An Itch or A Need: What Makes Me Open Your App?

I’ve been downloading and trying out a bunch of new apps lately. In most cases I realize as soon as I try them that I probably wont ever bother opening them again. That’s not anything against the service per se, it’s just that there’s that big hump you have to get over to use an app – the hump of actually opening it. It weighs against you, if you’re an app maker.

So I thought I’d take a minute and write down some notes about what makes me open apps versus not open them. Maybe they will be useful to people reading this. Maybe it will help me next time I build an app.

First of all, I have 72 apps on my phone right now. These range from Flashlight, the first app I ever downloaded, to Ditto, my most recent download. (I’ve gotten rid of a bunch too, over time.)

Of these 72 apps, there are only seven that I use regularly. These, in order of frequency, are: Twitter, Flashlight, NYTimes, (not sure if I’ll pay for this now to keep using or not), Angry Birds, Instagram, The Weather Channel and SoundHound.

The other 65 get used occasionally, or never at all, once I’m done checking them out.

So the question is: what do those seven apps all have in common? Why do I open them constantly, compared to the others?

Standing back and assessing the situation, I would say this: Every one of them satisfies either a big itch or else a tangible, immediate need.

In the case of Twitter, the NYTimes and Angry Birds, I use them because they satisfy an itch. In the morning I have an itch to see what the headlines are from a good newspaper, so I open NYTimes, often while I’m still in bed. Then, I constantly have an itch to see what people are saying on Twitter, so I open that app all the time. And I always have an itch to get those feel-good feedback loops that Angry Birds is so good at creating, so I open that a lot. (Though I find I open it less and less as the levels get harder and harder – a problem for them).

In the case of Flashlight, Weather Channel and SoundHound, I use them because I have an actual, tangible need at that moment – to know what the weather is going to be like before I go outside in the morning, to know what song is playing in a cafe, or to find my way around my son’s room in the dark after he’s gone to sleep. These apps are the easiest, most direct way I have to satisfy these needs, so I use them.

The rest of the apps on my phone fall somewhere into the “trying it out” category – the novelty of the app may keep me using it for a while (Fatbooth!), but once that novelty wears off, if the app doesn’t satisfy an itch or a need, I’ll forget to use it over time, and its use will eventually go down to zero.

Some apps keep me interested long enough that I start to feel an itch for them (Instagram?).

Other apps (Groupme) fail to keep me interested long enough to establish any real usage pattern, and go down to zero quickly.

There are some apps (Locavore) that I love the idea of, but I still never open. They don’t satisfy an immediate, tangible need, and they don’t create an itch.

There are apps (HopStop) that I have a tangible need for, but that need comes up so infrequently that I totally forget to use the app.

And then there are apps (Pandora) that do satisfy a need, but that need isn’t tangible enough to trigger that “must open app now” feeling. I end up wishing I used those apps more, but forgetting to.

So that’s it: if you want your app to be in that inner circle of apps on my phone that get constant use, you’ve got to satisfy either a big itch or a tangible need, and you’ve got to do it on a regular basis. Or else you’ve got to keep the novelty factor high enough that I will keep using it while you figure out how to get into one of those two zones.

Otherwise, your app will find itself on that slippery downward slope to zero use.

So then: how can you get it into one of those zones?

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