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How to make your app stand out in 2024: A guide to app user psychology

If you feel like it’s getting tougher for your app to stand out in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, know you’re not alone. The digital world is noisier than ever, and competition across app types is fierce, and growing. 

There are multiple reasons that your app may be failing to resonate with audiences. For one, human attention spans have been getting shorter over the last decade. Meanwhile, app marketplaces are crowded, which means that there are many apps competing for peoples’ already-limited attention. Consider that there were approximately 1.8M apps available on the Apple App Store at the end of 2022. This number represents a 123X increase from 2008, back when the App Store first launched. 

So, it’s understandable that people are overwhelmed with choices for how to best spend their time on-screen. 

If you’re building an app, one of the most valuable steps you can take is to help your user base connect with the value you’re offering. That undertaking requires that you understand what people want from the app experience that you’re crafting, and beyond. Below, we investigate existing research insights that tell us more about what users want and expect from an app experience, and how to position your app to meet these expectations. 

Inside this article:

Insight #1: Encourage a genuine social experience.

Social media platforms like Meta and TikTok have been identified as the causes of declining attention spans. *But*, at the same time, these platforms sit in one of the top-rated categories in the App stores. In a nutshell: people like using them, which speaks to the power of building an app that inspires a sense of community.

Insight #2: Recognize that app users might be feeling nervous.

As an app developer, it’s important to consider the full spectrum of emotions, stresses, and challenges that people might be experiencing when evaluating different mobile experiences in 2024 — specifically as it relates to their data safety. Your app users want to feel confident that they and their information will be safe on your platform.

Insight #3: Remember that people have lives beyond the screen.

There’s only so much that you can infer about your users’ behavior based on the clicks, taps, and swipes that you’re seeing in your analytics dashboard. Keep in mind that people are likely multitasking between the real and digital worlds when using your app. The gaming industry, for instance, provides clues as to how to evaluate this bigger picture beyond the screen.

Insight #4: Build what people value and care about.

Even though companies might be under pressure to make a sale, it’s important to remember that what people want is an engaging experience, or one that at least adds value to their day-to-day (whether that’s a fitness app, a mindfulness app, or an employee hub). The key is to create a balance of both, even when the primary purpose of your mobile app is to make a transaction happen.

Insight #5: Prioritize a multi-device worldview.

Smartphones are just one of many connected screens that people are using to move through their daily lives — our end users are more mobile than ever, and interacting with our apps beyond the palm. Enter the new frontier of the smartwatch.

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Research insight #1: Encourage a genuine social experience.

In recent years, social media has received negative attention for making people more distractable. In fact, researchers like Mark say that it’s because of social media that human attention spans are shrinking in the first place!

At the same time, social media is something that people genuinely enjoy using. Consider this February 2023 study, conducted by a team of researchers from Zayed University in the UAE and the University of Manchester in the UK, in which found that social media is the most-favored category of app that people like using.

The study, based on direct quantitative and qualitative feedback from respondents, concluded that people who download apps are most interested in usefulness, especially when it comes to communication and general connectivity. 

Over 61% of respondents tabbed usefulness as the most important aspect of an app, with usability a distant second at 13%. In particular, WhatsApp was ranked as the most popular app, followed by Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media.

What these apps share in common, according to the research, is that they are useful in facilitating communication while also inspiring a sense of pleasure. Meanwhile, psychologists say that online communities have the potential to be good for humanity as a powerful weapon against stress, loneliness, and depression.

Consider Spontacts, which is an app built on Median, as an example. The app prioritizes community as a focal point, to help people discover leisure activities, leisure partners, sports partners, and travel partners — directly addressing a loneliness epidemic that the World Health Organization (WHO) says impacts people globally.

Social media isn’t the only way for people to connect with each other digitally. Why not create your own social experience by building a community-based app?

Research Insight #2: Recognize that app users *might* be feeling nervous about privacy 

Yes, people are craving a sense of community — but app users are also worried about their digital safety, security, and privacy. One proof point is the IAPP’s Privacy and Consumer Trust Report, which surveyed 4,750 individuals across 19 countries and found that 68% of consumers are either somewhat or very concerned about their privacy online.

If you’re an app developer, it’s critical to create a sense of safety among your user base, in addition to delivering a concretely secure experience by employing the right app security technologies. That means proactively addressing the sensitivities that people might be feeling. After all, cybercrime is known to leave people feeling anxious or even traumatized and victimized. Those who have experienced cybercrime, according to one study from a research team at Universitas Brawijaya in Indonesia, display a higher level of concern about their digital safety.

The best approaches to trust and safety are grounded in a clear strategy. One suggestion is to utilize known and tested compliance frameworks, such as Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) Framework published in 2021. This guide from Median gives you clear, tactical steps to navigate this process.

Empathetic and transparent communication will also be critical. As an example, you can take a look at how Spontacts communicates with its user base about its trust and safety protocols—including SSL encryption, firewalls, anonymous registration, and the ability for users to control their display names.

The key is to demonstrate to your user base that you care. That means responding to concerns with integrity and honesty.

Research insight #3: Remember that app users have complex lives beyond the phone screen.

When you’re building an app, you’re likely focused on creating an exceptional, intuitive user experience, but it’s easy to forget that people are constantly multitasking. When interacting with your app, your user base is also likely doing other things — perhaps going out to dinner, watching television, sitting in a meeting, or commuting to work on a train. In fact, one study found that subjects, even under direct observation, only maintained focus on a primary task for about five minutes at a time.

The fact is, you don’t know what the backdrop of every user’s life may look like. There’s more to the story than the clicks, taps, and swipes happening on the screen.

Given this reality, it’s helpful to understand the interplay between real-world and smartphone interactions. Research from the gaming industry, a field that’s known to inform best practices in other industries, can help. 

“Games like Second Life (Linden Lab, San Francisco, CA, USA, 2003) and Fortnite (Epic Games, Cary Town, NC, USA, 2018) use their own time and space laws, characters, virtual objects, and social norms, allowing users to experience social interaction using electronic devices and avatars within the virtual world,” explains a research team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University

“This highlights how the game virtual world serves as a valuable medium for entertainment, creativity, socializing, and other comparable activities in contemporary society.”

The researchers introduce the concept of examining a virtual world as a ‘living world,’ which involves a transition from the physical world.

To explore the theme of physical-virtual world transition, the research team conducted interviews with people who play games on mobile apps. The goal was to understand what attributes users found important. Here are the themes that came up:

  • Convenience
  • Interactions with others
  • Ease of use
  • Characters’ exaggerated skills
  • Effects to physical or emotional reality
  • Sense of physical presence
  • Put in substantial costs
  • Self-fulfillment
  • Make life easier

With awareness of these themes, it becomes easier for app developers to understand users on an empathetic level. Your mobile experience isn’t just about a smartphone experience but rather, the bigger picture being influenced.

Outside of the gaming industry, one example of this idea in action is employee experience. In recent years, companies have created mobile apps to encourage information-sharing and collaboration. As one example, McKesson, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, built an app on Median to deliver personalized content and push notifications to 19,000 people.

The goal was to create a greater sense of connectedness, presence, fulfillment, and convenience at work. Using these as goalposts to integrate into your app experience should be a primary concern.

Research insight #4: Build what people actually value and care about

From the studies in this list, an emerging pattern is that people want mobile apps that make life better beyond the screen. So, how is the current mobile app ecosystem measuring up? As it turns out, many app developers are prioritizing their business goals above creating a genuine experience that people enjoy. 

One benchmark report from the Baymard Institute scratches the surface of answering this question for the e-commerce mobile web. The short answer: usability scores are average at best, according to one dataset.

The study incorporates an analysis of 17,500+ ratings across 71 top-grossing ecommerce sites. 

“Nearly all sites are in a tight cluster of ‘mediocre’ (54%) and ‘acceptable’ (37%),” explains the analysis. 
These findings are based on the following assessment criteria:

  • Homepage & category: Main navigation
  • Search: Autocomplete
  • Search: Results logic & guidance
  • Checkout: Validation errors & data persistence
  • Sitewide design: Design & interaction
  • Sitewide design: Touch interfaces

Unsurprisingly, the Baymard Institute concludes that there’s room for improvement, as no sites in the study demonstrated a ‘state of the art’ experience. So what does it take to create a mobile experience that people will find compelling?

In 2021, a team of researchers at the University of South Australia, Flinders University, Loughborough University, University of South Australia, and University of Western Australia analyzed 471 studies to answer this question

The study found that people want to do more than just make purchases. More specifically, app users want to participate in activities that they find personally meaningful. App engagement is highly subjective, consisting of a mixture of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects. For instance, even in shopping environments, people are looking for support in the decision-making process.

One example to consider is Wines ‘Til Sold Out, a Median customer that helps people deliver unique wines at cost-effective price points. As wine is a product that attracts enthusiasts, the website encompasses a wealth of information that people can browse and read about. In addition to discovering flash sales, people can read in-depth stories about each product.

Like Wines ‘Til Sold Out, you can identify your company’s unique footprint and give users additional resources that engage with your story.

Research insight #5: Prioritize a multi-device worldview

Smartphones aren’t the only small-screen devices in peoples’ lives. 

According to a 2020 Pew Research Study, one in five Americans has a smartwatch or fitness tracker. These devices introduce a new screen to connected tech ecosystems that may already include laptops, tablets, televisions, and smartphones. 

The challenge (and opportunity) from designing on a smartwatch is that interactions tend to be momentary and brief. Tradeoffs are at the core of designing a successful smartwatch experience. For this reason, it’s sometimes not worth it to build a smartwatch app at all.

In a recent analysis of smartwatch interactions, Nielsen Norman Group conducted a five-day diary study to understand what people like to do on these super-small screens. The researchers then categorized this information into five main types:

  • Receiving: Asking for the user's attention to present information
  • Referencing: Checking information that is constantly available
  • Recording: Capturing data as it is generated in the world
  • Controlling: Manipulating an ongoing process or separate technology
  • Communicating: Connecting with other people via calls or messages
  • Guiding: Providing in-the-moment direction during an activity

Furthermore, the study found that people prefer interactions that are unobtrusive (i.e. works well on silent mode) and hard to miss (i.e. vibrates when a message is high priority). Depending on the app experience that you’re looking to create, an integrated experience between a smartphone and a smartwatch has the potential to be valuable.

If you’re planning a cross-device experience, especially when a smartwatch is involved, it’s important to develop a clear focus around the user experience that you’re looking to develop. One of the simplest, most valuable types of messages is an update — especially if you’re building an app experience for a conference or event. Meanwhile, reminders can provide gentle nudges about commitments. Nielsen Norman Group emphasizes that no matter what, it is never a good idea to deliver promotional content to a smartwatch. 

When designing your mobile app, it’s important to consider how a single experience may extend across different screens.

Final thoughts

Remember, the best apps are built on a foundation of human interest. Captivating peoples’ attention means prioritizing the following:

  • People want apps that make their lives better
  • People are engaging with apps within the context of their broader life experiences
  • People enjoy using apps to connect with others and accomplish specific goals
  • People aren’t looking for transactions; rather, they want experiences that appeal to their human interests

As simple as these research findings may seem, it’s easy to forget what people actually want when you’re focused on transactional metrics like conversion rates and sales. But app experiences are much more multifaceted. At the end of the day, every click, tap, and swipe corresponds to an emotional experience that is happening in the real world — not just on screens.

All of these data points converge into a story. 

As you develop your app, it can be helpful to consult academic research that pertains to your industry. You can start with peer review journals like PLOS and ScienceDirect. Journal articles labeled “open access” are available at no cost. Google Scholar can also help you broaden your analysis. 

*DISCLAIMER: This content is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not exhaustive and may not be relevant for your requirements. While we have obtained and compiled this information from sources we believe to be reliable, we cannot and do not guarantee its accuracy. This content is not to be considered professional advice and does not form a professional relationship of any kind between you and LLC or its affiliates. is the industry-leading end-to-end solution for developing, publishing, and maintaining native mobile apps for iOS and Android powered by web content. When considering any technology vendor we recommend that you conduct detailed research and “read the fine print” before using their services.*
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