Your App Failed Because People Forgot about It

Your amazing app idea is finally a reality. Your plan has been executed flawlessly, resulting in a beautiful, functional app. The marketing plan includes a thorough ASO (App Store Optimization) strategy, and a series of viral and promotional tactics to spread the word.

Fast forward a couple months. A good number of people have installed the app and reviews are positive. You’ve received some press coverage but your revenue model of in-app purchases is lackluster. Your stats reveal the app’s engagement level is low. What happened?

Users forgot your app existed.

Many apps rely on circumstance or need. That is, we turn to an app based on a situation where we need to make a decision, need assistance or we’re bored and seek entertainment. Often, users might love an app, but forget it exists when the problem it solves arises.

For example, recently a friend and I went to play tennis at a neighborhood park, and all the courts were occupied. As we sat in the car Googling and struggling to locate another spot, I completely overlooked the tennis court finder app I had installed (and paid for). What’s worse is I had used the app before and found it useful!

For an app to stay top of peoples minds and sustain a high level of engagement, it must contain one or more of the following traits:

  1. The problem it solves occurs frequently (daily, or multiple times a week) for its target audience.
  2. Users are prompted to interact with the app via timely relevant messages.
  3. By rewarding users through repetition, the app incrementally becomes a habit.

Solve a Frequent Problem

Unless you are a road warrior or have the means to travel frequently, a travel planning app is likely not one you’ll use often. However, perhaps road warriors (no, not the one’s from Mad Max) are your target. Therefore, don’t design your app to appeal to a broad audience, focus on your target audience and build it for them. Use personas to define your ideal user then ask yourself,

“What is the most useful app I can create for this person?”

Remind Users via Frequent, Relevant Messages

To keep users returning to your app (especially shortly after installing it) you need to remind them it exists, but in a way that is relevant and actionable. Push notifications are among one of the best methods for driving engagement and habitual use. However, if they lack relevancy or are delivered too often, you risk the chance of users uninstalling your app, the opposite of your intent. Tailor push notifications to what you know about the user before and at the time of sending. This may include geographically relevant messages, new offers or content based on their interests, past behavior, or time-sensitive information.

Often overlooked by app publishers, email is a highly effective way to prompt and persuade users to keep using your app. Some of the largest entities on the Web owe their success in large part as a result of clever email strategies to keep people engaged with their products and services. Send brief, relevant, timely emails to remind users why they should continue using your app. Some ideas:

  • If your app has user-generated content, curate and share the best user content added that week.
  • Aggregate the best new or timely content: articles, recipes, videos, photos, etc.
  • Highlight improved or updated content. E.g., “We just added three new theme packs to our trivia app!”
  • Announce new or updated app functionality
  • Notify users of new “Friends” that have begun using the app they might want to connect with. Be careful with this, an email for each “Friend” that joins an app becomes meaningless. One solution is to send such emails in batches, such as, “6 connections in your network signed up for XYZ this week.”.

Make Your App Habitual

What do Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, Twitter, Evernote and Instagram have in common? Besides being mega services with millions of users and billions in valuation, they are products used habitually. Many of us who use these services not only use them weekly, or daily, but several times a day.

A habitually used app is one where users take one or more actions on a frequent basis without being prompted. According to the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal, if your product is one that people will use less than one time per week, it is difficult to make it habit-forming.

Habits aren’t easily created. You cannot create an app and expect user habits to form immediately. Habits are incrementally built over time via repetitive actions rewarded with a pleasurable response. Such actions are often driven by negative emotions where an individual is seeking to alleviate that emotion.

For example, using Evernote is a habit because I’m always thinking of ideas for projects I’m working on or finding information I may find useful later. I associate the emotion of loss with not capturing this information. The pleasure occurs when I’ve saved it and can move on to something else. Because I’ve tucked it away in Evernote, I’ve alleviated my concern that I’ll lose it. Evernote has become a habit because it’s become my default response for capturing information I want to access later.

When you combine solving a problem your target user experiences often, then nudge them to remembering your app via messaging, you’ll begin to help them form a habit around frequent and consistent use. This idea is further augmented by implementing habitual triggers within your app, so the habit begins to stick.

For example, imagine I have a database of camping sites and reviews throughout California. I decide to build a campsite search app using that data. While this idea alone may solve a situational need (finding a campsite), it misses on frequency. A better idea is catering to hardcore backcountry backpackers looking to explore California. To augment my concept, I cull the database to appeal to only backcountry locations that are hard to find. To keep users engaged, my app allows them to post photos and have conversations about their experiences, along with finding fellow campers to plan trips with.

I’ve addressed the need for a reliable campsite finder, but also created a platform to connect likeminded people. These augmentations position my app as something I can create messaging around and gives users a reason to keep coming back.


The days of “build an app and get rich quick” are behind us, and the exceptions are getting fewer and farther between. Success hinges on the long game, one that includes investing in your users and keeping them engaged over time. By identifying your audience, solving a frequent problem, then augmenting the experience with reminders and habitual triggers, you stand the best chance of success in the competitive mobile app landscape.


  1. This just highlights the problem with most apps out there, which is that there is no need for those apps. The time taken to find, install and learn how to use them outweighs the time saved by using them compared to a regular website … even assuming that they do save any time compared to a regular website.

    If I have an immediate need for a service, the chances are that I am not going to want to download an app for it, even assuming that I find one, because that takes time and often a large chunk of data, and I might not be on wi-fi when I want it. Google is far more readily available, and a regular website will work on all platforms. If you’re worried that people will forget about your app because they aren’t using it very often, maybe that’s a clue that there is no real market for your app in the first place.

  2. I guess many must have an “Oh apps are hot! I want an app too” mentality

    I’m amazed every time I see a description of an “app” that is no more than a surrogate browser.

    IMHO an app should be something different than only a way to get to a site.

  3. Exactly @Mittineague I like ‘apps’, not wrappers. That’s not to say that something that is a web wrapper can’t be an app (a la Cordova), it’s more about the process behind the app.

  4. However, if they lack relevancy or are delivered too often, you risk the chance of users uninstalling your app, the opposite of your intent. Tailor push notifications to what you know about the user before and at the time of sending.

    I thought that was funny and great advice. Usually if I get an unsolicited Notification, my reaction is:

    “Hey, thanks for letting me know I still have this app installed. Let me fix that.”

    But there have been a few that have been relevant and I’ve started using the app again.

    I literally just installed Tapatalk, which I installed for the old vBulletins here. I really felt like that is a pretty good example of an app that does not need to exist. It’s limited and just down right bad. Using the website on mobile browser is a far better experience.

    Not everything needs and app and not everything needs a mobile version (responsive design aside). Mobile Phones and Tablets have browsers and they work pretty freaking well.

    However, I can’t say I agree with this either though. Wrappers are pretty great for the people who need an app for everything or just want a quick link to the site. Or if they need some sort of basic notification functionality built in.

    Now if you go to a site and they have one of those terrible “download our app!” popups and it turns out to just be a Wrapper, then well… that’s something different. lol Sadly, I’ve seen this happen more often than not with those alerts.

5 more replies