News & Updates

4 Steps to Knowing Your Users as Well as You Know Your Code

By R. J. Stangle / August 13, 2014

I released Mugshots, my first iPhone app in January 2009, less than 6 months after the app store’s debut and months before the iPhone was even officially available in Canada. With its primitive feature set and plain design, my app earned over 200$ from sales to curious iPhone users.

Despite the significant improvement in mobile platforms since then, most developers won’t be able to do much better financially today. In the most recent Developer Economics report, Vision Mobile noted that more than half of the monetized apps on the app store earn under 500$ each month. Worse yet, most users will abandon an app after only 5 interactions with it. When you consider the amount of effort required to build most apps, these results are staggering.

The Road to App Success

What if I told you that you were born with everything you need to build an app that your users will love?


By simply being yourself and reaching out, you can connect with your users on a personal level and use that relationship to help guide them towards being awesome while learning how to build a product that really resonates with them.

Getting started is easy, just follow these 4 steps to really knowing your users that I presented a few days ago at CocoaConf Columbus to an audience of iPhone and iPad developers. You can flip through the slide deck at the bottom of this post to learn even more on the subject.

Get Out of the Building

I hate telling people to get out of the building as it’s starting to become a bit of a startup-world cliché. However, it’s still one of the most important steps you can take towards actually getting to know your users.

Every app idea is based on numerous assumptions. Assumptions about your customers, the problem you’re solving and how it’s being solved today. You need to get out there and have face-to-face conversations with people who are living the reality so you can make sure that you get the facts behind each of your assumptions.

Getting out there is a tall order, especially for those of us who are technically skilled and have the creative juices to build almost anything we can put our minds to. However, the value you can obtain from having even a single conversation with a potential user is tremendous. The key is taking the time to listen, not pitch. In fact, you have to listen so deeply that you come to learn what makes users of your app tick.

Focus on Retention from Day One

Once you’ve gathered a deep understanding of the assumptions from conversations with prospective users, you’ll have a tendency to start dreaming about all the places your app can go. You might hit TechCrunch, change the world or become the next social media sensation. That is, if your users actually do what you expect them to!

Before you can validate whether or not your users are behaving as expected, you’ll need to acquire users. App makers sometimes go through tremendous lengths to do so and it’s getting increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. Costs to acquire an active user for a mobile app are increasing every day as the competition for attention intensifies.

In order to make the most out of whatever you do to acquire users, be sure to focus on retaining the users that do use your product from day one. Use what you learned from getting out of the building to design experiences that help your users become successful – and don’t stop listening!

Measure What Matters

Once you’ve deployed your app, you’ll likely be faced with a firehose of data on user’s interactions with your software. Everything from button taps, push notification read rates, review rates, viral coefficients and more.

Your first reaction might be to disable the analytics gathering, however the abundance of data is rarely the problem. Most often, your key challenge is knowing which metrics to focus on.

In Lean Analytics, Croll & Yoskovitz describe a great metric for understanding why users are abandoning a mobile app. They suggest looking at the percentage of users in a cohort that keep using the app after 1 day, 7 days and 30 days. Each of these metrics will reveal a different aspect of churn behaviour. Users who leave after the first day may be the victims of a poor on-boarding flow. Users abandoning after 7 days likely do not find sufficient value to keep using your app. Those that abandon after only a month may have grown tired of the feature set or the lack of updates and improvements made to the app since their initial download.

Be There When it Counts

Many app makers believe that if your software comes with an instruction manual, it’s a sign that you’ve built a product that’s hard to use. The thing is, no matter how much customer development you do, you’ll likely find a user who’s background, motivation and needs don’t map to something you’d expect. When you provide help functionality, you demonstrate that you recognize and respect the differences among your users.

Last week, AppHelp released SupportKit, you can use it to add great, personalized help to your iOS app in under 5 minutes. It connects you to your users through in-app conversations that you can manage from the comfort of your inbox.

Think Beyond the Code

Next time you’re about to hit the XCode icon, stop. I challenge you to go out, speak to a real person and just listen. Really listen. The way you’d listen to your partner or your child. Look beyond the thrill of creation and focus on the hearts, minds and feelings of the people who will be putting your app to use.

If you do, I promise that you’ll change the way you approach your app, and maybe… just maybe you’re app will change the world.