The main goal of a free application (especially when it offers in-app purchases) shouldn’t be to maximize the number of downloads, but to increase user engagement.

In the case of apps, a high number of downloads often hides a high bounce rate, that is, users that after downloading an app doesn’t use it or leave it after a few hours.

The bounce rate can be a good indicator that something goes wrong: either we don’t offer what users expected or they fail to understand how to use the app. In this situation, there will be no in-app purchases. Users will leave the app and they’ll look for a better alternative.

To avoid this, it’s not only important to design a good app, but also to design a great user experience for the entire journey: from the app search to the in-app purchases.

These are the main stages of the journey of a free app user that should be taken into account:

Free App Engagement Experience - User Journey Map

Free App Engagement Experience – User Journey Map

1. Explore

The first stop on this journey is the keyword. If the user cannot find our application, everything else doesn’t matter. This is why we must carefully select the tags that will be included in the name and description as well as the keywords and categories.

From the keyword, we get a list of apps. However, users cannot download every one of the apps of this list. Nor will they take into account the description. And despite the importance given to the icon, actually, users make a first filter from the promotional image.

App's Store Listing

App’s Store Listing

The user will only pay attention to the name and the icon of those apps that have an appealing promotional image. This image, therefore, must reflect correctly both the quality and the content of the product.

2. Preview

Only those apps that have passed the first phase will be analyzed carefully. In this second stage, the screenshots come into action. Their function is to display the content of the product, its main features.

Screenshots of MaiChimp Editor

Screenshots of MaiChimp Editor

From these images, users should be able to know whether the app meets their needs, and evaluate its quality and usability. This is critical. Screenshots have priority over the description of the application, which in many cases isn’t even read.

3. Install

It’s a simple procedure that marks the end of the app store stage.

4. Register

From here, the user enters the app environment. The registration stage isn’t mandatory and, in fact, it would be preferable if it were optional. It’s a tedious procedure that bothers users: first, forcing them to give personal information (email address) and, secondly, it delays the inspection of the app.

If, in addition, users must check their inbox to confirm registration, the level of dissatisfaction increases to high levels, since this step requires them to leave the app environment, check their mail and sign in again.

5. First Steps (5 Key Microinteractions)

Here begins a stage of preliminary inspection to get an overview of how the app works. There are five basic microinteractions that the user must understand without any difficulty.

If after 5 minutes these five microinteractions are not clear, the probability that the user leaves the application is very high. The 5 micro-interactions are: Home, Create, Edit, Delete and Back to home.

5 Key Microinteractions of An App

5 Key Microinteractions of An App

Adobe Voice is one example of an app where the design of these 5 microinteractions is excellent.

Adobe Voice Screenshot

Adobe Voice Screenshot

6. In-App Purchases

We arrived at the stage where users understood the 5 microinteractions, started to use the app and they like it. In this case, some of them will buy premium features (in-app purchases).

We must carefully decide which features will be free and which ones will be provided upon payment. If there are too many free features, users may not need to buy extra-features, but if most of the features must be purchased, they will feel cheated.

The key is to offer many features for free, so we give a good user experience, but including some extra high quality features that require payment. A good example of this would be GarageBand for iOS.

GarageBand for iOS Screenshot

GarageBand for iOS Screenshot

I hope this post will help you design great free apps. Good luck!