It makes sense that we’d be addicted to this magical device at the tips of our fingers. The smartphone doesn’t only provide us with various means of communication with the world, but also serves as a guide when making buying decisions, a source of information about the world around us, a tool to document our lives and get entertainment when we want it, no matter where we are.
According to data published by comScore, more than half of all digital media time spent by users in the US is dedicated to mobile apps. However, according to Nielsen, the upper limit to the total number of apps users access in any given month is 30.
What this means for mobile app developers and marketers is that the challenge is keeping users engaged and coming back to the app or in other words – make their app as addictive as possible.
Obviously not all apps can be equally addictive. You can’t really compare the length of time spent using social apps (like Facebook or Twitter), games and media apps to that spent using apps geared for a specific need (like a shopping list or price comparison app) or brand apps. Yet, it is possible (and recommended) to make any mobile app an experience users will want to repeat and spend time engaging with.
Some of the tips here discuss the addictive properties relevant mostly to mobile games. The games category is one of the app store categories with the highest rates of addiction and is the most profitable category by a large margin. Even if you are not developing a game but an app, these tips will help you design your app to be stickier and more engaging.
In addition, the way we become addicted to games and mobile gaming apps has led to the popularity of gamification in the design and planning on mobile apps.
KISS – Simplicity Rules
Regardless of the age of your target audience is, your app should be simple enough for a nine-year-old to figure out. The more a person has to “work” in order to get what they want or need, the more likely it is that they’ll avoid repeating the action (in our case – using the app again). So don’t make your user “work.”
A good example is the wildly popular dating app Tinder. One of the reasons it’s so popular is the ease of use it offers, compared to other dating apps. All a user needs to do is swipe left and right according to their interest in the date offered to them by the app – something an average person can do (but probably shouldn’t) even while fairly drunk.
Multitasking and division of attention
Casual games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds can usually be operated with a single hand, do not include a time limit (for the most part) and do not require constant attention to the game. This dramatically increases the range of opportunities for the user to access these apps, even while doing something else completely.
Any delay, even the tiniest one, on the user’s way to satisfying the need that caused them to run the app in the first place, may cause them to leave the app, never to return. A truly sticky and addictive app should not only have a polished and bug-free interface, but also needs to deliver the most value in the shortest time.
Sure, we want the user to spend more time using our app, but the way to achieve this is by offering more value rather than “traps” that will waste the user’s time and annoy him.
The illusion of control and loss aversion
We like to be in control. We also like to choose what, when and how we control things. Our need of control combined with the freedom to choose is one of the main drivers of the popularity of computerized role-playing games (especially open world “sandbox” games) and various simulation games like The Sims and even the old Tamagotchi devices from the 90s.
Our mind works in such a way that we feel some satisfaction when interacting with a game that gives us a measure of self-expression and control over different aspects of the experience – be it the hair color of the character we choose to represent ourselves or the types of vegetables we grow on our virtual farm.
Loss aversion is a psychological effect that encourages repeated use and addiction by making us believe we can re-gain what we’ve lost if we keep investing more.
For example, look at gamblers who’ve lost a sum of money on a bet and are then requested to stop betting. In most cases, they will resist and ask to continue because human nature causes them to believe they can win back the money they lost if they keep betting.
In the mobile app and gaming world you can see this principle used in games like FarmVille. In FarmVille, if you miss the time frame in which you can harvest your crops they will die and you will not gain the points you would have had you harvested them in time.
The human brain will demand the user returns to attend to the crops, even if at the time he’s doing something far more important than playing a farm simulation game.
Innovate and excite with care
Why a weak emotional response? Because a strong and overwhelming emotional response it not only hard to achieve, but can also exhaust the users over time, causing them to avoid using the app when they don’t have the leisure to engage in a full-on emotional involvement.
Moreover, in order to preserve the users’ interest in the app you will need to gradually provide more excitement to keep them coming back, while at the same time trying to avoid creating an emotional overload.
When designing the user experience with an app it’s also important to include an effect of constant innovation, growth and improvement. Every time the user accesses the app, his experience should be slightly different than the one he had the previous time.
For example, a brand app should show new and up to date discounts, news and product suggestions to the user as soon as they launch it. At the same time, create a sense of expectation you can meet. The aforementioned brand app can announce an upcoming sale or product launch, offering users to set a reminder to check the app on a specific date, for one.
It’s important to note that the constant innovation and positive expectation effects are not suitable for all apps. For instance, an e-hailing app that is used to simply hail a cab and pay for the fare doesn’t need to innovate or excite much – it simply needs to deliver the service quickly, effectively and at a competitive price.
You should also be careful not to overdo it with innovation and application of changes in order to retain your users. Don’t go around re-designing the app look and feel every other day and don’t start moving around buttons or functions the users have grown accustomed to – people aren’t huge fans of change, especially when it comes to things they’re used to over time.
If the user accesses a familiar app only to receive an unfamiliar interface, odds are he’ll get confused, frustrated and then close the app, never to open it again.