There’s a dirty secret behind many of those hot new app startups you hear about every week. They have seed funding and a flashy landing page. They have articles in TechCrunch and promises to disrupt the universe. They have everything except users, because nobody actually wanted the app.
In a presentation at Google’s I/O conference, Tomer Sharon, Google Search User Experience Researcher, broke down the age-old question: "Why is nobody using my app?" You can watch the entire presentation in the video embedded below, but we simplified the 30-minute presentation into the key takeaways for those who prefer a quicker skim.
Here are the six reasons why nobody is using your app:
You Didn’t Understand The Problem You Were Solving
Does your app solve a real problem that people have? To validate this assumption, many startups create a landing page to gauge interest in lieu of real product testing. You’ve seen them. It’s a website that makes a bold promise like, "We’re about to change the way you buy tacos forever! Sign up here!" The problem with this approach, Sharon explains, is that the only thing you’re really learning is who is interested enough to give their email address. Whether or not your app fulfills a real need, worthy of someone’s time and attention, is a whole other question.
You Asked Your Friends What They Thought
Your mom will always love everything you do. Your friends will always pretend to love everything you do. So asking your friends and family what they think of an app can be borderline useless. "They’re biased," Sharon explains. "Of course they like your idea. Sure, they’ll use it. Of course they’ll pay for it—a lot!" Instead, break out beyond your immediate cohort. Talk to whomever your target market is for your app.
You Listened To Users Instead Of Watching Them
So creating a landing page and asking your friends isn’t enough? Well then, polling a lot of users—asking if they’d use your app—seems like a surefire way to design the perfect app, doesn’t it? "The first rule of research is don’t listen to users," Sharon says. "Instead, observe their behavior."
Sharon points to a recent study of U.K.’s motorway toilets, in which 99% of people claimed to have washed their hands after leaving the bathroom. But when equipment was installed to track real habits, it turned out that only 32% of men and 64% of women actually did wash their hands. "Some people would say, they’re just liars. They’re not," Sharon says. "We are having trouble predicting our behavior. There are many reasons for that."
You Didn’t Test Your Riskiest Assumption
Every product makes assumptions, but there’s one assumption that’s most important. It’s what Sharon calls the "riskiest assumption," the assumption most core to your product. "If the riskiest assumption is not true, then the whole idea falls apart," Sharon says.
Let's imagine how this idea could have played out historically. When YouTube launched, they assumed we’ll know to click a play button, that people would recognize how to scrub through a clip, and that bloggers would embed videos into articles. But the riskiest assumption might have been even simpler back then: People will upload videos if it’s quick and easy. Hindsight is 20/20, but testing that assumption would be critical in ensuring the successful launch of YouTube.
You Had A "Bob The Builder" Mentality
Right now, it’s very popular to quickly launch an app with barebones functionality, see if it sticks, "pivot" (or change the fundamental functions of a product), then essentially relaunch it. Rather than designing a product for real human use, it takes on an entrepreneurial workflow, a strategy to maximize a startup’s bets before they run out of money. Sharon calls this a "Bob the Builder mentality."
And while this approach can work—Instagram, which was originally a check-in service called Burbn, might be the poster child of pivoting—Sharon insists that it’s not the way to build a successful app. Just because something can be coded again and again doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been designed based upon real human needs and user insights in the first place.
So what’s the solution? Sharon says it’s as simple as validating, or invalidating, three core pieces of the plan: The problem (Is the app solving a problem people care about?), the market (Are there enough people who have this problem?), and the product (Is our product solving this problem for this market?). Of course, this is standard business plan stuff, isn’t it? In the culture of startups, it's easy to forget that apps are businesses.
But we think Sharon’s best piece of advice is about how you really talk to your market so they'll give you feedback worth listening to. When you poll potential users, doing all your research about real human needs, ditch those things you can easily average to lose the nuance. Avoid yes or no questions. Skip numerical response. Instead, he wants you to ask about repeated behaviors, and preferably as short-answer feedback.
A good question:
"What was the reason you recently updated your website?"
A bad question:
"How many emails did you receive in the last hour?"
Because fundamentally, a well-designed app is like any other well-designed product. It’s shaped around human need. And the more viscerally you can understand that need, the more relevant your product will be.