Combating User Churn: Why User Abandonment Happens

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
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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 second 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 Churn

Why User Abandonment Happens

In order to understand how to retain users, you first have to understand why they might abandon your product or service. Here are the two core reasons that users often leave and never come back.

Users Abandon You Because You Abandon Them

Give users what they want. That seems simple enough, right? But so many teams start with that intention and still end up building what the business wants, not what users want. They’re so focused on delivering business results that they fail to see the problem from their users’ point of view.

The real simple truth is that when you forget about your users and their goals, they’ll abandon you. The main purpose of your product is to solve problems for users. Over time, it's easy to fall into the trap of prioritizing your needs over theirs. It can become death by a thousand cuts.

Sometimes the abandonment happens early. Take free trial experiences as an example. Free trials are a great way to give users a taste of your product and encourage them to become customers. But we’ve seen too many free trials collapse into fractured and disjointed experiences that fail to convert customers.

There are usually two reasons for this. First, many free trials fail to give users a fully guided introduction to the product and its features. You can’t just throw new users into the deep end. You need to show them how your product can help them solve specific problems and complete distinct tasks.

The second problem with most free trials is they don’t help users across the finish line to become fully paid customers. You undercut the entire purpose of a free trial when you make it difficult for users to navigate your billing process or you don’t give them clear and concise purchasing options. We’ve seen teams dedicate full-time resources to just tracking down free trial users to get their payment information so they can coplete the transaction. The gaps most often happen because the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. The marketing site promises one thing and the free trial experience delivers another. The product team has its focus on building new features for the full product and doesn’t have the bandwidth to build guided free trial experiences or a strong bridge to the billing system.

Fortunately, these gaps can be solved. It just requires that your teams continuously look at the journey through the eyes of the user. Abandonment occurs because we’ve lost sight of where users are, what they’re seeing, and what they want.

By stitching together the silos in your own organization, you can help ensure that you’re not abandoning your users and giving them a reason to abandon you.

People Leave When They Don’t Get What They Want

Here’s one of the biggest red flags of all. When you hear your support reps constantly say, “Let me show you where that is.”

Part of what makes a product great is the feeling that everything is in the right place at the right time. It’s easy to settle for just getting features built and out the door. That can be hard enough. It takes extra time and effort to give users what they want when they want it. But it pays off in the long run through greater user retention.

In order to give users what they want, you have to think like they think. You need to allow them to easily find what they need. You need to put features and tools where they expect to find them, not just where you think they should go.

When we see core features buried one, two, or three clicks deep we immediately know that there are some fundamental issues we need to address in a client’s development and design process. The team isn’t focused on the key interactions that the user needs to do and in the way that they want to do it.

Ask yourself, are you designing a bunch of individual features or are you designing a solution to a problem? When you set out to help people get a job done and solve a problem, you’re more likely to provide features that help them get what they want.

Other Reasons for User and Customer Abandonment

We’ve seen a lot in more than 20 years of helping clients build meaningful and delightful products. Here are some of the recurring themes that help explain user abandonment.

Lack of Engagement

The biggest differentiator between you and your competition - and the key to keeping users and customers engaged - often comes down to how well you understand your user.

If your content, product, or service isn’t compelling enough, you might find that you’re becoming a “me-too” offering. You don’t have any compelling value outside of what everybody else is doing.

Many industries have little room to offer truly unique services. In financial services, for instance, often the best customer experience wins. Traditionally, this was done by throwing more human interactions at customers and giving them personalized attention that way. But that’s an extremely expensive approach.

A modern approach to engagement takes all the questions and interactions and brings them into an interface that presents the right answers at the right time when users need it. That’s different than just listing a bunch of services on a screen.

All too often, business leaders see UX/UI design as a place to store things. That mindset won’t generate the level of user engagement that you want. The perspective that wins is the one that asks, “How can I meet my customers’ needs where they are and when they need it, then design for that outcome?”

Poor Onboarding

Onboarding encompasses everything that happens the first time users interact with your product. It’s a critical moment because it sets the tone for everything else that follows and it often determines if customers will stick with your product or abandon it.

Free trials, as described above, can be a big part of this but it’s also all the little things that can add up to confusing or time-consuming experiences. If users have to search Google to learn how to do something or ask your customer service team for help, they’re likely going to bail for a more intuitive solution.

This happens a lot in modern e-commerce. If you can’t see what you want in an ad, click it, arrive at a payment screen and pay within several clicks then you’re highly likely to never come back. We’re past the days of asking users to fill out long form fields to buy products.

When they’re on their phone in bed late at night after a long day at work, they don’t want to take more than a minute to buy your product or service. They’ll abandon you for a faster and more seamless payment experience.

Technical Issues

This one gets overlooked a lot. We all know technical issues are big barriers for users but it’s important to state it. We can become blind to how seemingly small things like slow processing, crashes, glitches, or lost data can add up to a terrible user experience.

Basic fundamental functional performance issues, especially as they build up over time, can be deal breakers. People simply won’t return if they have the choice because they don’t trust a product or brand that doesn’t seem to work right.

Lack of Perceived Value

Finally, the ultimate question you have to ask yourself is, “Does your product actually solve the problem the user is coming to you to help them solve?” If you don’t do it, somebody else will.

You can’t just be functional or usable any more. You have to be at least at the comfortable level of the design success ladder. Better yet, to create true value, you have to be delivering a delightful experience that assists people and makes their life easier.

The floor for user experience has gone way up, which means the standards that people use to determine the value of your product has also risen. You have to offer a unique benefit that they actually want and can’t find anywhere else. You have to do the research to know what that is for your user and customer base.

You have to build confidence through your users’ minds and hearts. They need to feel confident not only in the product but in themselves and their ability to understand how it works. They have to want to use your product and feel joyful when they do.

That’s what creates the delightful and meaningful levels of experience necessary to be competitive in the modern software landscape.

We Won’t Let Your Users Abandon You

We know how to help teams get the most out of their products. We’ve navigated all kinds of environments across a variety of industries and business models to help teams deliver meaningful experiences that drive real business results.

Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about what pulls users in and what drives them away. Let us show you the way to combat user churn and get more ROI out of your product. Get in touch and let us know more about your vision for the future.