User expectations of mobile app performance are unforgiving. Your mobile app’s features may be valuable and innovative, but if users suffer through slow load times and poor performance, they will replace the app in a heartbeat. That’s a problem because today, the mobile market has matured enough to support multiple competing apps. If your app hopes to capture even a fraction of the time we spend on our phones, you need to offer a good —if not delightful— mobile app experience.
This is easier said than done. Building a competitive mobile app requires a full understanding of the mobile market and landscape and how it differs from web development. Only then can you adapt accordingly and position your app to win.
The mobile ecosystem is full of lucrative opportunities and offers room for sustained growth, but this also comes with strong competition and a completely different set of user expectations.
Let’s start with a quick review of the state of the mobile app market and the expectations users have for the apps they use.
A rapidly growing market and fierce competition
We now spend five hours a day on our phones—nearly a third of our waking hours— and 92% of that time is spent on mobile apps versus only 8% on mobile browsers.
Though 2022 marked the first-ever drop in mobile consumer spending at a modest 3% YoY, a closer look shows that the bulk of that decrease affected games. The reality shows that spending on apps excluding games remained resilient at a 10% YoY increase, even despite the current economic climate, proving that users consider them essential.
In addition, mobile devices and operating systems are constantly adding new capabilities and features, and smartphone penetration is on the rise in developing countries. This creates new untapped markets, virtually guaranteeing a bright future for the mobile ecosystem.
However, opportunities attract competition, and with nearly 1.8 million non-gaming apps available for download on Apple's App Store and 2.6 million non-gaming apps on Google Play Store, capturing mindshare is a challenge in its own right.
Succeeding in this environment requires you to deliver app performance that not only beats your competitors but also competes with the world’s top-ranked apps. That is what users expect—and that is the bar you’ll be held to.
Unforgiving expectations and excellent returns
Mobile’s form factor significantly influences how users perceive your app’s performance. Screen sizes make multitasking on mobile impractical, leading users to devote their full attention to your app. This focused attention makes your app load times feel longer, even when it takes the same time as on the web.
More importantly, people depend on mobile apps for their daily personal and professional lives and expect the stability and performance of their apps to be befitting of their critical role.
76% of users say their expectations of digital services have increased, with 93% of them expecting reliable and consistent performance. In fact, 68% of people believe brands disrespect their users by offering a poor digital experience.
Mobile app users are no longer satisfied with a crash-free app; basic requirements now include load times and responsiveness. When faced with a regularly crashing app, 53% of users will uninstall the app and 37% will stop using it. Similarly, apps that regularly load slowly don’t fare much better with 48% of users saying they will uninstall them and 33% saying they will stop using them altogether.
While the expectations of mobile users are unforgiving, they are prepared to reward the apps that meet them. 89% of people are likely to recommend a brand after a positive mobile experience and 50% of consumers would be willing to pay more for an organization’s product or service if its digital services were better than a competitor’s.
Consumers have made it clear that the quality of app performance and user experience critically influence their decision-making, not just an app’s features.
A challenging landscape and long lifecycle
Mobile apps are distributed as packaged code, requiring users to install them through app stores, which essentially act as gatekeepers. This fundamental difference in the distribution model creates a new set of challenges for mobile app developers that web developers avoid.
Add to that the fact that mobile devices have a different set of capabilities, a high state of fragmentation, and run in highly diverse environments, and it becomes clear that your development approach must be tailored to these factors.
Let’s take a closer look at the impact this has.
A fundamentally different distribution model
Since your app will not be running on your servers, you need to package it as binary code that users can download and run on their devices. This distribution model introduces two main challenges.
First, when a release introduces an issue, you cannot just roll back to an earlier version. Introduced issues can’t be mitigated until you release a new version and your users update their app. Consequently, every version you release needs to be thoroughly tested and of top quality.
Second, compiling all your team’s work into one binary makes it difficult to establish code ownership and accountability across larger teams and codebases.
Unlike the web’s microservices where you can route issues on an app level, mobile apps need to route issues on path/package and filename levels, which adds complexity to the process.
High fragmentation, endless environments
Web apps run on a limited number of browser engines and execute most of their processes server-side, but mobile apps run on a vast variety of devices with very different capabilities and need to carry out most of their processes client-side.
Mobile apps also have to deal with a great diversity of environments, many of them unique to mobile like mobile data connectivity and device orientation, adding yet another layer of complexity. It is practically impossible to include all parameters in your pre-production testing, leading to issues inadvertently slipping into production more often.
App stores have the power and set the standards
Nearly all app downloads happen through Apple and Google’s app stores, which are generally the first place mobile users visit when searching for a new app.
This highly centralized distribution makes your app store reviews, ratings, and ranking crucial to your app’s success. 79% of users check app ratings and reviews before downloading, and jumping from a two to a three-star rating can increase your app store conversion by more than 300%.
Apple and Google’s ranking algorithms don’t just look at downloads and ratings; they also consider factors that include engagement, user experience, stability, and performance. While the exact effect these factors have on rankings remains proprietary, both Apple and Google have confirmed that these metrics matter (Google even mentions them in Play Store’s policy center).
Getting past the gatekeeper
Before you can release a new version of your app to app stores, you’ll first have to pass their review process, which takes a few hours at best. The time needed for your app’s review may seem insignificant, but a few hours will seem like a lifetime when there is a major issue affecting your app.
If you accidentally break any of the store’s rules, you’ll need to first address the issue and submit a new version for review. Even then, you will still have to wait for your users to update their apps before any new code reaches your users. All in all, it’s a time-consuming process.
Mobile misses will hit your bottom line
Mobile crashes occur more frequently and apps can’t be rolled back to an earlier version, which makes issue resolution a complicated endeavor. Mitigating the impact of mobile issues is a lengthy process that can be broken down into key steps:
- Validation: verify that this isn’t an issue already fixed in a later release.
- Triage and assignment: figure out which team or team member is responsible for the crash and assign it accordingly.
- Debugging: the assigned team digs into the issue to figure out how to reproduce it and to identify the root cause.
- Store review: after fixing the issue, submit a new version for the app store review and wait for it to be released.
- User download: finally, you need to wait for your users to update their apps.
Critically, these steps either don’t exist in web development or are highly automated. Even when it comes to debugging, the combination of challenging environments mobile apps run in, high fragmentation in mobile devices, and incomplete information make it a highly difficult and time-consuming task to reproduce issues and understand their root cause.
More importantly, only 32% of mobile app users enable automatic updates for their apps, and only 52% of them update within the first seven days. In the best-case scenario, an issue introduced in your app will continue to impact users for at least a few days.
If the issue is major, it can end up costing you dearly. A few days with a broken checkout experience means at least three days' worth of lost revenue, and that’s if your users don’t uninstall the app first. Not to mention the negative impact on your reputation and user trust.
The bottom line: the cost of mobile app issues is more expensive by an order of magnitude than anything you face on the web.
You’re not going to win mobile until you start thinking mobile. Failure to adapt to its challenges and expectations will only waste your effort, time, and money—and may kill your brand.
Building a mobile strategy for your mission-critical apps doesn’t need to be mission impossible. Accelerate your success by adopting the following pillars:
Use mobile metrics to measure a mobile experience
First and foremost, accept that mobile is its own medium and not just an extension of your web experience. That’s when you can start asking the right questions to understand the nuances of the mobile experience, what your users expect, and how to meet those expectations.
This starts by tracking the right metrics. Maintaining excellent crash-free rates is imperative, but not enough. At the very least, you also need to track and optimize metrics that affect your app store rankings, like Application Not Responding (ANR) errors, Out Of Memory (OOM) crashes, app launch time, hangs, and hitches. And that's just to deliver an acceptable user experience.
55% of mobile users consider slow app response and load times to be the most frustrating issue they face with mobile apps, beating both availability (40%) and functionality (32%). Delivering a delightful app experience requires you to go past the basics and gain visibility over your app’s screen loading times, network request and response performance, UI rendering, key app flows, and mobile-specific user frustration signs, like app termination.
The good news is that the standardization that comes with Apple and Google’s dominance allows 3rd-party tools to use their APIs to obtain all the telemetry you need without any manual instrumentation on your side. Gaining observability over your app’s performance is only a matter of choosing the right tool to plug into your application.
Scalable, built-for-mobile processes and tools
Embrace the challenges of mobile’s distribution model and adapt your processes, tools, and mindset accordingly.
The first step is to stop aggregating your app’s metrics against time and shift to a release perspective. After all, each release is a separate binary package and there will be several of them running at any point in time. It only makes sense to measure their performance separately.
At the same time, establish team code ownership by assigning and routing issues and alerts on a path/package and file level for reliable accountability. This becomes increasingly important as your mobile app and team grow.
Finally, although mobile technologies have only been around for ~15 years, their incredible growth has led the size of mobile teams and codebases to grow at a matching pace. You have to make sure that the processes you adopt—from team size and structure to release frequency—can handle your app’s success and subsequent growth.
The same goes for your stack. Many built-for-mobile tools have failed to keep up with mobile’s rapid growth and start showing their limitations once you start scaling, right when they’re needed the most.
Proactive performance management
Only 24% of users who encounter issues with your mobile app will reach out to you for help. On the other hand, 63% of them will actively try to discourage others from using your app, and app store ratings and reviews are a common way to do that.
You cannot afford to wait for issues to happen, let alone for your users to report them. You need to be able to identify performance issues and degradations and handle them before they start creating frustrating experiences.
When issues do inevitably happen, you should ideally proactively communicate with affected users to let them know you’re working on it and notify them when you release a new version with a fix.
Mobile is a different medium with a new set of challenges and requirements to tackle before you can find success. Adapting your processes and tailoring them for mobile is the best way to boost your users’ engagement, trust, and loyalty which will ultimately reflect on your bottom line. Doing so positions your app —and your business— to win.
- App Discovery and Ranking - Play Console Help
- What great technical quality looks like - App quality - Android Developers
- State of Mobile 2023 - data.ai
- The App Attention Index 2019 - AppDynamics
- The App Attention Index 2021 - AppDynamics
- Automatic Updates on Play Store - Android Authority
- Smartphone Users App Update Frequency U.S. 2016 - Statista
- Mobile Experience Referral Statistics - Think With Google
- How People Discover, Use, and Stay Engaged With Apps - Think With Google
- Mobile App Ratings and Reviews - Alchemer
- App Revenue Data 2023 - Business of Apps
- App Download Data 2023 - Business of Apps
- Failing to Meet Mobile App User Expectations - TechBeacon
- Update Behavior in App Markets and Security Implications: A Case Study in Google Play - ResearchGate
- APM KPIs: Mobile App Performance Monitoring Metrics and Targets
- Mobile Release Best Practices
- Performance Monitoring and User Experience for Mobile App Growth
- How Much Your Mobile App Performance Costs Your Business
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