It’s Not Me, It’s You: When Users Break Up With Their Apps

This is an edited version of my notes for a section of my iOSCon Distractedly Intimate talk. You can find the rest of it here. With thanks to Denise who helped me construct this narrative for my talk.

Credit: Pixabay / herryway
Credit: Pixabay / herryway

We’re makers here, right? And what we make is experiences that take place on the user’s devices, their iThings. But too often, we make it easy for users to break up with our apps, particularly when we’re choosing whether to build a native app. Too many developers want users to want their native apps, but you’ve got to keep in mind that it’s….complicated.

I hate to break it to you, but their relationship with phone is stronger than relationship with you. So here are a few ways to think about whether your user relationship is ready for a native app.


Are you going to be that annoying person in the relationship?

For example, Notifications. This is a really common reason to want users to have a native app, but do users actually want alerts for this product? And if so, how many? It’s important to be selective.

If the app overloads on notifications, users have a choice between turning off notifications for that application, or removing it. Removing it takes fewer taps.


Some relationships are too demanding. That overly energetic partner leaves you feeling drained….like a battery. Or your data plan.

Background tasks can be a battery killer, especially anything to do with location services and GPS. My first go at location tracking nuked the battery in 30 minutes if the user was say… riding a moterbike on the freeway. Be considerate, and look for ways to be less demanding. For example you might want to enable background audio so the user doesn’t need to keep their screen on.

And what about those apps that demand an internet connection with no good reason? Why does the page I loaded on the Medium webapp disappear when I try to read something on the tube? Speaking of which, why does my RSS reader not work on the tube? Why does it demand that I have an internet connection to work?


You don’t want to have to report your every move in a relationship, do you? That works both ways: the user may object to the location reports because they don’t want to be guilty of oversharing.

We can get a one-off location is in a web app, but anything that requires more than that, e.g. ongoing location, or location-based alerts, needs to be native. But it also needs to be selective. The question is – does the user benefit from sharing more detailed location data?

Uber do this really well. I can see where the drivers around me are, and then I share the location that I want them to pick me up at. Then I can see the driver who is coming for me, so I can keep track and know when they arrive. Once my ride is done, I’m not sharing my location anymore. The key thing – I only share my location enough to make me feel safer.

We want users to share, especially about our product, and integrating with social media is a great way to do that. But if we cross the line into being creepy, share something that they didn’t want, they may take the time to enforce some personal boundaries… that don’t include our app.

A Brief Affair

You’ve probably had relationships that you knew wouldn’t last forever. You enjoyed them, for an intense but brief time period. And then you moved on. I prefer native apps – to build, and to use. They are faster, more convenient, better at saving state. But, I only want them for things that I use a lot, or have a short period of high usage – museum or conference apps are good examples of this.

Developers need to consider that their users may just want a short-term relationship — I know, so disappointing — or they may have commitment phobia.

There’s a saying that goes “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. But deletion is much easier (and cheaper!) than divorce. You might be able to force them to download your app for a specific reason… but you can’t force them to keep it around.

Of course, the real answer is for you to focus on what they care about. Just like every other relationship that works.

What They Care About

I’m sure people here can relate to this, when you’re on a date and they just keep talking about football. Or when you want to talk about football and they just keep talking about something else. And you just don’t know what they are talking about, or why they are getting so worked up about it?

Users are more task focused on mobile – and in our designs we want to show them that we understand what they care about, what they are trying to do. This relates to the current trend for splitting things up – Foursquare, for example, will have an app for discovery, and an app for checking in [source]. And this makes sense because they are two different tasks. They realized that they had built the experience around something that few people actually use – the checkin.

We inflict our goals on the user when put a full page app interstitial on the mobile web page. We fail extra at this when it causes the user to lose their intended destination.

We also fail at this when we structure our app around the way that our team is structured. Don Norman complained a while ago, citing a quote from Conway in 1968 that “Organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” [source] This remains true today – we shouldn’t inflict our org structure on our users, by means of our user experience.

Finally, this is when we want to consider – should there even be an app for this? What are we solving? And my current favourite example of this is that Heathrow Airport has an app. I take this as a sign that we have reached Peak App.

This app, from what I understand from the adverts that I see all over the airport, is focused on where to eat, and especially where to shop. No-one goes to the airport to shop. We go to catch planes. I like to shop as much as the next girl and I spend a lot of time in airports but seriously… not even me.

I think this is a clear case of the developers goal – to get more people spending money at Heathrow – being inflicted on the user. Except it probably won’t be inflicted, because they probably just won’t download it. I checked the reviews on the app store, I was really surprised they were so positive and then I discovered – they are mostly from drivers picking people up, and people who work at the airport. Which makes sense, because these are people with tasks that are airport centric.

It’s a reminder that our users are not an amorphous mass, they’re individuals. The general trends don’t cover everything. And the best thing we can do is listen. The more we understand what our users are trying to do, the more we can enable them. That’s great user experience.

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