Building a 'sticky' app, and why it matters

It is instantly clear to anyone who casts an inquiring eye over the digital landscape that mobile apps are the single most ascendant platform, and therefore afford businesses and content producers with the greatest opportunity. Anyone looking to establish a full digital suite to engage users or market their product would be remiss to overlook the efficacy of their application; and yet many apps are unintuitive, tricky to use, or bloated with confusing user interfaces (UI) or too many ideas.

The benefits of a great app are well-established. When compared with traditional customer management and communications platforms such as email, an application offers a far more engaged and purposeful experience -- the so-called 'captive audience' effect. Equally, the ability to maneuver away from volatile and unpredictable social media platforms, many of which increasingly require substantive investment in ongoing market campaigns to cut through to users, can be both lucrative in cost-savings and of significant brand value.

The ascendancy of apps should not be underestimated -- particularly in recent years. A recent survey conducted by App Annie found that globally, users are spending 4.2 hours on average every day using apps on smartphones -- up 30 percent on just two years prior. Further research has suggested that an overwhelming majority of users’ screen time (87 percent) is invested in mobile apps.


So, it is clear that there is a significant amount of user potential to be attracted to a platform -- which raises the issue of 'stickiness'. Herein, for many businesses, lies the issue. A smartphone user will, on average, have 80 apps downloaded to their phone, but use only 30 on a regular basis. Simply put, the app market is so saturated that competing for user attention is a significant challenge all developers must consider in the planning and design phase.

For this reason, while they can often make for impressive presentation data, download figures should not be considered the evidential metric. The aforementioned traditional communication platforms are rich with user data and marketing options which should make attaining downloads one of the more straightforward aspects of the process. Instead, the design process should concentrate on pursuing meaningful qualitative engagement, by addressing the fundamental underpinning factors which lend an app 'stickiness' to its user base.

The core fundamentals

There is, however, more to this than look and feel.

The onboarding process is an opportunity to assuage user concerns surrounding how the app will use their data. Taking a simple, clean approach to the data collection required for registration will affirm confidence in the app’s intuitiveness and reliability.

Many will take the approach of a soft-onboarding -- taking only necessary information to complete a partial registration before allowing access to the app’s functions, and then offering the opportunity for a full registration at a later date. This will shorten the length of time before users can experience the utility of the application, which should couple naturally with reduced exit rates and more returning users.

Providing a concise and transparent data retention policy, with clearly signposted opt-outs will also win user confidence in the app. This is often overlooked, but shouldn’t be -- in cutting down on onboarding time and addressing privacy concerns, well-presented data retention information can contribute significantly to user returns.

Designing a sticky app

Clarity of focus is equally critical. To achieve sustainable engagement with an app, it should be possible to concisely express the end user benefit. Many app development processes become mired in the race to implement as many ideas as possible, creating an application of seemingly ideal utility, but with bloated interfaces and clunky UI.

Content is often the central pillar in achieving this concentrated focus, but the chosen approach to presenting it can be make-or-break. For instance, YouTube sees more than 500 hours of video content uploaded to its servers each minute. Whether relevant to their interests or not, no user could conceivably sift through this to consistently find something worthwhile.

Curation is what elevates content, and applications, into engaging experiences.

Many approaches to this can be taken; for instance, Spotify custom playlists and Instagram discover deliver artificial intelligence (AI) generated selections of content based on assessments of user behavior. Conversely, a hand-curated approach may be favorable in instances as varied as news, community groups, or personal cooking recipes.

Prioritizing creating engaging and uncomplicated user experiences (UXs) will naturally engender a significant inherent 'stickiness' to apps. Failing to consider the ways in which individuals use their phones, and interact with content, will result in too many ideas and not enough utility. As is often the case, less is more. Put the user first, make the purpose and function of the app as clear as possible in as little time as possible, and craft a straightforward and concise journey to that function -- it really can be as simple as that.

Image credit: Milkos/

Ritam Gandhi, is the Founder and Director of Studio Graphene – a London-based company that specialises in the development of blank canvas tech products including apps, websites, AR, IoT and more. The company has completed over 100 projects since first being started in 2014, working with both new entrepreneurs and product development teams within larger companies.

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