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Study: For Many, Apps Lack Staying Power on iPhone

onioiniphoneappsResults of a recent study by Pinch Media were released (and poked fun at by The Onion) and reveal that users of iPhone/iPod touch apps lose interest quickly. Our own Om Malik actually pointed this out just a month after the App Store launched, and it seemingly continues to hold true today. But how relevant are these findings? I submit that the study is more a commentary on the design of the App Store than the apps that people are loading their iPhones with.

The study says that people lose interest in free applications more often than paid. Well duh! I’ve got nothing vested in a free application, so if it doesn’t hit the mark for me, why continue using it? I’m much more likely to give an app I paid for the proverbial college try before abandoning it and feeling like I wasted money. This is all common sense so far.

The claim is also made that applications with the most staying power are Games, Social Media and Entertainment specific. I’ll agree with that for the most part — when I need to kill time, it’s Twitter, news, or some game. However, my morning ritual has me checking the likes of The Weather Channel, USA Today, Omni Focus, Ski Report, Chase, and Weightbot/Lose it. Some are free, some paid, but none exactly fit the the categorization — of course we’re all different.

I think it’s fair to say that many applications are purchased/downloaded with the idea of needing them one day. Open Table, Wikipanion, Amazon (s AMZN), and eBay (s EBAY) all fill this void for me. I don’t need them on a daily basis, but when I do, it’s nice to have them available.

A metric that is not captured here is when people revisit an application down the road. There has been many an application that I’ve grabbed because of its potential and/or lower introductory price. I’ll download them, not touching them for weeks — possibly even deleting them temporarily — then decide to give them another look after some updates. Vocalia was one of these such instances. It was little more than a proof of concept when it launched and I bought it, and now it’s a solid voice dialer.

We’ve all heard (ad nauseum) about the runaway success of the fart apps and other silly gimmicks and gags. Some have made a lot of money (some are free), but it’s my guess that these apps especially fit the confines of Pinch Media’s study. Gimmicks usually offer little in the way of staying power.

So what makes an application for the iPhone or iPod touch have what it takes to remain in use? I think it’s a simple answer with a not-so-simple solution — whatever fits the needs of a particular user. Luckily each developer has a different vision which some cross-section of consumers is bound to be in line with. Perhaps some developers will find usefulness in these study results — though while everyone gets different utility from their apps, and user scenarios vary so greatly, it seems Pinch Media’s findings are sort of useless.

How accurately can your app usage practices be defined? Do you think they’re widely relevant for developers to create a killer app?

9 Responses to “Study: For Many, Apps Lack Staying Power on iPhone”

  1. Hey, *we* never claimed users were dissatisfied or in any way unhappy with their applications – we only reported on usage characteristics and let people draw their own conclusions. Personally, I think a $0.99 application that’s used a dozen times for forty minutes total is pretty good value for money – that’s $1.50 for an hour of entertainment.

    ‘Staying power’ is an extremely important metric if you’re considering going the free, ad-supported route, which many developers are. You might not think it’s useful, but we’ve also had developers thank us for helping them avoid very costly pricing mistakes.

    And of course the stuff we released is just as much a commentary on the structure of the AppStore as it is on the applications themselves. Both are essential for understanding, as best we can, what’s going on.

  2. @robertsoakes:
    I’ll grant that you have some examples of poor staying power. They might even be good examples. I’m honestly not sure. The reason is that there are several reasons for low staying power, and not all of them are a reflection on the app itself.

    For instance, I’m a doctor. Years ago, I started keeping all my notes on my computer. I worked out what seemed a very straightforward document naming system, with a very straightforward archive folder hierarchy. But it was kind of a pain to do all my own archiving. So I’d buy a backup program and see if it could do the archiving I wanted. It wouldn’t. And then after awhile, I’d buy another one. I bought quite a few before I realized that the archive structure I wanted was maybe kind of esoteric after all.

    So I bought a bunch of apps and none of them met my needs. Did that reflect poorly on them? In my case, at least, no. They were good backup apps. It’s just that I was looking for something very particular, and it didn’t exist. I wrote my own app.

    Now, I don’t know about your own issue, wanting to sync with a Zimbra server. But I wonder: are these apps failing you, or are you simply a very esoteric demographic?

    I’m not saying that your frustration isn’t legitimate. But staying power taken by itself doesn’t reflect your example well. And the reason is because they need to separate out the various causes of low staying power. There are people who download a ton of apps just for the hell of it. That’s not a bad thing. That’s the free market giving somebody a good time. And me, I haven’t downloaded a whole lot of apps (less than ten), but a few of them I’d downloaded (and paid for) because I want to encourage the particular developer. There are a couple of apps I know aren’t useful yet. But if they can be cultivated, maybe they will be.

    Are there useless apps out there? Sure. But the app store lets people do reviews. Take your time and evaluate the apps. Don’t be the first guy to jump. And maybe, just maybe, if you’re really sure that your needs are mainstream and just not QUITE what the app does, give the dev some feedback, and maybe he’ll agree. If he sees your needs, though, and says “Too much work for only one guy” then you need to (1) change your needs to something less esoteric, (2) roll your own app to do the job, (3) pay someone to do it, (4) shrug and say, “Staying with my Zimbra server is worth not being able to sync easily”. I’m not sure what the benefits of your setup are. Perhaps #4 is really true.

    Just my two-many cents :)

  3. robertsoakes

    Staying power is not a ridiculous metric. A computer program (app) is not the same as a song, movie, or podcast. An app is a tool and tools should be used. An unused app is a failed app. Let’s consider one brief example.

    To date, I have downloaded a grand total of five tasks task list applications: Things, OmniFocus, TaskData Exchange, Zenbe Lists and Dejumble. All of these applications do the exact same thing: maintain a list of to-do items. I’ve paid for most of them and a one of them in particular, I paid quite a bit for (OmniFocus) .

    Yet, of the five, only one has come even close to meeting my needs: Things. And it doesn’t meet them very well. To sync it with my Zimbra server, I ended up writing a custom Python script that manipulates the base XML file on my desktop. It is a tremendous pain in the butt, but the closest thing I’ve found to getting a decent task sync on the iPhone. In this case, staying power would have meant that one of these programs was actually successful.

    Now contrast the failed app with two that stay on my iPod Touch: Stanza and Pandora. I use both of these applications frequently. I often use Stanza at night to read e-books or classics. Pandora gets used everyday when I got to run in the Gym (they have a wifi network). I essentially put both programs on the day I bought the phone and haven’t taken them off since. As shown by staying power, they are successful.

  4. Right on: the “revisit” feature is huge. I’m sure I own twice as many apps as I have on. When they show up as revised, I can take a look and see it they are ready for prime time. I’m betting developers will find this a big motivational driver.

    Honestly, with a couple tweaks, the Touch is the computer for the rest of us. It needs a tad larger screen and a EVDO connection to all our dox and apps on MobileMe.

  5. Finally, someone adds some perspective to Pinch Media’s findings. Is this not normal? Half of the apps I have do a single job. I check them out the moment I buy and wait until needed. Games I play a lot after purchase until I complete or move on. A few apps are for everyday use. So if I’m not using them, that would be a finding. In general, I thought Pinch Media was hyping itself and the need for devs to plug into its data more than providing insights into the app store experience. If we truly were dissatisfied, I doubt we’d be blowing so much time and money on apps.

  6. ronjamin

    Staying Power? How ridiculous. I have dozens of free apps, many come and go. I’ve paid for a handful. The bottom line is that, for me, these apps are secondary to the primary use of the phone:
    1. Phone calls (uses address book religiously)
    2. Email (uses Mail and Addy book religiously)
    3. Camera (constantly snapping photos of this or that)
    4. Maps (where am I?)

    Everything else is Gravy that I choose, not ATT, Verizon, Apple, or anybody else.

  7. You are right the Pinch Media’s findings are useless. People use the apps that are useful and applicable for daily usage. There are apps we tend to download like what you had mentioned just in case I need it. And after awhile we forgot all about it.

    Such findings only reinforce common sense that what are not useful will be cast aside.

  8. Staying power. Why did this suddenly become a metric. Has anybody ever gone and measured the staying power of songs I buy on CD or download on iTMS? How many songs do I buy, listen to a few times, then stop listening to? And why, precisely, is this a Bad Thing, rather than just an enjoyment of variety?? I suppose it might be a bad thing if they cost $50-70, like a lot of PC or console games, but they’re generally dirt cheap. Are we now worrying about all those discarded bits filling up the landfills?