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How To Become Invisible: 3 Simple Secrets of Sticky Apps

Posted by on 09/01/2017

Take a look at the things you use every day: a chair, a water bottle, the internet. All of these things were designed. And standing behind them, a designer—someone whose brain mapped out a solution to a problem. These people are able to imagine a world in which their product slips into the fabric of everyday life. Most people don’t concern themselves with envisioning products that help us make progress as a society—what could be possibly be any better than sitting on the ground, collecting water from a fossett, and staying connected by calling people?

A successful product is an invisible product. It’s something that’s so useful in your life, you no longer notice it. The same goes for apps. The most successful apps become so integral to daily actions, they never get dragged over to the uninstall button—a dream for any app developer.

So how can you make your app invisible? Here’s a list of things to consider.


When’s the last time you had good long think about a chair?

Solve the seemingly trivial

Finding a solution to a problem nobody’s ever solved is easier said than done. But problems don’t need to be big ones.

For years, people would sit in restaurant booths, watch movies, and dance in bars asking the same question: “what is that song?”

You’d then proceed to ask friends, try to catch the lyrics for a subsequent online search, or—if you were confident enough—ask the waiter / DJ.  One day, a couple of university students heard “what is that song?” and heard a problem. They created Shazam. Now, millions of people around the world in restaurants, movie theatres, and bars hear a song, tap on an app, and hold up their phone for a couple of seconds.

It’s as if those who recognize the seemingly small, everyday problems, are able to tune their ear to a “problem” frequency. Like any musician able to pinpoint the exact pitch of sounds around them, they train hard. Change your mindset to listen to what people are actually struggling with, and you’ll increase your awareness on what might be done to improve things.  

Discover potential sources for your app ideas right here.

Shazam: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Form a loop

Great apps keep users coming back for more. But to become invisible, you have to start off pretty visible. People don’t naturally think “ah, that’s a good opportunity to use my new app”. You need to model desired behavior to gradually sync your app to people’s day to day routines. To do so, you need to provide just enough reminders to become top-of-mind and usher users into a “use loop”.

Push notifications are a great way to do that. Overuse them, and users will consider tham as irritating as a drowsy fly attracted to your head. Underuse them and you’ll never bring users into the loop.

A great example of an app that does this well is The Guardian app. They recognized that most people have more time to read at the weekend (this isn’t anything new—reading a newspaper as an activity has traditionally been done at weekends, which is why Sunday papers stuff their packs with supplements). They also recognized that people missed weekday stories they would otherwise engage with. The solution? On Saturday morning, a push notification linking to a screen in the app that brings together the most compelling articles of the week.

The Guardian sends a weekly push notification linking to its weekend reading digest

Once you’re in a story, you can tap a bookmark icon at the top of the screen to “save for later”. By doing so, you can compile your own list of articles to read from a recommended list promoted by the editors. Even if you don’t have time at the weekend for the weekend reading list, you can return when you do have time confident that you can immediately access things you’ll enjoy. The following weekend, you get another notification, and the loop is complete.

When you’re building notifications, think carefully about the amount of noise that already fills users’ lives. Going for calm can actually increase the value of your app. Provide a notifications opt-out in your app—otherwise the only way for users to stop them is to uninstall.

Guardian bookmark.png

The Guardian’s “save for later” icon in the top right-hand side keeps you coming back


There’s a lot out there about gamification and where to apply it—from Human Resources to learning a language. Focus can quickly move away from sticky apps that help users make some sort of progress in their lives, to addictive apps that keep users hooked. One approach helps users, the other helps you. While designers of slot machines may claim they’re creating pleasurable experiences—therefore happiness—the reality of the addicted gambler is far from how we might define “happy”.  

Let’s focus on a couple of subtle gamification examples that engage users and provide value at the same time.

Feedback, in design terms, is a sensory event that tells the user something they’ve done has caused something else to happen. A classic example of this is Apple’s spinning color wheel, which replaces the cursor whenever something is loading. It’s unobtrusive way of informing the user that the command they made is in progress but needs a bit more time.


Duolingo’s progress bar: edging you closer and closer to that Portuguese lover

Even better still is the progress bar—a visual representation of what’s been done and what’s left to do. Why is it better? Because not only does it send a message (“something is loading”), it provides additional information to help manage expectations (“something is loading and it will take another minute and 20 seconds”). They’ve been applied to everything from Duolingo’s language lessons to eBook readers showing how much of the book remains.

In gaming, micro-feedback is used to engage players via mini “rewards”. Examples include a “ding” sound, or a white flash whenever a character moves over a particular square. Bennett Foddy, who teaches game design at New York University’s Game Center, explains in this article:

“Those bits of micro-feedback need to follow the act almost immediately, because if there’s a tight pairing in time between when I act and when something happens, then I’ll think I was causing it.”

Think about satisfying ways to provide genuinely useful feedback in your app. It could be as simple as recreating the pleasing sensation of pressing a real button via 3D visual design. Don’t overdo it—a cooking app full of dings, bloops, confetti, progress bars, and unlockable trophies may feel like overkill.  

Press me: Buttons designed to “move” on click can satisfyingly mimic real world feedback

The garage clearout

Becoming a permanent presence on someone’s screen is tough. People download and uninstall apps regularly. Just like a thorough garage clearout, they’ll ruthlessly trash apps that don’t add any value to their lives. Things that people never trash are invisible. They’re things that never even cross people’s minds: “Get rid of the freezer? Are you serious?” They fade into the background.

To fade your app into the background and become invisible: train yourself to become aware of the seemingly trivial, form loops that model desired behavior, and add value through useful, satisfying feedback.

  Steve Howe is a freelance writer, translator, and teacher living in Barcelona.

Read more about him here.

Topics: App promotion