By: Kahuna | November 10, 2014 | Mobile Marketing

There’s a real dearth of best practices for optimizing mobile apps. This is partly due to the immaturity of mobile as a platform, but it’s also because of the complexities around product testing and optimization. It is important that mobile-focused companies understand the nuances around product testing and have a trusted solution for optimizing their apps.

We recently spoke with Optimizely, an A/B testing company with expertise in mobile optimization. Today, in an article authored by Suneet Shah of the Optimizely team, they share some of what they know about how developers and product managers can improve and optimize their mobile apps.


What are some the best practices around mobile app optimization?

There are three things I recommend app developers consider when establishing their optimization strategy:

#1 Be targeted. One experience cannot be optimal for everyone, so it’s important to think about who your users are and the key differences that may exist in the ways they engage with your app. This is super important within the realm of A/B testing, where you may often find results that aren’t conclusively different from the control. But if you take a deeper look at the individual audiences, you may find results are conclusive for a specific cohort.

#2 Focus on onboarding and activation. The highest value touchpoint you can optimize in your app is the very first one. More than 80% of apps are used only once and then eventually deleted. Considering how hard it can be to get your app downloaded in the first place, this is a scary number for a lot of developers. If you want to avoid becoming a statistic, you need to make sure your first-run experience demonstrates value as quickly as possible with as little friction as possible. A/B testing is a great way to see the impact that removing hurdles such as signing up or requesting permissions can do to your engagement rate.


#3 Request permissions wisely. One of the biggest potential pitfalls is asking for permissions to a user’s device experience  (i.e. location, push notifications, camera access, etc.) without first demonstrating what the user is going to get out of providing those permissions. Apple only allows apps to request permissions once, so it’s critically important to get them to say “Yes” that time. Brendan Mulligan wrote a great article about the right way to request permissions that I highly recommend reading. Then once you have some ideas, test them!

 You should test out different ways to ask for permissions, as well as testing out different places in your app to ask for permissions. For a feature like push notifications, once someone says no, they have to jump through all kinds of hoops to enable push notifications again– so they will never do it, and you will lose your ability to re-engage that user.


How does mobile app optimization compare with traditional website optimization? What are the similarities and differences?

Mobile app optimization probably shares more similarities with the web than it does differences. In both cases, you’re using data to decide which experiences your users see so they engage with your product or service more than they would have otherwise.

The biggest difference in the experiences is that mobile apps are made up of compiled code sitting on your users’ devices, as opposed to the web which is open and real-time. Also relative to the web, mobile apps are a relatively recent innovation, and the tools developers have available to optimize their app experiences have not yet reached the same maturity level as they have on the web. The result is that only the most technical mobile teams are thinking about it, and the process of testing can sometimes seem like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Another big difference is in the fact that it’s not always easy to know how users came to discover your app. This presents a problem for app developers looking to get into optimization. On the web your visitors’ source location contains so much useful information about their intent for visiting you and what they’re trying to get out of the experience. On mobile, you need to look to other sources.


What are the top three things that mobile apps should test first?

Like I mentioned in the first question, acquisition and onboarding are low hanging fruit for testing. Because the first experience with an app is so indicative of whether or not that user will remain an engaged user, it’s vital to draw the user in and delight them on the first experience.


From there it depends on the app’s goals. We have a great series on our blog that we call Teardown Tuesday. We pick a different app every other Tuesday and offer ideas for the app to improve on any number of different metrics. For example, how Pandora can increase paid subscribers, how Hotel Tonight can increase bookings, ideas for OpenTable to A/B test messaging around a new feature roll out.

From there, apps should take a look at their analytics and identify bottlenecks, areas where users aren’t completing key tasks like creating an account or getting through a checkout flow. For mobile and web, analytics offer a treasure trove of test hypotheses.


Are there any pitfalls mobile app developers and product managers should be aware of when optimizing on mobile?

Yes. The biggest piece of advice I can give to a mobile app developer is to start small, and try not to test too many things at once, especially when first starting out. If you’ve never tested your app before, odds are there are a lot of questions you’d like to answer with data. The key is to strike the right balance between low effort and high impact experiments that will drive the most usage.

Also don’t forget to optimize for individual audiences. As mentioned above, every user is different, and if you spend all your time optimizing for the mean, you’ll wind up with a pretty good app for everyone. It’s when you start segmenting your audience based on meaningful differences that you really start to deliver great, personalized experiences.


About the Author


Suneet Shah is a Senior Product Manager for Optimizely’s Mobile product. He has been in the mobile world for 3 years, previously CEO and co-founder of OpenKit, a platform for mobile game developers. He’s also built mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Windows 8. Now he’s at Optimizely, building tools to help bring app optimization to the masses.