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New app usage data: Mobile users usage still plateaued at 30 apps

New app usage data: Mobile users usage still plateaued at 30 apps

New data from Nielsen (via the WSJ) shows that app used are plateauing around 30 per device (and are even lower, for older users).


This means that the biggest challene for apps is winning mind share (and it doesn’t help that other surveys suggest only 5-9 apps see heavy usage from any individual user). So what are the implications for app developers? I it means Your app needs to commit to a niche — either in functionality or in target users — or commit to competing in one of the very few, and brutally competitive, general marketplaces: Social, mapping, discovery, photo, and maybe one or two others.

The biggest relevant change in the past year has been the creation of app constellations. App constellations, a term coined by Fred Wilson, are ecosystems of apps that are built to work together. Great examples are Swarm and Foursquare, or Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Hyperloop. 

These constellations are particularly interesting because they crowd out competiton: The data suggests users are going to significantly increase the number of apps they use, so if Facebook can expand from one to four apps, they’ve reduced their competition for mobile mindshare, even if their minutes-of-use don’t increase dramatically.

Right now, only the biggest players can pull this off: It is hard, it requires significant development work (because you need to make multiple, high quality, apps), and you need to be important enough that people are willing to go through the hassle of getting multiple apps.

iOS 8’s extensions are going to change things — and it isn’t clear to me what the impact is going to be. The potential upside for small apps: You don’t need to be one of the thirty apps people store on their home page. Instead you can focus on doing one thing really well, and count on getting surfaced whenever people need your functionality.

There’s another possibility, however, which could further tech’s rich-get-richer trend: Extensions could help big app ecosystems pack in even more functionality, without falling afoul of mobile’s design constraints.

I interesting to see if these numbers change significantly as iOS 8 rolls out. I’ll report back here.

August 30, 20140 comments
Do mobile user education right

Do mobile user education right

Redlaser 4.0 Mock

When we were designing RedLaser 4.0, one of our biggest questions was now to handle navigation. In particular, we weren’t sure where to put the button that launched our barcode scanner. It’s a critical function, but we were adding more features, so we needed to make sure it stood out.

We put it at the very center of our navigation bar, with a giant scan icon. We made the background red, so that it would really pop.

Sure, the app wouldn’t boot straight into the scan mode — we wanted users to see all the new features — but we were sure we’d done the next best thing.

The design failed, horribly, in testing. One user, a long-time RedLaser user, spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to launch scanning. She later told us she hadn’t even noticed the button.

This is a common story in mobile: Complex user interfaces are extremely hard, and a UX change can backfire in unexpected ways. If a button isn’t explicitly labeled and visible above the fold on the home page, it will get exponentially less usage.

This is a challenge: Phone screens are too small to show an explicit user interface for all but the simplest apps.

RedLaser isn’t alone in facing this issue. Swarm is a gorgeously designed app from Foursquare. It is the culmination of FourSquare’s efforts to re-envision and dramatically simplify the check in process. To do this, by default it continually broadcasts your current neighborhood to your connections. FourSquare realizes that while this behavior is critical to the app, it can also be really creepy: you don’t always want your friends to know when they’re nearby.

A very important part of the interface, then, is turning this tracking off. It’s easy, but also a new interaction element: You swipe left-to-right across the top bar and it changes your state:


While this interaction approach is easy and smooth, Swarm’s challenged because it isn’t a kind of interaction users expect — and there’s no explicit text to let you know it is even an option. Even savvy mobile users find it hidden:

This leaves developers two choices: Build simpler apps, or teach users.

It looks like many of the largest companies in mobile are choosing the former. The triumph of Whatsapp is its focus and simplicity — and it is followed by focused apps from eBay, LinkedIn, Amazon, Google, and more. A single-purpose app can create a focused, simple, user-interface.

A single-purpose app, however, just creates different problems: User acquisition, and user retention. Big mobile companies with their own ecosystems can use apps to feed each other (just like clicking an eBay link in RedLaser will send users to the eBay app). The vast majority of mobile players don’t have this luxury, and user acquisition can be brutally hard. So when you’ve convinced a user to download your app, it needs to be a must-open, home-page-worth app — and this frequently will mean complexity.

Most app developers can’t afford to fragment their user base. So complex apps need to get user education right.

User education, however, is hard. The most common approach is to show an overlay on launch, calling out a few critical buttons. In Swarm, FourSquare insisted every user disable and then re-enable location tracking before permitting wider use of the app. Others require users to watch short videos or swipe through pages of text.

None of this works. Most users in a new app want to get up and running as quickly as they can. We’ve all been guilty of furiously button mashing through tutorials, trying to get to the meat of the app. So what should a designer or product lead do?

The most impressive user education system I’ve encountered is, surprisingly, for the app Secret. Secret is a social sharing app whitest people anonymously broadcast information.

Secret uses three complementary approaches to user education

Method 1: The traditional tutorial

Secret starts with a traditional user education flow When a user opens the app for the first time, they need to swipe through a series of screens describing the basic operation of the app. This happens before registration, which is important so that users get a sense of how the app works and aren’t driven to close or delete immediately. These screens are extremely simple, focusing on concepts rather than on specific functionality.

At RedLaser, we found people swipe through this kind of screen extremely quickly. The default assumption should be that the average user will not see this content.

HighlightsMethod 2: In-line education

Secret’s first innovation in user training is inline education. The key interface for the app is a user’s secret feed. When a user pauses to read a secret, it is blurred out and a single, focused, explanation of a user interface element appears. These messages are contextually relevant — they only appear when the user pauses to read a message that could benefit from further explanation.

The advice is effective and powerful because it is highly relevant to the user’s current situation. The messages either suggests a specific action the user can actually take on the secret they’re reading right then, or it provides context for the secret (if not from a friend) which makes the secrets more valuable.

Exiting these messages requires a click in a small area, and the exit button changes location (following the messages), which means that users can’t quickly skip through the messages.

Inline-NotesMethod 3: Spaced Retrieval Therapy

Secret’s final training method is spaced retrieval therapy. In SRT, you regularly re-expose people to information to lock it into their minds.

Secret uses this for key pieces of information: How to like secrets by swiping left to right (critical because this determines whether and how secrets are shared), and permissions requests.

This information is displayed inline, just like a normal secret, which means users are less likely to block the content out (as in banner blindness).

It isn’t clear when Secret decides to show this information. To most effectively train people about interfaces, they should display the information on a regular pattern with decreasing frequency (e.g., after 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, 30 days, etc.). If a user positively responds to the content (for example, by taking the action without prompting), the frequency of reminders can become less frequently.

For other posts on mobile, read about the trend of increasing apps per company and iOS 8’s major pro-privacy changes.

June 23, 20143 commentsRead More
More pro-privacy changes in the second iOS 8 beta

The Address Book UI people picker has been changed for iOS 8. A new mode with new API has been added where the app does not need access to the user’s contacts and the user will not be prompted for access. A temporary copy of the selected person is returned to the app. See ABPeoplePickerNavigationController.h for more details.

In iOS 8 beta 2, you must use the new mode. The old mode has been deprecated with this beta.

Another big move from Apple on the privacy front — the new Address Book UI people picker doesn’t give full access to contacts to apps. Instead, users only share a single contact with the app. Apple seems to be using iOS 8 to establish itself as the internet and technology company that cares about user privacy.

June 17, 20140 comments
iOS 8 is hiding a suite of pro-privacy and pro-battery life changes

iOS 8 is hiding a suite of pro-privacy and pro-battery life changes

Background LocationSteve Cheney, a SVP at Bluetooth beacon company Estimote just tweeted an iOS 8 screenshot asking him to reconfirm letting the Weather app use his location in the background.

This change seems to be built on iOS 8’s new “While Using” location privacy option, which differentiates between active location lookup (say, when you want to find a restaurant near you) and background location lookup (for things like weather, or geofences).

This is a seismic change for location-dependent apps, and part of a huge shift in iOS 8 to fight for user privacy and to preserve battery life.

Changes relating to privacy, apart from background location, include:

  • Changing the device’s Mac ID with every Wifi probe request to shut down an entire industry of retail analytics (which has the added side effect of promoting Apple’s iBeacon technology)
  • Sandboxing their Touch ID implementation, so that apps can only see whether authentication was approved instead of fingerprint information
  • DuckDuckGo is now the default search engine in Safari. The search engine differentiates itself from Google by conducting minimal-to-no user tracking.

On the battery life front, the operating system how highlights apps which are battery hogs — and will indubitably lead to significant consumer pressure on those apps. For RedLaser, we saw a strong perception by users that background location tracking was correlated to heavy battery usage (which isn’t always the case), but now users will have a much more precise metric … and some users care, strongly.

I’m excited to see where Apple is going. These changes have sealed up some big holes in the operating system, and are intensely pro-consumer.

(EDIT: There are more changes — I followed up here.)

June 11, 20140 comments
Swarthmore’s Sesquicentenial: Rebecca Chop, Arthur Chu, and Psi Phi

Swarthmore’s Sesquicentenial: Rebecca Chop, Arthur Chu, and Psi Phi

SwarthmoreAfter twelve hours of travel and a long night in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I returned to Swarthmore for my five-year (and the College’s 150th) reunion. It was an introspective affair, and definitely helped me remember why I love the college … something I’d started to forget after years in the working world.

Physically, Swarthmore is still beautiful, and the infrastructure seemed nearly unchanged. It was striking how I felt right at home walking among the hallowed halls and tree-lined paths. It’ll be interesting how (if?) the significant planned construction changes the tenor of campus.

President Rebecca Chopp is really impressive

Update: Swarthmore announced today (6/12/14) that Rebecca Chopp is leaving for the University of Denver. I’m very sad to see her go.

Rebecca Chopp became president just after I graduated, though I did have a chance to cover her selection in The Daily Gazette before graduation. Many of my classmates seem to remember a photo spread I did right after her formal selection as particularly creepy.

I sat in on a Q&A session with Chopp and Gil Kemp, the head of the board of the directors. Frankly put: They were both impressive. They clearly work well together, and I love how Chopp seems to be far more engaged in the business of the college than her predecessor (Al Bloom, who went on to be a dean at NYU’s Abu Dhabi expansion and recently made some shockingly poorly considered comments on the treatment of workers there).

A few topics were brought up which have been rather contentious recently, and I was interested to hear how they tackled them:

Divestment from fossil fuels: Apparently the Board’s position is that the endowment should not be used for any political purposes. Instead, it should fund the mission of the College, and students should be the agents of political change. Kemp argued this was necessary because there are many issues which could be addressed by divestment, and most aren’t so clear-cut — in particular, he mentioned the Israel-Palestine issue, probably because some activists see parallels between South Africa and Israel … and issue that was addressed by divestment, on the part of Swarthmore and others. Kemp additionally noted that Swarthmore’s endowment is pretty small in general, and nearly insignificant in terms of the global finance system for fossil fuels in particular. This answer clearly didn’t satisfy the divestment activists in the audience, but it seems like a reasonable response to me, as long as the College is taking serious and concrete steps to help elsewhere in its operations.

June 8, 20143 commentsRead More