What Do Popular Apps Have in Common?

October 13, 2021

The biggest apps don’t often start from scratch. There are conventions they keep in mind when trying to design a smash hit. So what exactly do these apps get right, and how can app developers and designers get on the fast track to a blockbuster app? 

1. The Tech Stack

The Amazon Fire phone didn’t last very long on the market, as Android and iOS had already captured consumers’ attention. Any app released today on a niche app store is unlikely to reach commercial success because there simply aren’t enough potential customers. 

When first launching an app, it’s important to consider which platform you’ll launch on first. Many apps start off with either iOS or Android first and add more as they prove successful in the market. After all, you’ll need more developer resources if you want to design for multiple platforms. So testing the waters first is a good idea. You can find out which platform to focus on first by simply asking potential customers which they use during your initial research phase. If they are giving you information about their pain points and interests in a potential solution and you create a solution on the platform of their choice, they will be much more likely to be pilot customers once your app is ready to try out. 

As apps grow more and more successful, expanding to desktop and mobile web are logical next steps. The idea is to meet your customers where they are. If you gather data over time that shows your customers would engage further if you added additional touchpoints, then it’s a good call to give new platforms a try. 

Two women outdoors looking at their smartphones.
As your target users if they use Android or iOS to inform which platform you launch first.

2. Function Leads Form

You’ve heard us discuss form versus function in the past. And as always, we’re putting function front and center. But when it comes to creating a popular app, function breaks down into two subcategories. First, popular apps are useful: they solve a pain or bring joy to consumers in a way that competitors haven’t been able to. And in order to serve that purpose, these popular apps must also be inherently easy to understand. Anyone should be able to install the app and intuitively comprehend how to use it. The more barriers to entry, the less likely it is to reach mass appeal. 

3. Strong UX/UI Design 

When an app launches, the UX/UI design work is far from over. With frequent customer communication and feedback, app developers can understand what their customers think of the app design so that they can improve the look, feel, and features over time. If the Twitter app in 2021 looked the way it did in 2010, it is unlikely anyone would use it. The best app developers keep up with frequent updates and feature releases and can even lead mobile app design. 

One especially important aspect of UX and UI design in popular apps is their onboarding flow. This is the opportunity not just to pave the way for a smooth mobile experience, but it can even be a way to show some personality. When a user first downloads an app, it has to be intuitive. If they can’t figure out how to sign up and start using it, they are going to abandon it. So be sure that your onboarding flow is as simple as possible to keep users from jumping ship before you get a chance to wow them with the amazing features that are waiting for them on the other side of signup. 

4. A Reason to Return

The best apps keep you coming back. Either they have a revolving door of fresh content, like the New York Times or Instagram, or they incentivize your return with a feature like “streaks.” Workout apps and even finance apps like SoFi reward users for logging in every day, so consider what you can do to encourage users to boost engagement and retention over time.  

Some apps don’t need to incentivize daily logins because they already have strong pulls. For example, even if a popular app is in a utility category, the usefulness of the app will keep users coming back. Being able to check transactions and pay your credit card bill on time each month might not be the most exciting reason to keep logging in, but it is necessary and will keep customers coming back. 

 A man in winter clothes entering his credit card number into his smartphone.
Users should never have to enter their credit card information more than once.

5. Ease of Payment

If too many steps are involved in the buying process, consumers will drop out of the purchase funnel. Instead of cutting revenue opportunities off at the knees, make it easy for consumers to purchase. Think of Uber and Lyft; when users go through the sign-up flow, they need to enter their credit card information. Instead of forcing them to type in all their whole credit card number, expiration date, and CVC, the apps lighten the lift for users and allow them to take a picture of their credit card instead so that all the data is automatically captured. Then, after the initial data entry, the user never has to think about their credit card information again. Each ride is seamlessly charged to their card on file instead of thinking about payment every time. This erases the friction at the end of every ride that is associated with these apps’ original nemesis: the taxi. 

Another element to consider is whether you will charge for your app or not. Many apps offer free trials over a short period and do their best to entice the user to pay to continue access after the trial. Apps like Calm effectively show the full spectrum of their offerings over the course of seven days in hopes that customers will value it enough to pay full price on the 8th day. 

Yet other apps try a freemium model and offer a “lite” version of their app for free without strings. However, users will run into only available features if they choose to upgrade to a paid plan. The most popular apps handle this in a delicate way so that it doesn’t feel like an intense sales pitch but instead is a natural flow from free to paid customer when the benefits are presented logically. (Learn about other app monetization strategies here.)

6. Transparency

Communication with the customer pre and post-app install is key to building a trusting relationship. Nothing should be buried in the fine print if it is something that customers are likely to care about. So your overall terms and conditions should be easily accessible. The same goes for app updates. Be clear about what you have fixed and how the updates might impact users, so they aren’t left in the dark. 

7. Data Protection

Going hand in hand with transparency is privacy. With data breaches arising nearly every day, consumers want to know they can trust your app. They don’t want their password, message history, or credit card information to be vulnerable to hackers. App developers have to put safeguards in place to gain and maintain trust in an era when even giants like Twitch and T-Mobile get hacked, and sensitive information goes public. How can you reassure customers that your data collection and storage practices are safe and that you always have their best interest at heart? 

Lines of code on a computer screen.
Your users’ safety is number one.

The unfortunate truth is that the potential harm for an app that is gaining popularity but suffers a data breach early is likely far greater than an incumbent in the market. So it’s essential to get data and privacy processes right from the beginning, not curtail growth when you need it most. 

8. Focus

Last but not least: the most popular apps understand their niche. Apps don’t need to be everything to everyone. Imagine a fitness tracker, sports betting, e-commerce, diary app all in one. It’s very unlikely that any of those features would work especially well, and they certainly wouldn’t work together coherently. The best apps understand what their customers like and focus on providing and improving upon that. 

It can be easy to try out a ton of new features to stay current, but this can muddy the app’s reason for being. While trying a new concept out or keeping up with competitors, It is wise to specialize and not overdo it with extraneous features. Otherwise, this can lead to wasted effort (LinkedIn Stories, anyone?)

Would be great if we find examples of apps that did one of those things great so as to give our readers some food for thought.

What elements do you think are essential to popular apps? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

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