The average smartphone user checks their device more than 150 times per day. That’s once every 6.5 minutes. This means a lot of potential usage for millions of mobile apps. However where there is greater potential there is also greater competition, and the mobile app marketplace is no exception.

The Daily News reported, “The combined number of apps available on the US versions of Apple’s and Google’s apps marketplaces is more than 1.5 million, and of the 750,000 in the Apple App Store alone, some 60 percent (450,000) have never been downloaded once.”

It has become extremely competitive for a developer to get their app noticed, let alone downloaded or used. Existing in the app store or installed on a smartphone is does not guarantee usage. If you want people to find it, install it, and use it, you need a optimization strategy for your app.

While website A/B testing and optimization continue to be on the rise, mobile app optimization is just starting to catch on. Why? Because technically, it’s not as easy as optimizing experiences on the web. On the web, the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that make up your page are readily available for the world to see and modify. Plus, websites are, by definition, always online, so website owners can make changes on the fly and visitors can be shown new variations as quickly as it takes them to refresh the page.

Mobile apps, on the other hand, are installed programs that run entirely on a user’s device. They may or may not be connected to the internet during use. This means app developers can only make changes to their app by publishing them to the app store and waiting for users to upgrade. It can be a long, engineering-intensive process, and it’s one that puts the pressure on app makers to “get it right” the first time rather than split testing to identify the best user experiences.

Optimizing the Mobile Conversion Funnel

Since we announced our move to iOS app optimization last week, mobile strategy is top of mind. In speaking with best in class app developers, we’ve learned some eye-opening lessons about how to create awesome mobile apps. Let’s look at these strategies and offer ideas for how you can improve engagement, retention and download rate on your app.

Nearly everyone we spoke with underscored the point that acquiring and retaining users on mobile is incredibly difficult. The best app makers spend most of their time optimizing these three key steps in the conversion funnel: (1) App Store Search, (2) Registration / Key Action, and (3) Usage & Retention.

Mobile App Conversion Funnel

The typical conversion funnel for a mobile app.

App Store Search

App Store Optimization (ASO) is the equivalent of search engine optimization (SEO) for mobile apps. The goal is to make it easy for users to find your app in the App Store by carefully selecting keywords based on user intent.

The nice thing about ASO is that it requires little technical knowledge and often times can be optimized without the need of an engineering team. It’s important to note that ASO is not a real-time A/B test. You need to compare data from before and after the change. In fact, when performing ASO, you are analyzing past results with current results to see if the change you made had an impact.

Test these elements to optimize your download rate and visibility in the app store:

  1. App Icon. It’s important to test your icon even before releasing the app. You can buy some ads on mobile advertising networks such as Admob or online advertising through Google Adwords and Facebook. What you want to find out is which app icon is getting the highest click through rate.

  2. App Name. According to Nielsen, 63% of Android and iOS users have utilized search to discover new apps. That’s why it’s important to optimize your app name with highly sough after keyword phrases. ASO tools such as Straply and Sensor Tower are great places to start. In the online marketing world, having keywords in the title of your web page helps with SEO. The same principle applies with your app name in the app store,

  3. Keywords. On the web, keyword meta-data no longer influences search rankings. An app’s keyword data, however, actually has an impact on its search rank. Along with your app’s name, having relevant, high-traffic words in your keyword meta-data can help improve your apps search ranking.

  4. Screenshots. While the term may imply a screen capture of your app, you should think of your screenshots as a banner advertisement. Both the Google Play and Apple App Store display screenshots more prominently than an app’s description. Besides the app icon, your app’s screenshot is the strongest visual representation of your app, so you want to draw the user to download it. Again, just like the app icon, you can test using traditional banner ads to see which screenshot yields the highest click throughs.

Registration / Key Actions

A recent study from Compuware shows that 80-90% of apps are deleted after only one use. In other words, first impressions count. If your app doesn’t hook a user the first time, it’s overwhelmingly likely there won’t be a second time. This is why user onboarding needs to be part of a well-rounded mobile optimization strategy.

Let’s unpack this a little more. Unlike the web where we can discover and visit multiple websites in a matter of seconds, discovering and using a new mobile app takes much longer. We have to go through the trouble of finding your app, downloading it, and then remembering to actually open it. The user takes three steps just to see what your app has to offer, so the first open is critical. How do you ensure you make the best first impression possible?

Make sure your app does not make some of these common mistakes during the onboarding process:

  1. Register First, Try Later. Apps that require registration before using it, lose up to 56 percent of its users. Mobile users want to see and engage with your app before deciding to sign up.

  2. Lengthy Registrations. The mobile screen is small enough, so requiring a lot of information from your users will have a negative effect on usage. You may want to use multiple screens to allow the user to enter in bite-size information. For example, having three screens with 2-3 fields each is much better than having one screen with nine fields.

  3. Long Load Time. Mobile customers have a low tolerance for unstable and buggy apps. “Freezing,” “Slow launches,” and “Crashes” consistently rank as the top three reasons smartphone owners decide to uninstall apps.

Usage & Retention

There is a lot involved in developing a functional and repeatable engine for driving ongoing usage and retention with your app. This is where mobile app teams have the biggest opportunity in implementing a sound optimization strategy. Experimenting with an AB testing tool is a large component, but here are some key areas to pay attention to when determining your approach

  1. Consider Gestures. Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines emphasize that an app should allow users to directly manipulate on-screen objects. By simply allowing users to tap, pinch, or swipe the screen you will find that your users are more engaged. It will be easier for users to experience the results of their actions.

Here are some common mobile interaction models that lead to higher levels of user engagement:

    • Rotate or otherwise move the device to affect on-screen objects
    • Use gestures to manipulate on-screen objects
    • Can see that their actions have immediate, visible results
  1. Enforce Constraints. One of the biggest challenges in mobile design is undoing the years of designing on the desktop and the web with its large screen sizes. On the web, it’s more acceptable to create long pieces of content or forms with many fields because users are in an environment where they’re ready to absorb more information.

On mobile, every new page or field adds complexity and can degrade your user’s experience. In other words, app makers need to exert self-control when designing.
Developers can avoid content and information overload problems by stripping the app—its screen and elements—to the bare essentials. Great mobile design empowers users to do more with less. As a rule of thumb to determine whether your app is simple enough, ask yourself if your users can perform all the necessary actions in your app with just one thumb.

Let’s take the two to-do list apps in the screenshot as examples. The one of the left appears cluttered and hard to navigate. It is not completely clear how a user can mark a task as complete. On the other hand, Clear (the app on the right) leverages a gesture-based interface to emphasize the content in the app rather than the app’s interface.

  1. Respect the Tap. Every swipe, tap, and pinch your users take has a lasting impact on their experience. Each small gesture should help a user make progress. Think: lots of return for very minimal effort.

Sam Shank, CEO of Hotel Tonight, once explained that booking a hotel on the app requires only three taps and a swipe, totaling about eight seconds. Compare those stats to the apps of Priceline (52 taps, 102 seconds) and (40 taps, 109 seconds). It is no wonder that Hotel Tonight has exploded as a mobile only company.

What’s Next?

How is your app doing in these three key areas of the funnel? Open up your app and compare it against each of these areas to see how it stacks up. Even if you’re confident that your app is optimized to its fullest, there may still be test opportunities to improve. That’s why having a clear and executable mobile optimization and testing strategy is so important.