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Study reveals why no one knows about your app’s features

October 7, 2013
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iphone Study reveals why no one knows about your apps features

Your app isn’t bad, user behavior is changing

So your company has developed an app, but users just don’t get it. In focus groups, they loved it, said it could change their business, and swore they tell the world how amazing the app is, but now, no one gets it. Are focus group users smarter than the average user, or is something bigger going on here?

The existing challenge the industry is acutely aware of comes in the form of users downloading an app, tinkering with it, and never using it again. The strong majority of users will never even open most apps again.

But what about users that do revisit an app, your app? Why are they not using the tool as it was intended, why are they ignoring the obviously amazing features the app is packed with?

Research shows stagnating user expertise

New research by the Nielsen Norman Group reveals that users are unwilling to learn, so they don’t explore the user interface and they don’t know about most features.

The report reads, “Even long-term users of a computer system usually know and use only a tiny fraction of its available commands and features. If the design has good usability, people learn a core set of features fairly easily during their early days of system use. And then they stagnate and don’t get much better. Decades can pass with even frequent system users barely learning one or two new things per year.”



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Additionally, they note that stagnating user expertise is not limited to any particular design category and that it has been documented for all classes of user interfaces across decades of research.

Basic functions missed by many

The group tested across all types of devices and concluded that the operating system made no difference on user behavior, and note that even frequent users were overlooking basic (and obvious) features of apps:

  • One participant used her Bank of America app regularly for checking balances but was completely unaware of the check deposit feature (although she found it on her own easily when prompted). “In real life, however, the feature might as well not have existed because the user wasn’t looking for it,” the report notes.
  • On Zappos, one user didn’t know how to add an item to a favorites list.
  • A Hulu Plus user typically found and watched shows in Hulu, but didn’t know how to add shows to his queue for later viewing.

Users could find features when prompted, but the group notes that in the real world, there is no “kindly study facilitator to continuously push users to find new functionality,” leaving basic features undiscovered for several more years of use.

So WHY are users not getting it?

The group explains, “Whatever the underlying biology, it’s an empirical fact — based on 3 decades of research — that users are narrowly focused on the present. What’s in front of them is all they know. What they’re doing right now is all that matters.”

No one reads manuals, no one digs deeper to find a better way of using an app once they feel they’ve figured it out, and most people don’t explore every feature before diving in and assuming they understand the app.

Nielsen Norman Group asserts that you can never solve the problem of stagnating user expertise, but there are some strategies to alleviate it ranging from offering fewer features to low-commitment previews.

Assuming that just because someone uses your app, they understand it or are using it to its full capacity, is misguided, even for some of the most popular apps. Today’s challenge is not just in getting people to download the app then remember to use it, but to make the app so straightforward that it is impossible to miss the core features.

Marti Trewe reports on business and technology news, chasing his passion for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to stay well informed in the fast paced 140-character world. Marti rarely sleeps and thrives on reader news tips, especially about startups and big moves in leadership.



Weigh in...

  • MattThomson

    Any research on how to train users how to use it?