The Future of Apps

If the latest reports are to be believed then it appears we’ve reached peak app. According to a recent survey, almost two thirds of smartphone users download an average of zero apps per month. Of the remaining third, the majority only download one to three apps with the top 7% percent of smartphone users accounting for roughly half the total app download activity. Not to mention that once an app has been downloaded, retention rates (the amount of users who return to an app after first downloading)  drop down to just 11% after just one week.

So your app is likely out there collecting virtual dust on someone’s mobile device as it’s difficult for them to either remember or be interested enough to come back to it. No matter how great your app is, some are just not meant to be used regularly or the feature-set may not jump out enough for one to either know it’s there or become compelling enough to remember to come back to.

How to get your app downloaded in the first place is a topic for another day but I do want to discuss different ways to increase app retention and engagement once it has. The landscape which apps live on - namely the mobile operating system, is beginning to change dramatically. Not only that but these mobile operating systems are also beginning to more frequently communicate with other hardware devices. These changes mark a definitive shift in how people will be interacting with their mobile devices and therefore how your apps should be designed in the future.

How It Used to be Done

Traditionally, once an app has been downloaded one of the main ways to draw users back in are through the use of push notifications. As useful as these can be for some apps, it would be fair to say that many people suffer notification overload and these are quite often switched off. There has also been a heavy reliance on the onboarding experience - pointing out app features when someone uses the app for the first time in order to get them to explore and hopefully remember all the compelling reasons to come back. But these either often ignored and easy to forget.

Now and the Future

For apps to be successful today, their main purpose needs to make its presence known automatically when a user actually needs to use it, even if it doesn’t always involve the user entering the appI like to think of this as ‘ambient engagement’ whereby someone is using your app without necessarily being aware they are or deliberately opening it. Due to the evolution of the major mobile operating systems (iOS and Android) there are now a number of ways to make this happen. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Home screen widgets have been an option on Android for a long time now and in a more limited way through the notification centre on iDevices since iOS8. Widgets give app developers the option to take up valuable real estate on a user’s home screen. Common and useful widely used widgets include weather, calendar appointments, and sports scores. These are useful as it allows people to get information they want to see regularly at a glance without having to waste time looking for, opening and finding the appropriate section of the app. Even better, if someone does want more info, they can click on the widget to open more detailed relevant info in the app itself.

Shazam (a music identification app) is one widget example I personally love. When I hear a song I want to know the name of I no longer have to find the app, wait for it to load then find and press the appropriate button. With the Shazam widget I can press the ‘Listen’ button straight away, creating a more efficient and better user experience.

A widget should definitely be considered when developing an app as a way to increase app engagement. With the recent release of iOS10 Apple have greatly improved the functionality of widgets, not just in the notifications area but from the lock screen itself. For example, a to do notification reminder from an app like Todoist can now be ticked off as completed from the lock screen without having to enter the app itself. It’s possible to place immersive images into the widgets which help draw the user into the app. Messaging apps like iMessage allow messages to be replied to directly from the lock screen without having to unlock and enter the app.

All this talk of notifications and widgets leads right into smartwatches. One of the major benefits of wearing them is to check notifications without having to pull out your phone from a pocket or bag. The new Dock in the latest version of Apple’s watchOS allows widget like fast access to ‘at a glance’ information of a user’s favourite apps. Wearables is currently a relatively small market but it’s sure to get bigger. so extending out a watch version of your app is become increasingly important - especially if presenting timely information is one of its main purposes.

A wearable also allows many opportunities for ambient engagement. For example, a food discovery app could notify you of eating options based on your preferences when it notices you're out of your normal home zone at lunchtime. Whereas ‘in the old days’ you would have to think to use the app, now the app is ‘initiating the conversation’ and becoming contextually useful.  

Messaging platforms are big business because they attract a potentially massive user base with high engagement, which allows for further commercial opportunities to monetise those users. Facebook Messenger, the Facebook owned WhatsApp and Apple’s iOS only iMessage each boast over a billion monthly active users. These are larger user numbers than pretty much every social network outside of Facebook.

With the push to monetise, messaging apps have become about much more than actual messaging. Facebook opened the Messenger store in 2015 allowing developers to build third party apps which integrate directly into their Messenger app. And with the release of iOS10 Apple opened the iMessage store allowing iOS developers to do the same with the bonus of extending the functionality of their iOS app into iMessage. This presents a new and amazing opportunity to provide touch points into your app when a user most needs it. Going back to our earlier food discovery app example - as you and a group of friends message each other about where to meet for lunch, you could potentially  find and send suggestions which come from your app directly within iMessage without leaving the app. Or it might take the form of a chatbot in Facebook Messenger allowing for a food discovery conversation.

As the mobile platforms and messaging apps become bigger walled gardens which envelope the majority of online activity it drives focus further away from third party apps so it’s imperative that your app integrate into these ecosystems. They also provide a great opportunity to reach a much larger userbase than in the past.

Of all the ways people’s interaction with their mobile devices and the web will change, it’s in the virtual assistant area. Don’t underestimate how big this is. It will be the single biggest factor in user behaviour and the way they engage with apps (and the web).

Virtual assistants such as Siri on iOS, Google Assistant (formerly Now) on Android and Cortana on Windows Mobile have been around for a few years now. They are still all in the early stages of their evolution, enhancing their machine learning algorithms and improving voice recognition but they have come a long way in a short time. Whether asking them a question via voice or typing a message conversation with them, this changes the way people engage with their devices and how they retrieve information. In having a central place where people ask for the information they are after with the assistant answering or retrieving it, a user may rarely need to open your app.

Outside of this, assistants are also appearing outside of mobile devices. The most famous being Alexa on Amazon’s Echo and Dot hardware voice assistants. Google has recently released Home as a direct competitor, Apple is rumoured to have a prototype of something similar and Facebook just  has to be working on something. It's important that your app start to integrate with these devices  because  one of the main touch points to your app in the future probably won't involve a user reaching for their phone.

All of these platforms allow some level of app integration already and the level of integration will increase dramatically over the next couple of years. Voice search and artificial intelligent based virtual assistants are set to become the future gateway to the web, rather than typing a search on Google, loading up Facebook or a third party app. This is why all the major players are currently investing so heavily in this area. Google and Facebook don’t want to lose their dominant share of online advertising spend and Apple, Amazon and others see the opportunity to put a major dent in it. Incorporating your app to work inside these systems is going to be the way the app of the future is primarily made. The user experience around voice will become more important than touch.


Although further integration with operating systems, wearables. messaging apps and other devices potentially increases the complexity and cost of building apps, it also represents new opportunities and ways for people to engage with them. As we make the move from ‘mobile first’ to ‘voice first’ design patterns in coming years,  what we define as an app today will be ideated, constructed and labelled more as a service in the future. And I didn't even begin to touch on augmented reality, virtual reality and connection to the internet of things (iOT)!

Some of it might sound a little daunting but I like to think it's possibly also the beginning of an era for a new generation of killer ‘apps’.