disposition may want to sit down for the next part:

• From over 300,000 downloads of the EveryMe app, 200,000 people signed up to use the service.
• A requirement for a phone number or email address saw 25% abandon the app.
• A further (optional) step to sign in via a social network saw a further 25% leave the process.
• Just less than 25% didn’t create a social group within the app
• Finally, another 25% failed to add anyone to the group they created

The net result was that EveryMe retained around 5% of users through the entire on–boarding process, by all accounts a common story even with apps that have firmly established themselves over time.

The challenge for EveryMe, indeed for every other app on the market, is simply to build something that people want to use. Before app producers get close to design of any sort answers to the following questions should be clear: firstly, “What problem are we solving?”, and subsequently, “Are we building the right thing?”.

Solid research and user experience strategy goes a long way to providing answers to those questions, which should include getting a firm grasp on user motivation and intent. A lot has been made in the past of the idea of gamification and making apps and services more pleasurable to use. These principles tap directly into motivation theory, where ‘rewards’ (badges and user levels for example) are offered as extrinsic motivation for user interaction.

Stronger than this again is intrinsic motivation, where the drive to act (and interact) comes from within the individual. Take as an example the popularity of the ‘Couch to 5K’ system. The method of incrementally lengthening periods of running until a non–runner can comfortably cover a 5 kilometre distance has spawned dozens if not hundreds of apps, which consistently top the app download charts. Leveraging intrinsic motivation is one of the most effective ways to encourage engagement over the long term.

The secret to establishing motivation – extrinsic or intrinsic – and knowing which one to use, is to know your audience well enough to answer the fundamental questions: what are users trying to achieve and how are you facilitating those goals? A user’s time spent interacting with an app or a website is an investment on their part; they expect a return on that investment, whether that is in the form of a tangible return, say an item bought online, or through realised ambitions and goals achieved.

What motivations are you able to tap into for your app, website or application? What are users really trying to achieve, and how are you making it easier for them?

If these questions are not credibly answered, those thumbs will almost certainly drift towards the Facebook icon once again.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

Upgraded. Deflated.

What a let-down :(
Sure signs that I’m getting older, number 37 in a series: software upgrades no longer excite me.

Photoshop has helped to mould the design industry we know today. I’ve been around long enough to remember life before Photoshop, and it seems like a very long time ago. Designers coming into the industry in recent years have known nothing else and, like me, they have no viable alternative. We’re stuck with the application as an industry standard for better or for worse. It has even become a verb, a confirmation that it dominates its market; think Hoover, Xerox etc.

But its ability to surprise diminishes with each successive version. The video demonstrating CS5’s new Smart Fill feature conveniently created a buzz in the lead up to the launch of the CS5 suite, drawing gasps of amazement from designers worldwide. As ever with these things the reality was not quite as amazing in practice and the need for it in day-to-day projects is minimal.

Software marketing promises a false dawn. Design challenges remain design challenges; no amount of new features will replace or enhance the ability to interpret client requirements. Improvement and change comes only with experience.

If upgraded software makes you more productive, then it’s worth the price of admission. However, if it makes you a better designer, you’re doing it wrong.

Changing the way we work

We’ve recently been working on a major project with a client whose main office is 100 miles away. While physical visits are not an issue, sometimes we want to build up momentum working, and ask the client for feedback on the way. To facilitate this, we’ve elected to use two online apps for different sides of the design process.

For interface design visuals we’ve been working with Onotate, built by the folks at Rumble Labs. We’ve been using the just-out-of-beta app for feedback and collaboration with up to 6 other reviewers and editors. Onotate shows interface designs in the relevant context – a web browser – and notes can be added by dragging cross-haris across the desired area of the screen.

On the other side of the process, HotGloo has been our weapon of choice for wireframing and interactive prototypes. A brilliant tool, it makes creating interactive prototypes a breeze and, like Onotate, it can accommodate feedback in the form of onscreen notes.

We’ve found a number of benefits to using these tools, which apply to both of them.

– They encourage brevity: the comment boxes are just the right size and discourage lengthy essays on particular point
– They encourage more immediate feedback: it’s simple for the reviewer to leave a comment there and then rather than have to switch to an email window and remember everything there
– They help keep debate transparent: with multiple reviewers, it’s often too easy for the real discussions to take place in multiple emails, or in some other ‘unofficial’ forum. Threads can be created there on the tool, and keeps everyone focussed.
– They save on confusion: If someone else has already made a point, another reviewer is unlikely to repeat it

We had only made moderate use of these tools before now; beyond this point though, there is a good chance that the way we work will have been permanently affected, very much for the better.