How To Build A Sustainable App

It’s An App World After All


Before we delve into what it takes to build a sustainable app, it is pertinent to understand what the current state of the app industry, the usage patterns that prevail and what data tells us.

With over 3.2 billion smartphone users and 1.3 billion tablet users across the globe, it should come as no surprise that the app industry remains lucrative and is growing at a frantic pace. To put that into perspective, the Google Play store houses a massive selection of 2.8 million apps followed by Apple with 2.2 million contenders.

In 2019, we humans downloaded more than 204 billion apps contributing approximately US$ 462 billion into the pockets of app developers and stores alike. That figure is dwarfed by the projected US$ 935 billion pundits expect by the end of 2023.

Graph-App-Downloads-From-2016-to-2019

It’s Harder Than You Thought

Data suggests that the average user stores between 60-90 apps on their smartphone while only using an estimated 30 apps a month, 9 on a daily basis. Although, 96% of a users screen time is split between the top ten apps, 77% is dedicated to the top 3.

This brings to fruition the concept of Churn. It is estimated that 71% of apps stop being used within 90 days of download. This is one of the main reasons for app developers losing business.

Retention-Rates-Mobile-Apps

When you factor in that 96.5% of all apps on the Google Play store and 92.3% on the Apple app store are free, generating a return on investment becomes a lot more difficult. Having said that, the good news is 98% of app revenue comes through free apps.

Obviously this means that chasing downloads is only half the battle for app owners. Creating mechanisms to drive usage, retain users and monetize that relationship is what separates the winners from the losers. With this as the backdrop, let’s talk about what it takes to build a sustainable app.

Building An Sustainable App

The fact remains that we download apps because we think they fulfill a particular need or serve a purpose at some point. However, when usage of those apps fade, they get relegated to the app graveyard.

So from an app owners point of view, how do we create the necessary infrastructure and gameplan to prevent such occurrences? The answer to some degree comes from what every app must address at a basic level.

  1. A need or value that’s irresistible to pass up ⇢ Reason to try
  2. A motive to engage ⇢ Reason to stay
  3. A feedback system ⇢ Self-propelling development

These elements aren’t unicorns. They are the building blocks of any application or product for that matter. But, when we mirror these elements against 3 critical components necessary to build an sustainable app, a more intricate strategy unfolds.

The Growth Flow Diagram

The Grow Flow Diagram ( excuse the name, I’m still working on it ) is a framework I put together that aims to shed light on what established and highly successful app ventures have managed to achieve.

En route to building a large audience, sustaining a growth trajectory and monetizing their offerings, these businesses have shared a similar foundational strategy.

Diagram-Showing-Critical-Milestones

A strategic hook is a critical point or milestone from where the app stands a high chance of survival.  That critical point is attained when a user completes an action or set of actions that are deemed vital to help the app demonstrate its value. These actions could be – creating a profile, adding connections, uploading photos or videos, storing information, pinning content, making a purchase etc.

The strategic hook isn’t necessarily the first step or even the second. It is a trigger for stimulating engagement. Without completing this milestone, the fate of the app remains questionable.

Consider Facebook, an app that is currently home to over 2.7 billion active monthly users. The strategic hook is not simply creating a profile or adding assets to it but actually connecting with friends. Facebook research indicated that if user connected with seven friends in 10 days, the user was hooked with a high propensity to continue using the app.

Pinterest found that if a user pinned something, there was a very good chance they’d be back within a week. If amazon concentrated solely on customers signing up, it probably wouldn’t have been very successful. Making that first purchase allowed customers to experience the convenience and confidence of online shopping. Satisfied customers are motivated and encouraged to repeat that key behavior.

All these examples suggest a causal relationship – Behaviour (A) leads to Outcome (B). So the fundamental focus shifts simply downloading an app to getting more people to perform the desired behavior.

Critical-Path-Apps-Facebook-Pinterest-Amazon

Completing the strategic hook is closely linked to the investment trap, which is where users establish enough stake in the app to make leaving difficult. In other words, the more users add to the app or the more progress they make or the more benefits they receive, the harder it becomes for them to stop using it.

For instance, the more content shared by a user with his/her friends on Facebook, the more engagement opportunities arise. The more reason to hang around and remain connected.

Similarly, the more notes you save in Evernote, the more prone you are to using it. The same analogy extends to other apps like Google Drive or Dropbox. The investment trap is really a user lock-in. It’s where strong dependencies begin to form. The fear of missing out also takes hold here.

Evernote-Store-Notes-Drive-Store-Files

There are times when the strategic hook or the investment trap may require a parallel set of users or activities to keep engagement fresh. Consider YouTube. If YouTube only concentrated on adding new users but offered no content to browse, its purpose is defeated  instantly. Therefore, they would need a pipeline of content to keep users engaged.

Enter, content creators. The strategic hook for a content creator would be to upload content to the platform for the world to watch. Valuable content is rewarded in the form of subscriptions, views, influencer-like status and monetary incentives.

The more content posted, the higher the investment. The higher the investment, the higher the potential payoff. The higher the payoff, the stronger the trap. Things begin to mutually reinforce each other.

Youtube-Illustration-Strategic-Hook-Investment-Trap

Lastly, the self-propelling development loop is where the magic happens. As app owners harness data and analytics from the growing usage of their apps, they begin to learn more. These learnings get truncated into new features and ideas, ultimately delivering better user experiences.

In fact, some features may appeal to an entirely new audience that didn’t see enough value in the initial proposition. Consider apps like Skype, Twitter or Whatsapp who discovered new applications for the product as more feedback came in.

Illustartion- Twitter-Skype-Whatsapp-New-User-Segments

The growth flow diagram is good framework for app enthusiasts to help them grow a user base, improve the percentage of users invested in the app, use data and exploit opportunities to monetize the relationship.

Good Luck With Building Your Sustainable App

Mobile penetration, by all data sources, is on an upward trend and this information is wind in the sails of app developers.

The key to building a successful app is finding those vital actions necessary to drive engagement, retain users and create a self-propelling system that grows and improves with time.

Before you decide to build an sustainable app, remember that not every app will be the next Whatsapp, Candy Crush or Uber. But, not finding what’s critical to the success of your app early on in the development process will make the journey a lot more difficult and demoralizing.

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