French Girls More than Doubles User Activation Rate

Testing user onboarding dramatically improved app engagement and retention
  • Industry
    Mobile App
  • Location
    Scranton, PA

French Girls is an iOS app latching on to a vibrant photography phenomenon: the selfie. App users take selfies and then make illustrations of other people’s selfies. Quality ranges from amateur stick figures to truly impressive and highly interpreted portraits—and more often than not, inspiration from cats.

The app has risen in popularity, surpassing 1 million downloads in July 2014. With A/B testing, French Girls’ lean team is turning the majority of those downloads into engaged, activated users.

Through iOS A/B testing, French Girls increased activation from 25% to 66.5% and fundamentally changed how they develop features.

Optimizing user onboarding for activation

Activation—turning someone who has downloaded an app into an active user—is a key metric to obsess over because it is deeply connected to retention and indicates the quality of the first-time user experience. A user is usually considered activated after crossing a threshold of activity, like creating an account, filling out a profile or making a purchase.

“For us, activation is directly correlated to retention,” says, Jeff Farkas, a developer and backend architect on the team. “Without activation, retention is poor.”

French Girls considers users activated after they complete two tasks: take a selfie and draw a selfie.

Before activation is possible, education is necessary. During the first run experience, people must learn how the app works in order to see the value of opening it again… and again.

“Our first-time user experience required users to complete a drawing of another person’s selfie and take a selfie before proceeding to use the app,” Farkas said. “This was our activation metric, as we saw people that were fairly well retained after this process.”

They knew that non-activated users would come to browse selfie portraits then stop opening the app after a day or two. Activated users would stick around for up to seven days. The problem: their activation success was low—only 25% of people who downloaded the app actually took a selfie and completed a drawing.

The team decided to test their activation experience and learn which new combination of images and messages would activate the most users.

Jeff knew they needed a tutorial to teach people how to use the app but didn’t know what order of actions or messaging would be most effective. So they tested it. The team designed different first-time user experiences and measured the impact each one had on activations.

In Experience 1, users were directed to take a selfie first and then draw a portrait.
In Experience 2, the steps were flipped: first, draw a selfie, then take a selfie. “It is a high barrier-to-entry method, but makes the user feel invested in the platform,” Farkas said.

They found that Experience 1 (take a selfie then draw a portrait) doubled activation conversion to 50%. From there, French Girls moved on to testing the tutorial messaging.

Testing messaging to continue iterating

The French Girls team hypothesized that slight differences in tone and style would have a strong effect on conversion. Here’s what they tried:

  1. Original: Draw a stranger! Now it’s time for you to be an artist. Tap the pencil to draw a stranger!
  2. Draw a stranger! Tap the pencil to draw a stranger. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece! Have fun!
  3. Draw a stranger! Now let’s draw somebody. You don’t have to be a great artist, just have fun!
  4. Draw a stranger! Tap the pencil to draw a stranger. You don’t have to be a great artist, just have fun!
  5. Let’s draw! Tap the pencil to draw a stranger. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece! Have fun!
  6. Let the art commence. Summon your greatest abilities and draw a stranger. You have the chance to make someone’s day!

Experience #4 led to another 16.5% increase in activation.

Influencing app engagement & team culture

While the app looks a bit different today, this series of tests was pivotal in laying the groundwork for the app’s growth.

Increasing conversion of the tutorial led to a better ecosystem where users understood the value proposition of the app. More users were willing to take and draw selfies, and spend money on in-app purchases.

This test also sparked a major shift in feature development at French Girls.

Optimization had always taken a back seat over features in terms of priority. Since the proven success of Optimizely, optimization is no longer an afterthought, but a necessary part of every feature. It forces us to consider not only how users use a feature, but why they use it and what value it offers to them.

— Jeff Farkas, Developer and Backend Architect, French Girls

Today, every product decision the team makes is based on user feedback backed by statistical evidence. They have expanded their toolset to include Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and Redshift for business intelligence.

“Optimizely has played a huge part in opening our eyes to how important analytics and optimization is to the success of our app,” Jeff said.


Focus on Education

Architect a new user experience that educates the user on how to get the most out of your app. Consider tours, onboarding flows, and other tips that will help engage users the first time so they continue to return to the app.

Allocate Time for Optimization

Building an optimized app is a balance between creating new features and testing them. Introduce optimization as a framework for understanding how your team is making measurable improvements to your app in order to meet your goals.