Don’t do it! The gimmicks developers use to make their apps stickier

Self-improvement and learning new things are never easy, and as humans our collective record on follow-through isn’t so good. The cycle is predictable: Most of the time, the initial excitement tapers off and well-intentioned goals end up becoming distant future plans on a to-do list (or plain regret).

Because of that, as a category, aspirational apps and services that depend on real-world results have a significant built-in barrier to scaling that other apps rarely deal with: They’re subject to the frailties of human nature. Confronting users with the intent of getting them to change is a tough low-odds endeavor, and the early drop-off period poses a significant challenge to those web services and apps that are trying to make us thinner, fitter, or smarter.

Simply put, it’s tough for your company to scale when users uniformly drop off after the first few weeks.

There’s an understandable motivation then to look for ways to keep users coming back and engaged. The issue is that otherwise smart methods can become distracting gimmicks if not employed appropriately. Here are a few trendy options developers often reflexively turn to when creating apps that can easily become a liability if they don’t make sense to your service.

Make everything a game

There’s no arguing that gamification has been employed to spectacular effect. At the same time it’s extremely hard to do well. A common complaint about Foursquare, clearly one of the foremost examples of well-crafted gamification, is that users quickly suffer from “check-in fatigue.” Once the initial glory wears off, most people get bored of staying on top of the leaderboard.

Perhaps more treacherous is when game-play features are strapped onto an app without proper context. Such applications routinely fail to get traction from the start. For example, Google News introduced “Google News badges” back in July 2011 to little fanfare. (I have yet to see anyone  show a level badge for how many news articles they’ve read; not surprisingly the company mercifully put the feature to bed in September)

The bottom line: gamification can help if it makes sense to the app and is designed within a context. As a gimmick it’s never enough to keep a user base engaged over the long haul.

Drag friends into it

In the real world, aspirational businesses often use a form of peer pressure to compel people to follow through on their mission:  personal trainers push us to keep our commitment to get to the gym, and Weight Watchers uses positive peer pressure to keep its members coming back and paying dues week after week. With apps though it’s a far different story. No matter how entertaining or lifelike, virtual avatars simply don’t have the same psychological impact as interacting with people in the real world. So while skipping out on a real person may trigger feelings of guilt, that avatar trainer in a PlayStation or Wii fitness game? Not so much.

The other approach, linking activities and milestones to the social graph, is a similar and obvious temptation for aspirational apps. The inevitable pitfall though is that most people tend to happily share the accomplishments they’re proud of (I ran an 8K!), but inevitably and understandably bury their disappointments (I skipped a scheduled run to eat a cake). The challenge for aspirational apps then is to replicate the discipline or positive reinforcement that’s created from real world interactions with trainers, professors, and peers, and not come off like a tattletale or nag.

Go quantified

While the  Quantified Self movement – succinctly described in ‘The Economist’ as “an eclectic mix of early adopters, fitness freaks, technology evangelists, personal-development junkies, hackers and patients suffering from a wide variety of health problems” – isn’t new itself, new technologies are rapidly transforming what is possible with all that personal data.

Yet while data collection is becoming a more seamless part of our daily routine, quantified self applications tend to appeal to only niche, narrow markets (i.e., an early adopter fitness freak with sleep apnea). In order to scale on any appreciable level then, aspirational apps are compelled to target a broader audience base.

Require big cash, up front

In the offline world, consumers are often willing to pay a high price for aspirational products in a weak moment. You might call it the Rosetta Stone model, for the $500 language course we imagine will soon have us chatting up an Italian supermodel. Or maybe the fitness center model, as they annually convert droves of News Years hangover cases into pricey yearly memberships. In both cases, consumers feel great at the moment of purchase; however, only a minority of customers will actually use the product after the initial excitement and motivation wear off.

Similarly with an aspirational product, it’s possible this strategy could make for a quick initial hit (though at high price points there are low odds). But it’s unlikely you’ll maintain a happy, engaged customer base after that, which is crucial. More to the point, we’ve seen that people are hesitant to pay a lot of money upfront for most online services anyway, preferring to go with pay-as-you-go, no-commitment subscription models.

Humans are complex. We’re a convoluted mix of big plans and inertia. For self-improvement and learning apps to successfully scale, they need to find a way to keep their users happy, motivated,and committed over a long period. While there’s a large market awaiting apps and services that can overcome these challenges and can tap into age-old human needs for peer recognition, achievement, and self-improvement, designers need to consider the very real limitations of the methods they choose to keep users motivated.

Boris Wertz is the founder of Version One Ventures. Follow him on Twitter @bwertz.