Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition


What hurdles does a new app face? Moves, the iPhone app for tracking your steps, has been part of my life for a few weeks and I love it. Watching my usage evolve and interest in the app spread has prompted some thoughts about the hurdles a mobile app must overcome.

First, an app has to find its way on to your phone. Moves launched at the end of January and from an outsider’s perspective, has grown organically and consistently since. I came across the app from a tweet and every week, I see someone else talking about it. When someone mentions Moves, you can sense a smile on their face. They are delighted by the combination of the design and experience, the encouragement of healthy behavior, and the price (free). Side note: I’m skeptical of free apps with revenue-to-be-named-later and that applies in this case, too.

This type of slow word-of-mouth is ideal, in my opinion. Many apps launch with a large coordinated push. For a day or two, it seems like everyone is talking about it. A week later, no one is. Seeing new people discover and actually use an app, and then talk about it because they love it, is much more powerful than a mad rush to be first to a new fad. Nothing beats “I use this app and like it. You might, too.”

Not everyone sees it that way, and of course, many apps harness that initial momentum (even if largely manufactured) and go on to great success. One way or another, an app has to stand out. It might be through App Store promotion, a marketing campaign, the pedigree of those behind it, the love of influencers, or people raving about it.

Even when a app breaks through the noise, a person has to:

  • remember the name
  • search for it or revisit a link
  • download the correct app
  • open the app
  • in many cases, sign in or create an account

If a new app does make it to your phone, how likely is it to stay? I installed Moves and a few days later it was on my iPhone’s home screen. I checked my total daily, kept my phone with me on the treadmill, told friends about it, and wondered if I’d hit a new daily record during SXSW (I did).

Then, I had to replace my iPhone.

A screen issue required a trip to the Apple Store. With the possibility of a replacement in mind, I backed up my phone before I left. Sure enough, the screen wasn’t repairable and I left with a new phone.

When I restored from the backup later that day, I noticed that some apps were missing. I actually didn’t know which ones, but just sensed gaps on a few screens. Apparently backing up your iPhone does not save apps that aren’t in iTunes (that’s my theory, anyway).

The next day, I realized that Moves was missing and installed it again. When I opened it, the data I had collected was gone, no epic days downtown and no lazy Sundays. After a few days, I checked to see the fresh data I had collected, but each day showed zero steps. Something wasn’t working correctly. I reset everything and now, things are working smoothly again.

Most likely, none of those hurdles were the fault of Moves. In fact, I gladly take the blame for them. These scenarios are not uncommon, though. Even a great app like Moves, an app that is basically doing everything right, faces these hurdles.

How many people would:

  • notice an app was missing?
  • take the time to search for it and download it again?
  • continue using it if previous data, scores, achievements were missing?
  • continue using it if it didn’t work initially?

If the app is considered essential (part of the mail, messages, lists, and calendar flow, tied to friends or family, an addictive game or service) we’ll jump through many hoops, but that is the exception.

There isn’t a formula for success here, unless you include temporary shortcuts like paying for installs or viral loop tricks (the “Invite All” button is awfully close to the “Invite” button, isn’t it?). At the most basic level, the quality of the app and the size of your existing audience are the two biggest factors in determining success, but thousands of companies and developers are tying to solve these problems every day and great apps don’t always succeed. My experience using Moves and working on other mobile apps has reminded me to:

Appreciate the challenge

We don’t always appreciate how difficult it is to create a successful app. Be reasonable in your expectations, supportive of your fellow developers, and humble if your talent and good fortune deliver a hit.

Minimize hurdles

We focus a lot of removing hurdles that keep someone from installing and starting to use an app, but much less on those that cause a current user to drift away. We’re often casual about things like requiring users to sign in again after an app update. Yes, it’s unavoidable sometimes, but know that a single new hurdle can leave some of your users behind.

Create something inspired

If an app solves a problem in a unique way, reflects passion and care, or is simply inspired, it’s obviously easier to gain and keep someone’s attention. A new app should matter. It should have a core reason for existing, beyond “to make money” or “gain a lot of users”. People can tell if the creators believe in what they’ve built.

Form a relationship beyond the app

Don’t let the app be the only relationship you have with a user. That tenuous connection can be broken through something as small as lost credentials that require logging in again, a bug in the latest update, a new phone, or a fresh install. If someone is connected to the company behind an app, they are more likely to reach out for support, forgive a misstep, provide helpful feedback, or try the next, new thing.

When they reach a hurdle, they’ll ask for help.