Combating User Churn: How to Improve User Retention and Reduce User Abandonment

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Combating User Churn: How to Improve User Retention and Reduce User Abandonment

Every one of us who works in software, UX design, and product leadership faces the same core question:

What is the best way to retain customers and users?

This is the final post in a three-part series breaking down the problem of user retention and giving you guidance on how to start installing solutions that work.

Part 1: Why User Retention (and Abandonment) Matters Part 2: Why User Abandonment Happens Part 3: How to Improve User Retention and Reduce User Abandonment

Let’s dive into how to improve retention and make your users stick around longer.

Take a Tip from Walt

As many Disney historians and fans have documented in blog posts and even videos, Walt Disney famously would arrive home late in the evening and grab a hot dog from the refrigerator as a snack while his housekeeper prepared dinner. Walt’s dog, Lady, followed him around the house because she knew she would inevitably get a bite of that hot dog.

Later, as he was designing the Disneyland theme park, Walt remembered Lady’s excitement about the hot dog and translated that into the concept of a “weenie.” Just as he could lead his dog wherever he wanted while he had the hot dog in his hand, a “weenie” became the term for a visual element that could draw people into and around a space.

At Disneyland and Disney World, the most well-known “weenies” are large icons, like Cinderella’s Castle or Spaceship Earth at Epcot, that can be seen from a distance and are intriguing enough to draw visitors deeper into the park for a closer look. But “weenies” have also evolved to include smaller enticements strategically placed throughout the parks to pull visitors from one part of the experience to the next.

Do you and your team take the time to think about compelling moments or iconic images when developing your user experience? Does your product provide a clear path and line of sight to the one thing that will lead users deeper into the experience? Are you inadvertently hiding or blocking the thing that makes you stand above the crowd?

One of our clients had a set of core users whose main goal was to book appointments. When we examined the experience, there was a clear roadblock to that primary goal. Users had to first click past a promotion for a credit card before they could complete their booking.

There was a clear and compelling business case for presenting the credit card offer, and it could potentially help users in other ways, but those potential benefits were lost. It was only seen as a barrier to what users actually wanted to do - book an appointment.

Make sure you’re not blocking your own users. Give them a clear line of sight to what they need and want and create a pathway to help them get there.

Start by Identifying the Problem

Identifying and clearing a path for your one big thing is not a luxury that can be tackled later. It’s table stakes. You have to understand what your users want and deliver that to them with as little friction as possible. It’s what we all expect from our interactions with modern products and services.

To do that, you need to understand the usability of your product. You need to see how users interact with it by testing specific features and functions over and over. You need to get regular and consistent feedback, and you need to make sense of that feedback.

There are many companies today that still haven’t invested in building a dedicated practice to understand their customers and users. Those companies are lagging behind. You don’t want to be one of them.

The time to start identifying your problems is now. Customer and user churn is real. User abandonment is higher than it’s ever been. The first step to attacking it is to take the time and effort to understand your users better than they understand themselves.

Empathize with User Needs

Once you start to collect feedback and conduct user research you’re going to need to make sense of the data. What are you going to do with the information you’ve gathered? How will you find the magic solution that will transform your product or service?

We’ve met with countless product and business leaders who tell us they know they need user research, but they don’t know how to do it. If you’re one of these people, don’t get discouraged. Simply start with empathy.

Empathy maps are a great way to document what you currently know and identify the areas where you need to dig deeper. Get your product team together and brainstorm what you know about how your users think, say, see, do, hear, and feel when they use your product or service.

Explore the environment in which your product or service lives. What are people doing in their regular lives when they come to you for help? What tasks are they trying to accomplish regardless of what you are offering as a solution?

Empathy mapping exercises feature heavily in the workshops we design for our clients because they’re central to designing an effective solution. When possible, we invite actual users into the workshop to share their experiences directly with the product team. It’s a great way to see the pain points you’re missing and get the inspiration you need to meet user needs in new ways.

Improve Your Onboarding Process

We really can’t say it enough. Onboarding is critical to user retention and loyalty. First impressions matter. You must let users know what to expect from your solution before they see and experience it.

Teams often interpret onboarding as show-and-tell. They simply show off the features they’ve built with summaries and screenshots or they create flashy promo images and call it a day. That’s not onboarding.

Onboarding sets the tone for the rest of your relationship with a customer. Think back to Walt and his theme parks. Disneyland’s main street introduces you to the look and feel of the park. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle gives you a landmark to orient yourself wherever you are in the park. Along the way, interactions with costumed characters and cast members make you feel welcomed and excited to be there.

That’s onboarding.

Successful onboarding gives users one clear thing to do quickly that makes them feel confident and successful. Then it gives them another thing to do that builds on that confidence and pulls them in deeper. It builds success and confidence so users want to explore even more.

It also builds skills and orients a user to the space. Think of your first time playing a video game like Super Mario Brothers. The first level is easy. It teaches you how to jump to avoid danger and collect rewards through simple interactions that are easy to accomplish.

How do you build a successful onboarding experience? By carefully mapping it out one step at a time. You take the lessons learned from your empathy mapping and you identify at which points the user needs to learn different things. When do they receive emails? What actions trigger which notifications? How can you stage the experience so they can feel guided and supported every step of the way?

It all comes back to good storytelling. What is the story of your product that you want to tell a new user or customer so they’re compelled to learn more?

Simplify and Personalize the Initial Set-up

One of the biggest reasons that customers choose not to continue with a new product is because the barrier to starting it is too high. With the exception of products that we’re forced to use out of necessity, we’re not going to put in a lot of effort to see if a product will do what we want.

Throwing a user into the deep end where they have to uncover the value for themselves just overwhelms and drowns them with details they don’t need. You have to put in the effort to help them quickly get in and feel a personal connection with your product.

Sometimes that means helping them log in with existing credentials so they don’t have to create a new username and password. Sometimes that means delighting them with relevant information based on a couple of simple questions or initial interactions.

There are countless simple things that you can do to make new customers feel confident you’ll meet their needs because you know them and have anticipated what they want. You might offer them a list of common interests that most users want to learn more about. You might be able to make an educated guess based on certain personas or user types.

Developing mature personas can go a long way to making the initial experience feel more personal. You might know that a certain type of user is likely to be paying the bills or need to set up an appointment and you can make those features the first things they see when they encounter the product.

To do this, it comes back to understanding the goals, frustrations, and motivations for each user type, as well as specifics like the devices they prefer to use and the time of day they prefer to interact with your product and why.

The answers to these questions will help you design your initial interactions to more directly address their needs and feel like you’re the personal solution they’ve been looking for all along.

Build in Progress Indicators and Gamification

We’ve been talking about progress indicators and gamification for more than 10 years, but we still encounter a range of opinions about what that really means. At its most basic level, progress indicators help users know where they are in a process. That’s absolutely appropriate and should be done frequently in whatever experience you’re building.

But what we’re talking about here is deeper than that. It’s our job to build confidence and help users be successful using our product. How many times have you heard somebody on your product team say that users are not using the product correctly or as intended? Sure, some users might be wrong and need to adjust to the reality of the experience. But it’s ultimately on us as product owners to make users successful and not just blame them for failures.

If users are booking an appointment, you need to ask yourself how you can show them in the simplest way possible that the appointment was booked successfully. You need to make it easy to schedule again and anticipate when they may need to schedule or cancel an appointment.

If you have repeat customers, how can you show them that you know they’ve been here before? How can you show a healthcare patient that they’re not just another number, but you know their history and their needs when they come back for additional care?

We like to say that everything we need to know we learned from Super Mario. Its latest version, Super Mario Wonder, goes back to the traditional side-scrolling format. While it looks familiar, the design of the game is very different.

There’s no longer a timer and you get more lives. There are half a dozen ways to be successful at a level, not just one. There are talking flowers, characters that give Mario tips along the way.

It’s all a very strategic effort by Nintendo to broaden its base of users and introduce new people to the world of Super Mario Bros. without frustrating or intimidating them. They’re trying to build a much more committed and engaged user experience for a larger base of users.

Gamification doesn’t mean that you have to build badges and awards into every step of your experience. Personalization doesn’t mean that you have to know every detail about each individual user.

Both of these concepts are driven by empathy. They’re about helping the user whether they’re coming to your product for the first time or the hundredth time.

Beware of Leaning on Guided Walkthroughs and Contextual Help

Guided walkthroughs and contextual help are very close cousins to personalization and gamification. They’re designed to help users navigate through an experience.

Many product leaders fall for the temptation to buy off-the-shelf solutions like WalkMe or other tools that give quick ways to build templated user guides. In many cases, that’s enough to guide users through your basic features.

But those tools can also be a crutch that mask deeper issues. If you need guides to help users understand your product, then you might need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask if your product has been designed well enough to be self-evident in the first place.

Do you see Apple using a lot of guides in their products? There’s a reason for that. They design their products to be intuitive enough for people to jump in without a user manual. Even the Tesla interface is thought through deeply enough that it allows a driver to figure out how to operate a vehicle without a tutorial.

Your product needs to work so well that the guidance and help you provide is there as a back-up, not as a primary feature.

Create a Continuous Feedback Loop

The last point we’ll make in terms of how to retain users is to remember the importance of creating a continuous feedback loop. You need to build a process within your organization that constantly pulls insights into your design and development cycle.

We often see clients make a big initial push to reduce churn or create better UX, but then they drop it all after the one-time budget item has been exhausted. Then it’s back to business as usual. There’s no consistent commitment. It’s like thinking you can train for a marathon by doing a bunch of sprints right before the race.

For product success, you need a plan that builds the muscles and stamina required to win the long game of user retention. Software development is an ongoing budget line-item that must include room for a continuous practice of iteration and refinement.

Bake user research into your budget and your process. Make sure you’re observing actual user behavior as much as possible through a combination of moderated user testing and passive user experience monitoring tools like FullStory or Hotjar.

Encourage constant user feedback through surveys, in-app feedback forms, and ratings or reviews. Review user behavior data frequently and see what your customer service interactions can tell you about where users are getting stuck.

Continuous feedback helps you refine and optimize your product based on real user insights rather than hunches. At the end of the day, that’s the only way you can continue to create an experience that customers will want to keep using.

Don’t Just Set It and Forget It

We’re all familiar with the design thinking process in software development. The key to it is that it’s a process of rinse and repeat, not just set it and forget it.

You need to be doing research, empathizing with users and defining the problems they have so you can align them with your business goals.

You need to be creating ideas based on what you’ve learned, prototyping, testing and refining them.

You need to constantly evolve your understanding of your users’ problems and ask yourself where your legacy thinking or old product habits are holding you back.

You need to dedicate plenty of time and budget to UX. It’s not a one-time investment. It’s an ongoing iterative process of constantly trying to stay ahead of user needs.

You need a partner that will help you see where your product is today and anticipate where it needs to be tomorrow.

It took Nintendo 40 years to figure out it was time to remove the clock from above Mario. You don’t have the luxury of that kind of time.

Let’s chat about how we can get your users to stick around and position your product for long-term success.