How to diagnose and treat a failing app.

It’s a common predicament. You spend thousands of dollars building an app, launch it and nothing happens. The revenue you expected to come pouring in simply doesn’t. Not even a trickle.

So, you go through the five stages of grief. 1) This can’t be happening; 2) Who is to blame for this?; 3) Please developer, make changes to my app for free because I’ve run out of money; 4) Why does nothing ever work out for me?; 5) I guess I’ll write it off as a lesson learned. Time to move on to the next project.

This happens all the time. I’ve been through it myself on more than one occasion and I’m certainly not alone. The vast majority of apps launched never make a cent. You have to wonder though, how many of those failed apps just needed the right tweak but never got it?

One peculiarity I’ve noticed over my eleven years in the app industry, is that entrepreneurs tend to go through the grieving process surprisingly quickly. Maybe it’s the fail fast, fail often startup mantra they’ve been fed or maybe it’s the abundance of restless creative energy, nudging them towards the next adventure. Whatever the reason, the speed at which entrepreneurs give up on their new apps seems to be hugely disproportionate to the effort (and money) that went into creating them.

If you are in this position, I’m not saying never give up. The last thing you want to do is keep throwing good money after bad. I’m just saying don’t give up until you know why you failed and that there is no way to recover. There may be a way.

There are lots of potential reasons why your app isn’t making money. To use a medical analogy – Treating the problem relies on your ability to first accurately diagnose it. 

This is where so many startups get it wrong. Instead of going through the patient’s medical history, asking them about their symptoms and current medications, they instead make a few quick assumptions and prescribe a ‘cure’ based purely on guesswork. Then they wonder why the app’s health isn’t improving.

I think I can definitively say that adding a chat feature never turned a failing app into a profitable one. You’d be surprised how often businesses and entrepreneurs resort to piling on more and more features in a desperate attempt to fix a problem they haven’t yet diagnosed.

I’ve done this before too. But, with the benefit of hindsight and maybe the perspective that comes with a decade in the trenches, I now see how futile this approach is.

So, now you know what not to do, let’s get into how to properly diagnose a failing app.


Finding the weak link

Somewhere in your product or process there is a fault. It could be in any of the following areas. Let’s call them links:

  • Market need/want
  • Target audience fit
  • Competitive analysis
  • Business model
  • App design
  • App development
  • Marketing
  • Timing

Finding where the fault lies is a process of deduction. Start at the start and work your way through each link until you find the weak one. I suggest moving sequentially through them from left to right (see diagram above). Don’t stop just because you find a fault. There may be more than one weak link. Let’s get started!


Link 1. Market Need/Want

Did you do any market research to determine if there is actually a need or strong desire for your app before building it?

If NO – Do some market research. Find out if there is a need/want for the service your app provides. Simply releasing an app and seeing if people download it or not isn’t a reliable test.

If there isn’t a need or want for your product in the market, you are going to have a hard time convincing people otherwise. Probably best to count your losses and move on OR pivot to meet an actual need (if time and money are no object).

If YES – Move on to Link 2.


Link 2. Target Audience Fit

When you were doing that market research, did you take a close look at the target demographic and design the app with them and only them in mind?

If NO – Create some specific user personas based on your ideal audience. Look at their situations, problems, goals and ambitions. Does your app speak their language? Does it really meet their needs?

If not, ask yourself why. The issue could potentially lie in the design or marketing. There might still be hope of recovery!

If YES – Move on to Link 3.


Link 3. Competitive Analysis

Have you done thorough competitive analysis to make sure your app is better than your competitor’s or at least unique and priced competitively?

If NO – Do some. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you don’t have competitors. Every app has competitors, without exception. They don’t need to be apps.

You essentially have two options here. Your app either needs to be better in some major way than the apps/services provided by your competitors or you need it to be extremely unique.

This may require an app overhaul or maybe just a price change. It completely depends on how your app stacks up against your competitors. 

If YES – Move on to Link 4.


Link 4. Business Model

Have a look at how your app handles transactions, when it asks for money and how much it asks for.

  • Has the app built enough trust before asking for payment?
  • Has the app provided enough value before asking for payment?
  • Is the pricing and commitment level right ? (do market research, user personas and competitive analysis to find out)

If NO (to any of those questions) – This might not be such a hard problem to fix, assuming you have analytics installed. Data analysis is an art and a science. It can be learnt or you can find someone with the skillset to do it for you.

What you need the data to tell you is where in the transaction process users are dropping off (stopping or getting stuck). If analytics are installed properly and you have enough user data, a good data analyst will be able to figure this out. Then it’s simply a matter of tweaking that particular step in the process and retesting until the issue is resolved.

Running A/B tests with a few variations of the problematic step/s can be an effective way to iron these issues out and optimise your sales conversions.

If YES – Move on to Link 5.


Link 5. App Design

Is the user experience well thought out and pages and flows presented logically and intuitively? Is the UI (visual) design consistent, aesthetically pleasing and engaging?

If NO – If it’s obviously poorly designed, get it redesigned. Design can be quite subjective though, so determining whether an app is well designed or not can be tricky for a layman. 

Unless you are an experienced UX/UI designer yourself, the only way to figure out if design is your weakest link is to look at it objectively. This requires a few different steps. Some easy, some quite tricky:

  1. Look for obvious issues like spelling mistakes, typos, inconsistent fonts, colours and spacing. These small design issues can have a hugely detrimental effect on building trust with your users, among other things.
  2. Next, more data analysis. This is the tricky part. Even for experienced data analysts, finding design flaws can be challenging. Essentially we are looking for data abnormalities, especially around important screens and features. We do this with funnels and other analytics tools. A trained analyst can find user pain points for your designer to fix. Session recording tools like Appsee can also help you discover user pain points by monitoring user sessions.
  3. Thirdly, get some third-party opinions. Survey people. Ask them how difficult it was to achieve certain tasks. Get the opinions of some other designers. A good one will spot potential problems immediately..
  4. Last of all, look at your App Store and Play Store reviews. If users are having poor experiences they are often quite vocal about it. Read the reviews and get in touch with the reviewers for more detail.

If YES – Move on to Link 6.


Link 6. App Development

Does the app work well and work well consistently? Have you thoroughly tested the app from end to end?

If NO – Test it then test it again. Test it on different devices and in different scenarios. Then jump back into your analytics and check your crashlytics. Sometimes the smallest bugs and annoying little glitches can be causing the most harm to the user’s experience and put them off spending money in your app.

If YES – Move on to Link 7.


Link 7. Marketing

Have a lot of people downloaded your app? Let’s say thousands each month. This is a very obvious but important question. 

If NO – Marketing, or a lack thereof is probably the culprit. If you’ve tested every link up to this point and haven’t found any weak ones, there’s not really any other explanation. You need users in order to make sales and attracting users is marketing’s job.

Get serious about marketing. Hire a professional with app experience and do it right. First time app founders commonly underestimate the role of marketing and adopt a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. It doesn’t work.

If YES – Move on to Link 8.


Link 8. Timing

Is the timing right for your app?

A 2015 study into tech startups found that timing was the single most important factor in the success or failure of a startup. I go into more detail about it in this video. Try thinking about it this way – What is it about this year that makes the success of your app more likely than last year? Uber and Air BNB, for example, were launched post GFC when people needed new ways to generate income. YouTube was only made possible by widespread broadband rollout. Timing was everything.

Could you come up with anything substantial?

If NO – You’re either ahead of your time or you’ve missed the boat. Lets hope it’s the former. If so, polish up your marketing and wait for the perfect time to strike. If you are late to the table, all is not lost. You just need to work extra hard in the marketing department to create some relevance.

If YES – Go back and repeat this whole process again. There has to be a weak link in the chain. Start by retesting the market research, design and marketing links. You’ll find it if you look hard enough. 

So before you abandon your dieing app or start injecting money and random features into it, try working through this diagnostic process. Be like a good doctor and do it in a calm and calculated fashion. Remember – Treating the problem relies on your ability to first accurately diagnose it.

Once you find the issue, you can weigh up the costs and decide if it’s worth fixing. If not, at least you can learn from it, give it a good send off and move on knowing you did all you could.

By Joseph Russell – DreamWalk Founder

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