The 3 don’ts of high-engagement apps

Ryan Kim - Writer, GigaOM, Danilo Campos - Mobile Dude, Hipmunk, Steve Douty - VP, Applications and Mobile Product Management, Yahoo!, Tom Wang - Head of Product, Formspring, Neil Young - CEO and Co-Founder, ngmoco at Mobilize 2011At the Tuesday afternoon Mobilize panel on how to keep people coming back to your mobile app, panelists from a variety of services like Hipmunk, Formspring, ngmoco and Yahoo agreed that there were three things you should avoid doing if you want to create high-engagement apps.

Don’t think that push notifications are the answer. Push notifications are a great way to remind people to use your app, noted Steve Douty, VP of Applications and Mobile at Yahoo. You shouldn’t “leave it up to users to remember to go back to your app,” he said. But at the same time, you don’t want to barrage them with constant popups on their screen that become an annoyance.

As Danilo Campos, head of mobile for flight search app Hipmunk put it, “It all depends on the frequency of push notifications and how those decisions to push those were made. If it’s for the wrong things or things the user doesn’t care about, they’re going to turn it off and you’ve lost an opportunity to build that relationship.” So personalization of apps and frequency and type of notifications is key.

Don’t pack every possible feature inside your app. Apps can die from an overload of features. Just adding more functionality because you can is never the answer, the group agreed. “The more you keep feature creep from happening…that ends up becoming more successful engagement,” said Douty.

“Web applications have a lot of features, [people using them] have time to work, so you can give them additional functionality, but in mobile you’ve got a tiny screen and a tiny slice of users’ time,” said Campos. “You can best serve them by giving them” a simpler experience.

Don’t assume your app should look and act like your web site. An important part of keeping people returning to an app is that it’s easy and fun to use. If you try to recreate a whole website and all its functionality on a tiny four-inch screen, it might overwhelm or turn off users.

Formspring found that out recently when it was building its app after beginning on the web. “You really need to rethink what you’re presenting and how you’re presenting it,” said Tom Wang, head of product for Formspring. In the end your app might look “radically different” than your site, and that’s totally OK. Don’t be afraid to throw out both your own and users’ expectations in that case.