Mobile vs. desktop usage habits

Edited excerpt from How Meredith built Allrecipes into a digital-to-print, multichannel success by Cobus Heyl:

When designing each experience, we look to the unique strength of each medium.

Web provides a high degree of interactivity and utility: A keyboard and mouse allow the consumer to actively share their experiences through text. The large screen allows them to engage and to interact with the content through drag and drop functionality, and allows many items to be present on the page at the same time.

Mobile is all about mobility and constant connectivity: We take advantage of the likelihood that the home cook is most likely on-the-go or in-store when using their phone, so we are very much focused on helping them quickly find and share dinner solutions. The phone’s geolocation technology pinpoints the cook’s location so we can deliver hyper-local grocery offers that match their location and preferred retail outlet. We also take advantage of touch, voice and motion to allow them to enhance the brand experience. Mobile devices are also more likely to be a personal vs. shared device, so we can pay attention to their past behaviours to deliver a more personalized experience uniquely tailored to their interests and needs.

Print is an experience where cooks are most likely interested in having us curate the experience for them: The team pays close attention to the trends and behaviours we are seeing play out on the web to inform the editorial framework and focus of each issue. They are able to create features that marry our most popular recipes alongside hidden gems that might easily be missed through common search or browse behaviours.

(1) Thank you Eli Hoffmann for the tip, and his summary: “tl;dr: success in mobile may not be about porting desktop functionality carte blanche, but rather about groking the needs of the mobile consumer”.
(2) Cf. “Mobile today does not mean ‘when you’re mobile’. It means ubiquity — universal access to the internet for anyone at any time” –Benedict Evans, in How to think about mobile.
(3) See also: The surprise about how people use their phones and The key success metric for mobile apps.

Why startups shouldn’t develop iPad apps

Edited excerpt from Finding iPad’s Future by Neil Cybart:

When the iPad first started to show signs of trouble, many market observers were shocked, thinking Apple must be losing to low end Android tablets. In reality, one reason sales momentum was slowing was iPad owners weren’t upgrading their device. Consumers have held onto their iPad, on average, for three years, which is longer than the iPhone’s 2.6-year upgrade cycle. Since the tablet category is still young, the iPad’s three year upgrade cycle is still extending and will likely go out as far as 5-6 years.

There are currently approximately 3 million units of the original iPad still in use, or 20% of the devices Apple sold. For the iPad 2, it is possible that close to 60% of the units Apple sold are still being used. These two devices are not superior tablets. The initial iPad lacks a camera, while the iPad 2 has a mediocre camera. When compared to the latest iPads, these first two iPads are simply inferior tablets with slow processors, heavy form factors, and inferior screens. But none of that matters with owners, suggesting that many of these tablets are just being used for basic consumption tasks like video and web surfing and not for the productivity and content creation tools that Apple has been marketing.

There are signs that Apple believes there may be some kind of iPad revival around the corner. I’m skeptical. Why would someone upgrade an iPad that is just being used to watch video?

(1) Another possible reason the upgrade cycle is longer for the iPad than the iPhone: the iPad is used less frequently because it’s not with you all the time. This is important for developers, due to the relationship between frequency of habit and customer retention.
(2) The failure of the iPad to be anything other than a viewing and gaming device compounds the challenges for mobile-only startups. See Why mobile-only business models aren’t working.
(3) See also Why mobile traction is getting harder, not easier.

Why mobile-only business models aren’t working

Edited (heavily) excerpt from Mobile App Developers are Suffering by Alex Austin:

If you look at the relative traffic to the top 1,000 non-games in the iOS App Store, the results are frightening. The 10th most popular app (Skype) has a small fraction of the traffic seen by the top app (Facebook), and the 1,000th app (Pixable) has just 0.2%. Yet in the past four weeks, there were 45,000 new apps submitted to the iOS App Store. The chances that any of them will ever break into the top 1000 are effectively 0%, and even if they did, they’re still not seeing any amount of traffic to build a successful business.

Monetization is an even worse story: According to a study done by Activate, the top 20 app publishers, representing less than 0.005% of all apps, earn 60% of all app store revenue.

Why is the power law so harsh for the app ecosystem? By far the most challenging problem that developers face is app discovery. Paid promotion is completely unsustainable for most apps given that the cost for an active install increased to $4.14 in the last few months. In the app stores, the search function is unusable unless you know the name of the app you’re looking for, the home page is reserved for the select few with a relationship to Apple or Google, and the top charts are self-reinforcing.

Then, conversion to download the app is dramatically reduced by the fact that the app store page is incredibly limited in terms of display, and the user must be willing to give away their precious disk space to the app.

(1) Cf. Why mobile traction is getting harder, not easier and The biggest challenge in mobile.
(2) Another key reason: if your app isn’t a daily habit, you’re toast.

How to think about mobile

Edited excerpt from Forget about the mobile internet by Benedict Evans:

For as long as the idea of the ‘mobile internet’ has been around, we’ve thought of it as a cut-down subset of the ‘real’ Internet. First, the phones themselves could only do a little bit of the internet. Second, and partly as a result of these limitations, our mental model of how and where you used ‘mobile’ was that it fitted into specific, occasional places and times where you were walking or waiting or needed a single piece of information and didn’t have a PC. That in turn shaped how people thought about their ‘mobile’ site – that you needed to think of ‘mobile use cases’ and provide only a little slice of your proposition.

I’d suggest it’s time to invert that. Mobile today does not mean ‘when you’re mobile’. It means ubiquity — universal access to the internet for anyone at any time. People use their smartphones all the time, very often when there’s a PC in the same building as them or the same room, or on the sofa next to them.

Mobile is a universal product in a way that the PC never was. Smartphones themselves are much richer, more sophisticated and powerful internet platforms than the PC web browser. What happens when almost everyone on earth has a pocket supercomputer connected to the internet? It’s not a subset of the internet – it IS the internet.

This is why thinking about ‘mobile’ as another bullet point next to ‘SEO’ misses the point: mobile becomes the platform, and it’s a much richer and more powerful one.

Iterating faster in mobile

From Andrew Chen:

When it comes to the actual product development execution, you have to ask yourself, what’s the real bottleneck? Is it submitting to Apple? Well, let’s say that you can do that every 7-10 days. Then let’s work backwards and say that you set yourself a simple goal.

Whenever you have an opportunity to submit something to Apple, you have something to submit.

What would it mean to try to satisfy this goal? I think what it means is that you end up building your product out in 1-week chunks. You end up scoping down a lot of the featureset so that you can deliver it incrementally in 1-week timelines, with some testing on day 5. For some longer features, you try to get it as close to 1-week as possible, and spare the minimum wait in between.

Similarly, even as you submit an app every week, you can still have a daily build – just use Testflight. This means you can do an internal release of your app every day, and your friends and family can try things out.

How feasible is this? Well, again, on the web we’ve gotten used to the idea of deploying multiple times a day- why not in mobile apps as well? It’s doable.

Why mobile traction is getting harder, not easier

Andrew Chen lists the reasons why startups are finding it harder to get mobile traction:

  1. Product differentiation is harder with a much bigger app store …the number of apps has gotten a whole lot bigger.
  2. Cost Per Installs have gone up over time …both due to demand and a lack of supply. The supply of paid installs has contracted as Apple has banned some providers and warned others.
  3. Editorial teams further the platform’s own strategic goals …[the Apple app store editors] care more that the first 25 apps that a user installs are amazing experiences from well-known brands, [the GooglePlay editors] care a lot about tablet devices.
  4. Investment has dried up for experimental new consumer mobile apps …there doesn’t seem to be a lot of conviction to deploy their capital on risky new consumer mobile startups.

This raises a dilemma for companies with a “mobile-first” strategy: mobile is clearly the highest growth area, but mobile traction is getting harder unless you already have a strong web presence.

We’ve experienced this directly in Seeking Alpha: it’s hard to acquire meaningful numbers of new app users from app stores and other marketing channels. In contrast, over 500,000 dedicated users of our website downloaded our app in 2013, and we expect that number to increase in 2014.

The mobile product opportunity and the threat to Facebook

Facebook (FB) CFO David Ebersman recently noted that “[We] did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens.” On which Alistair Hill, CEO of On Device Research, commented:

With the social graph being built into the address books of our mobile devices, freely accessible for all messaging platforms, the barriers to entering the market are tumbling down.

Push notifications are a double-edged sword

From Semil Shah:

Push notifications aren’t an entirely new phenomenon, but as mobile handset growth continues to accelerate (along with faster handset releases), push alerts only grow in importance as a channel for applications to communicate with and re-engage users. In theory, push notifications seem elegant, a way to prompt a mobile user at the right place, at the right time, regarding the right piece of information.

…It’s early days in mobile, but I believe the tacky growth-hacky tactics which persist on the web and through email won’t work as well on mobile because push notifications are even more of an interruption and limited to 140 or less characters. This puts app developers in a bind: If an app desperately needs re-engagement, there’s a perverse incentive to flood the notification channel, but if those alerts (and the app itself) aren’t truly relevant to the mobile user, well, the clock starts ticking before either the company doesn’t exist or the user shortcuts it all and deletes the app from the phone altogether.

How NOT to market your app

From Paul Jozefak‘s blog:

I think I am going to punch the next person who tells me their app or online service is “fun”! I hate describing smartphone apps or software as “fun” because they aren’t. Sports are fun. The movie theater is fun. Driving fast is fun. Sex is fun. Your damn app ain’t sexy nor fun!!!

I’ll agree that there are certain apps or services which are “fun” to use in their own way (games, social stuff) but I’m coming at this more from the marketing perspective. People DO NOT use apps first and foremost because they are fun. They use them because they are beneficial to them. They ADD value. They help kill time. They make you faster, more efficient, effective, connected, communicative and so forth. Don’t use the word “fun”…..seriously, stop!

(1) “They make you faster, more efficient, effective, connected, communicative” makes sense. But “They help kill time” is a depressing value proposition for anything. I’d personally delete that from the list.
(2) My gut feeling is that a large number of apps fall into the “help kill time” category, but their creators don’t admit that.

The key success metric for mobile apps

Excerpted from an interview with Mariya Yao:

Compared to desktop usage patterns, mobile apps tend to see more frequent sessions but significantly lower session lengths. For example, a product that has both a desktop and a mobile presence might see desktop users visit 10-20 times a month for session lengths of over 10 minutes on average, whereas on mobile they might see users visit 30-50 times a month for less than 60 seconds at a time.

Another difference you’ll see is that people will visit hundreds of websites in a month on desktop, but their bandwidth for apps is much more limited. On mobile, despite the fact that there are millions of offerings in the app stores, the average consumer only uses about 15-20 different apps per week on a regular basis. There’s a limit on both the real estate on a mobile user’s home screen and their capacity for adopting new apps for habitual use.

Thus for many types of mobile apps, the holy grail is to become a daily habit for users. For your app category, you want to be the “go-to” app that users depend on. Aim to get your users to come back every day, maybe even multiple times a day, in order to have a shot at broad long-term retention. A popular metric for measuring retention in the mobile games industry is DAU / MAU, or daily active users divided by monthly active users, and I highly recommend that consumer-facing mobile app developers keep track of that metric as well.

Is this the most important feature of any app?

From Greg Lindon, describing a conference presentation given by (then) Google VP Marissa Mayer in 2006:

Marissa started with a story about a user test they did. They asked a group of Google searchers how many search results they wanted to see. Users asked for more, more than the ten results Google normally shows. More is more, they said.

So, Marissa ran an experiment where Google increased the number of search results to thirty. Traffic and revenue from Google searchers in the experimental group dropped by 20%.

Ouch. Why? Why, when users had asked for this, did they seem to hate it?

After a bit of looking, Marissa explained that they found an uncontrolled variable. The page with 10 results took .4 seconds to generate. The page with 30 results took .9 seconds.

Half a second delay caused a 20% drop in traffic. Half a second delay killed user satisfaction.

Performance trumps other features. Still true today. And even more so for anything mobile.

What’s wrong with iOS 7?

From Jared Sinclair:

iOS 7’s designers have abandoned bordered buttons in favor of borderless colored text. I think this choice is unjustifiable. It is the root cause of my deep dislike for how it feels to use iOS 7. It introduces unnecessary tension and makes everything less usable than it ought to be.

Color alone simply cannot be the way to identify a button. You don’t touch a color. You touch an area. To activate a button, you must touch a spot inside of its boundary. Text floating in the middle of vast whitespace doesn’t define a boundary. Only borders define boundaries.

Cf. Jakob Nielsen’s finding that flat design hides calls to action.

If you’re in a mobile business, you’d better be thinking about privacy

Jeff Roberts reports:

According to Forrester Research, people will choose to give their business to firms with good data hygiene in the same way that, in the 1990′s, they looked for companies with strong environmental records. Forrester will publish a survey this week in which 62 percent of respondents say they would be “not at all likely” to repeat a purchase from a company that shared their personal information with a data broker, and that 37 percent of them have bailed on an online transaction due to something they read in a company’s terms of service. The study, which was commissioned by analytics firm Neustar, also suggests a growing familiarity with ad-blocking and other privacy tools.

The privacy problem is particularly acute in mobile, because you have your phone with you the whole time, and it knows where you are. The epicenter of concern will be services that collect and store GPS-enabled data about you, like Waze, Google Maps and Foursquare.

App design: Swiping versus tapping

From Ryan Hoover‘s analysis of why dating app Tinder took off:

Tinder demands very little of the brain. It reduces cognitive overhead into a binary decision: swipe left (not interested) or swipe right (interested)… Tinder’s swiping mechanic is not dissimilar from the ever-present infinite scroll, popularized by Pinterest. What makes it so addictive? Both interactions – scrolling and swiping – require less effort than tapping or clicking a button… It’s not unusual for Tinder users to swipe through more than 100 profiles in a single session. Each swipe delivers immediate gratification, resolving the mystery of who will appear next.

Ryan says that scrolling and swiping require less effort than tapping. He’s right, but why is that?

The challenge of pitching your app to journalists or VCs

From A loose rant on motivation and evaluation by 37 Signals’ founder Jason Fried:

In our industry, you’ll often hear people say things like “if someone can’t figure it out in 10 seconds then they’re gone.” Or “I checked out the site and I couldn’t figure out what they did so I left. Terrible design.” Or “if it takes more than a couple sentences to explain it then it’s not simple enough.” Or “too much to read!” Or “there are too many fields on this form!” Or “there are too many steps in this process.”

However, something’s usually missing from these assessments of the situation: The actual customer’s motivation. How motivated is the customer to solve their problem? What are they here for? Customers come to learn something, research something, consider something, buy something. If they are motivated, they may not mind spending five minutes reading.

One of the situations where your product (such as a mobile app) gets judged by the wrong criteria is when you talk to journalists. For many products,  journalists aren’t your target users, so they have limited patience. I found that getting journalists to install our app, including choosing 5 stocks, was tortuous. But hundreds of thousands of happy investors have done just that. Meanwhile, Dave Winer says the same problem exists when pitching VCs.

Why didn’t Facebook users like “read later”?

Julie Zhuo, Facebook Director of Product Design on News Feed and core mobile experiences, mentions this in passing:

We test many different interesting ideas that come out of hackathons or team brainstorms, like the ability to save posts for later, useful if you’re in a hurry and see a post that you want to respond to or an article you’d like to read later. However, we only wanted to launch the feature if enough users used it and found it valuable. If not, then it wasn’t worth taking up space as yet another action link on every story. A test helped us verify that it was, in fact, something only a small group of people used, so we decided ultimately to not launch it.

Why didn’t Facebook users use “read later”? Two possibilities:

  1. Most Facebook content isn’t important enough to come back to.
  2. Because “read later” is only useful for longer content that you don’t have time to read now, whereas Facebook’s users contribute mainly short form content.

Facebook’s preponderance of short form content also explains why it has transitioned so comfortably to mobile, where short form content rules.

MVP or insufficiently viable product?

From What do failed startups have in common? by PandoDaily’s Erin Griffith:

Hogan believes founders often misinterpret Minimal Viable Product, a philosophy which decrees that software — no matter how bare bones — is shipped early and updated often. The startup philosophy is so revered by entrepreneurs that entire companies are being built around it. But it can be dangerous to young startups that have one chance to make a positive impression on users.

The risks of an insufficiently viable product are more serious in environments where early users rate your product. For example, mobile apps.

The biggest challenge in mobile

From A Checklist For Investing In Internet Companies:

It’s hard to get people to download your app, and even harder to get them to use it regularly once they’ve downloaded it. The root cause of the problem is the walled-in world that Apple created with apps. You can’t link to content inside apps, you can’t search inside apps, and many apps try to keep you inside their walled garden, even when you open a web page. The result is that app discovery is far harder, and occasional usage driven by links doesn’t exist for apps in the same way it does on the web. So the outcome for many mobile companies is binary — you use my app every day, or not at all.

Hundreds of thousands of people use SA every day, so we can promote our mobile apps to them. But for founders who don’t already have a preexisting user base, how are you growing your app user numbers fast enough?

The key to mobile design

From Bill Gurley‘s Transitioning To a Mobile Centric World:

Feature depth is inherently limited. Consumers clearly dislike deeply nested features on mobile phones. They prefer the remote control “one button” experience. They want to get in, solve their problem, and be done. This is challenge for larger feature-rich sites like Facebook and Yahoo, and a real benefit for focused best-of-breed providers like Instagram. It is also why YouTube, Google Maps, Facebook messenger and Vine are separate from their mothership. This limited depth concept is huge and vastly misunderstood. Mobile values the single solution, one sharp blade rather than a Swiss army knife.

Constraints in mobile design

Adita Rustgi commenting on Bill Gurley’s Transitioning To A Mobile-Centric World:

Constraints in life are a source of inspiration. One of the reasons why mobile experience is so suited for task oriented interactions, is because the medium forces the designers to make tough choices. While earlier, the designers could escape making these choices by taking ‘do all of the above’ route to design decisions, the mobile medium forces the designers and product managers to really consider what exactly they are enabling their users to accomplish. What is really important in a mobile context and what is not?

Good design and consequently good user experience comes from forcing yourself to ask tough questions, really digging in to understand what matters and them making tough choices.