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3 Things Your App Needs to Do to Retain New Users

Spencer Lanoue  |  July 21, 2015

Every Tuesday, UserTesting studies a different topic to share here on the blog. We hope you’ll learn some nifty research techniques and get inspired to run some insightful tests of your own. Enjoy, and check back in next Tuesday!

What’s the difference between an app that grows exponentially and an app that fizzles? The answer is retention.

You could argue that customer acquisition, conversion optimization, or some other growth-related metric is more important. And here’s the thing: they are important, but they're not the most important.

User retention is the foundation of growth. And without a solid retention rate it doesn’t matter how many new users you acquire—your long-term growth curve will always trend towards zero. You’ll churn users as fast as you acquire them.

The Study

This week for UserTesting Tuesday we wanted to see what some of our favorite mobile apps were doing to turn new users into loyal fans and advocates. We ran 28 tests on 4 different apps, and studied the experience each person had when they used an app for the very first time.

When we analyzed the qualitative data, a pattern began to emerge that illustrated the difference between users who had a positive first experience and those who had a negative one. Users who had a positive experience all had 3 things in common:


Each step led users to the next—a process which culminated with the user saying out loud, “Wow, this is really cool!”

1. Users Signed Up Quickly and Easily

The first step in this process began with signing up for the app. Users who had the most positive experience were able to sign up easily and quickly. This might sound obvious, but a few of the popular apps we tested had signup processes that took up to 60 seconds and required a lot of typing.

After analyzing 28 tests—over 5 hours of behavioral data—we found that one segment of users was able to complete the signup process in 14 seconds on average. Typically, this was because they either:

  • Signed up using a Facebook or Google account (allowing them to create an account with just a few clicks)
  • Signed up using email (and the app auto-filled all of their login information)

These options pretty much eliminated the need for users to type anything. They created an account so quickly that they hardly even noticed the signup process. It was so fast that their attention remained completely focused on the app they were about to use. And that’s what you want: a signup workflow so frictionless—so seamless—that users are into the app before they even know it.

On the other hand, there was another segment of users who didn’t sign up using Facebook or Google. They ended up manually filling out the signup form, and it took 37 seconds on average. This seemed to be long enough to lose the attention of the user. We noticed that they tended to bring their attention to the signup process itself (which you don’t want) and how long it was taking. Once that happened they tended to become impatient and annoyed.

2. Users Quickly Figured Out What To Do

A common reason that new users churn is because they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. If they get stuck when they’re first starting to use your app, they tend to just close it and move on to something else.

In our tests, users gave the most negative feedback to the apps that they couldn’t figure out quickly. If the app wasn’t intuitive enough for them to figure out on their own—and there weren’t any clear instructions explaining how it worked—they tended to get frustrated and upset.

It’s not up to the user to figure it out on their own, it’s up to you to show them. Once they sign up, make it obvious and insanely easy for them to figure out exactly what to do.

Helping users figure out what to do is just a means to an end—it’s a transition step. The ultimate goal is to get them to the next step as quickly as possible, because that’s where the battle for retention will be won. But if they get stuck here they’ll leave before they ever get to experience the real value your product has to offer.

3. Users Had an “Aha!” Moment

The third thing these users had in common was a moment where they experienced the core value of the product—people call this the “Aha!” moment. This moment is the key differentiator between users who retain versus users who churn.

Usually, there are common behaviors associated with retained users. Your goal is to identify those actions and get your users to take them as quickly as possible. For example, the common behavior of new Facebook users who keep coming back is that they get 7 friends in the first 10 days. In order to improve their retention curve, Facebook focused intensely on getting new users to connect with 7 friends as quickly as possible. Once they get to 7 friends, they begin to experience the core value Facebook has to offer.

HubSpot’s VP of Growth Brian Balfour said that even though the first time user experience is just a small piece of the growth equation, it actually has one of the biggest impacts on your retention curve over time.In his experience, Balfour has found that improvements made to the first time user experience typically improve every aspect of the retention curve.

When you get them to experience that core value really quickly, they tend to retain throughout the whole thing. —Brian Balfour

So, how can you get new users to experience the core value of your product as quickly as possible? Again, the answer will be different for every product, audience, and business model. There is no one growth hack that will work for everyone all the time. The best way to find out what works for your product is to implement a systematic process of experimentation. Find the common behaviors of users who retain, and start testing different ways to get them to take those actions as quickly as possible.

Key Takeaways

In order to turn new users into loyal fans and advocates you need to help them do three things as quickly as possible: sign up, figure out what to do, and experience the core value of your product. Here are our key takeaways to help you do that with your own app:

  • Remember: There’s no “silver bullet” for growth. There’s no universal formula or growth hack that’s going to make your growth curve look like a hockey stick. The only way to do this is to continuously run experiments, learn from your tests, and figure out what works for your product and your audience.
  • Make your signup process as fast and seamless as possible by eliminating the need for users to type. Let them sign in using their Google or Facebook accounts, auto-fill the form for them if they choose to sign up with their email, and don’t ask for extraneous information that users will perceive as unnecessary.
  • If you need to collect a lot of information, consider using multiple screens with one or two form fields each, rather than one long, intimidating form on a single screen.
  • Analyze your data and compare the behaviors of users who retain versus users who churn. What are the common actions that retained users take, but churned users don’t? How can you get new users to take those actions as quickly as possible?
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About the author:

Spencer Lanoue is a marketer who helps UX designers, PMs, and marketers make things people want.