User Retention – 7 Design Tips to Improve it

Design Tips to Improve Your Apps User Retention

Today’s digital product users have simply decided that they don’t have the attention span–or the time–to wade through poorly designed apps. Luckily, since designers study users and their behavior, they can help with improving user retention through the right design practices. 

In this article, we propose a solution to the customer retention issues that plague user interfaces. The goal is to engage app visitors so that they feel compelled to return. Done properly, casual users stay engaged. Loyalty prospers, followers are born, and an app becomes a daily staple. 

Key takeaways:

  • User retention is a behavioral pattern of users who keep coming back to the site, app or other digital product.
  • It’s measured as a percentage that reflects total number of users at the start of a period divided by number of active users at the end of the period.
  • What helps you make design decisions for improving user retention is behavioral science but also usability, customer service, and more.

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What is User Retention?

User retention is when a casual digital browser is transformed into a power user who returns to consume more of what your app or website offers. These users follow this pattern of product or service consumption, staying for longer periods to benefit from the app or website. 

More accurately, teams track this metric as a percentage. By tracking this rate, you can help your team focus on improving user retention. You see trends in motion, which lets you quickly spot and address any downturns in user engagement. Following a user retention strategy lets your team meet their objectives and keep the return user statistics in your favour.

How Can Designers Measure User Retention? 

By using something as simple as a user survey or more complex analytics tools, developers determine repeat visits. They can also generate ballpark figures by selecting a timeframe and dividing the total number of users recorded at the start by the number of active users at the end of that period.

Here’s a general formula for tracking user retention:

Total number of users at the start of a period / number of active users at the end of the period = user retention rate (%)

With the figure in hand, product teams can discover what resonates with app traffic. Say that there’s a sudden drop in user returns. After speaking to a few users, your team learns that a UI element doesn’t work or is confusing and causes user frustration. The design team can then work on a fix that would remove the blocker in the user journey

Product teams also commonly review churn rates – more on this later – and other analytics, but it’s the user retention figure that provides the greatest understanding of in-app behavior.

All of this analysis and user querying result in a more personalized experience. In the end, the app doesn’t overwhelm or confuse with information overload or navigation-slowing pages.

How to tell if user retention is low?

Let’s introduce a predictability baseline. Fact: the average customer retention rate after 30 days of app usage is typically 5.6% of users. Designers might use this statistic as a very rough benchmark when rolling out their creations.

That said, when setting their user retention objectives, they should always prioritize their industry-standard rates. You can establish what a ‘good’, ‘average’, or ‘poor’ retention rate means to you after considering several factors, like what your product does, who is the target user, and how much it costs. 

So much for theory – now let’s look at some factors that can help keep users coming back.

7 Design Tips on Improving User Retention

Before thinking about your app’s improving retention rate, it’s essential to understand the basics of behavioral science. The Hooked Model, created by Nir Niyal, will be used to illustrate this concept:

  • The trigger – humans gravitate towards familiar screen anchors. Links, clickable icons or images, emails; these are all habit-forming triggers. They prompt users to take familiar actions. They’ve been “hooked” by a trigger. An emotional component is activated when triggers work as they’re designed to.
  • Action – this is a key part of the action/reward cycle that drives human interactions. If the action is to be viewed as “good,” a rewarding response is expected.
  • Variable rewards – we become excited when unforeseen incentives are on the line. Your customers can’t help themselves; they want to click through to another part of your app when they’re tempted by a hidden image or, say, the promise of a discount code.
  • User investment – interest rises. Your users want to interact with your app, to leave feedback or fill out a form. This final part of the four-phase hooked model equals customer investment and a healthy future for burgeoning users.

Although human behavior lies at the core of UX design practices, the ‘human factor’ can be unpredictable at times, and belongs in another realm altogether. It is crucial that this emotional element is understood.

Understand who your loyal customers are

Retained users are potential brand advocates. They’re already satisfied with your app and have the power to draw in more customers. Consider the following:

  • Track churn rate, which is defined as the percentage of users who have stopped using the app over a predetermined amount of time. If user investment is dropping, you need to find out why.
  • Know your ideal customer profile but match expectations against real-world results. Using analytics tools and app retention figures, how often do visitors use your app? 
  • What’s the habit-forming trigger in your app?
  • Can those triggers be recreated on command?

To learn more about the psychology behind habit forming in design, give our dedicated piece a read.

Once you’ve determined the level of user retention you need for your app or website, you can then focus on refining your user experience (UX). 

Reward those users who use your product regularly

These incentives aren’t always monetary. In fact, they could be anything, including:

  • Points (e.g., used to reward returning users of the ‘Health’ app in Apple devices)
  • Badges (e.g., Facebook groups, where the most active members of the community are given special badges for top contributors)
  • Discounts (e.g., eCommerce stores that often display discount codes in their app, site, social accounts, or deliver them to customers via email)
  • VIP status (e.g., language learning app Duolingo puts a heavy emphasis not only on gamifying the studying experience, but also offers VIP status to those who return to the app daily)
  • Free upgrades (e.g., hotels offering free room upgrades for booking directly through their site or app)
  • Compliments (e.g. a free ebook for the first 50 users who log into the app on a given day).

Rewards inspire feelings of achievement. You feel like you’ve accomplished something, so you return for more. Customer retention rates increase as users react positively to this sense of accomplishment.

The Stepler app represents a fine example of the reward principle. Points are won every time a user walks, and earn bonus points every time they log into the app. Always on the mind of the fitness enthusiast, because they’re hooked up to a wearable fitness device, the app is accessed regularly.

In this case, the rewards program aligns with the user’s activity goals to build closer ties to advertisers and brands.   

Improve usability

Usability is a term that describes the degree to which an individual can use an app, website, or other product to achieve a specific end goal – conveniently and enjoyably. If you spot that a user struggles with completing a process due to a usability glitch, then you need to decide how you can resolve the issue.

To get started, you need to understand if the design meets your users’ needs. If it doesn’t, what’s lacking? A good way to gather answers is by gathering feedback from customers.

Make sure your onboarding is good

Just like when reading a book or meeting someone for the first time, first impressions are everything.

Make sure your onboarding process is smooth and streamlined. First-time visitors to your app should experience smooth sailing through the tasks. 

Unfortunately, customers tend to remember problems, whether they’re due to site navigation or some app slowdown incident. Avoid such bad memories by conducting exhaustive dummy-run app tests to iron out the wrinkles. Pair the above steps with a well-designed in-app onboarding flow.

Put a customer feedback loop in place

Feedback is offered to customers as a means of gathering insights and actionable suggestions. To ensure you retain your hard-won customer base, you need a process for obtaining customer feedback

Not to be skipped when consolidating customer insights, feedback loops play a crucial role in collecting and analyzing user reviews and surveys.

There are several methods to gather customer feedback:

  • Run a survey like Net Promoter Score®
  • Request that users participate in focus groups and provide feedback sessions.
  • Combining all of the above results, the data is analyzed for discernible trends in user behavior.

Use the right trigger

There are a number of tools available for the discerning app designer. From a design point of view, the initial trigger must be functional and aesthetically attractive. Function, of course, is more important than app attractiveness. Both work together to draw in users, though.

A dynamic design is yet another piece of the puzzle that is the human experience. By incorporating interactive elements and visually appealing graphics, users are more likely to engage with the app. Animations and scaling graphics, lines, and color changes – these dynamic elements all serve to engage the eye. Audio cues work just as well as an attention-grabbing device.

Share new feature updates with relevant users 

You can use the same design techniques to separate new features and updates from the presence of regular app content. A different font color or a flashing banner directing the attention of a user’s eye causes the static of the familiar to fade while fresh new features stand out.

Kommunicate announces a new feature through a convenient tooltip: It’s a great way to share information without overwhelming the screen with attention-stealing detail.    


Tracking user retention is a great way to verify if your app meets user needs. As soon as you notice it going down, you should start to investigate the reasons behind it. You can do it by running a survey or speaking directly to your target audience. 

By using a tool like UXPin you can quickly test new features before you proceed into full launch. This way you will ensure a seamless user experience by keeping your designs easy to navigate around, and clutter-free. Try UXPin today.

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by UXPin on 8th November, 2023

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