5 things you need to understand about your app users

Humans can be a pretty tough bunch to understand – and yet that’s precisely what it takes to make a mobile app a success. Understanding your users and what they want is a critical step towards delivering an experience that they’ll want to return to again and again. In the absence of any mind-reading powers, however, the study of psychology can offer some insights into how we think and why we do certain things. For the mobile sphere, these kinds of insights are invaluable in optimizing your interactions and shaping your strategy to increase ROI through improved engagement and retention.

Rather than relying on trying out different approaches to see what sticks, it’s worth starting from square one and think like one of your customers. Using techniques that work with the ways that users’ minds function rather than battling against them saves you time and resources in the long run. Approaching apps from the user’s perspective is the smart way to ensure that you’re delivering what they really want – whether or not they know it themselves.


When you’re looking to convert app users to a paying account or to encourage them to increase their spending, what you are really asking them to do is to carry out an action. However, putting forward too many offers, however great they may be, is likely to result in no action at all. Whilst some choice is obviously necessary to compete with the range of options on offer, psychological studies suggest that too many choices mean that we avoid choosing any of them.

Choice paralysis has been made famous by Barry Schultz’s Choice Paradox “More isn’t always better”, based on research affectionately known as ‘the jam study’. Customers were shown a display of 24 jams on one day, and 6 jams on the next – those who were shown fewer jams were ten times more likely to buy. Limit the options being offered to users will make the choice making simple, as well as receiving better overall uptake rates, you’ll be able to focus more on optimizing the options that are given. Rather than cramming dozens of buttons onto small mobile screens, keep calls to action clear with just two or three straightforward choices and you’re likely to see a higher rate of conversion.


Most of us have experienced first-hand how receiving rewards at random can feel addictive. You’ll recognize this principle from gambling machines and many mobile games: the promise of rewards combined with the inability to predict when they’ll be given increases desire and engagement.

B. F. Skinner’s experiments are amongst the most famous in behavioural psychology, and his theories on variable schedules of reinforcement are put into practice by countless businesses. In one of Skinner’s experiments, treats were released when a pigeon pecked at a sensor, but the treats were given at random intervals. Surprisingly, this made the pigeon peck more than if the frequency was regular.

Giving rewards can seem like an easy way to encourage app users to stick around, but if they’re given too often then they lose their novelty, and users stop putting in effort to earn them. The real knack to improving customer retention rates is to give these rewards at random – with no clear way to directly earn them, users are encouraged to keep engaging until it happens again.


Retargeting users who have engaged with your app but then moved away is critical to avoid them drifting on to a competitor, but ‘nudging’ them unwisely can push them away once and for all. This is where the Zeigarnik Effect comes in. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters remembered the orders of the tables they were serving, but once the table paid and the task was considered completed, the details were forgotten. By reminding users of actions they’ve left unfinished, your retargeting message is likely to have more of an impact with users than asking them to start something new.

That said, drawing a process out too long risks losing the pull of completion – as with the idea of ‘flow’ below, the action needs to have a clear and achievable objective for a user to engage with. The Zeigarnik Effect can also work to improve numbers of app users who sign up. Rather than facing users with a form that they’ll forget to fill in, including it as part of a process that users have initiated, such as reaching a certain piece of content, will mean they’re more likely to sign up to finish the action.


If you’ve ever looked up from an activity and realised that time has flown by without you realising it, then you’ve experienced ‘flow’. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the Flow Model to explain the sensation of concentration and productivity we experience when we’re fully absorbed in a task. Studies carried out with thousands of participants suggest that flow most commonly occurs when people are actively engaged in a task, and when the level of challenge is balanced with the individual’s skill level, meaning that both frustration and boredom are avoided.

Designing your UX so that app users feel engaged but not overwhelmed is key to increasing the time spent in each session. If an app is too straightforward or simple, people will lose interest; if it’s too complex, they will become anxious. Examine your app analytics to see where users are spending the most time, and therefore are most likely to be experiencing flow, but also to find the moments that are disrupting it. Having a complex feature introduced before users have developed enough knowledge of the app to deal with it could be blocking flow.


The relationship between apps and users is one of both give and take. Because smartphones are in people’s pockets, on their desks and beside their beds, building a sense of trust and value for users is crucial to developing a positive reputation. One simple way to achieve this is to make sure you benefit your users before you ask for something from them.

In his 1971 ‘soda study’, Dennis Regan asked participants to undertake a selection of tasks, during which some were given a soda and others were not. At the end of the experiment, they were asked to buy a raffle ticket – those who had been given a soda earlier on were far more likely to do so. Target your requests for app store reviews to those users who have recently had a great interaction and you’re more likely to find people willing to take the time to rate, as well as more positive ratings. The same principle can also be applied to requesting permissions: show a user all the great things your app can do, and they’ll be more likely to give you access to information that will enable it to do even more.

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