Adding Decks To A Sinking Ship

Here’s how we usually think about product development:

  1. Think of great product idea
  2. Build product
  3. Launch product
  4. Add feature
  5. Add feature
  6. Add feature
  7. Add feature
  8. Add feature
  9. (repeat)

It can be tempting to continually add new features. Bosses, investors, and vocal users all demand shiny new toys. “Our numbers are flat-lining—we have to give the people more things!”

Even during a period of relatively positive growth, it can be easy to focus on your total user count and pat yourself on the back. But if getting new users were the only valid metric, I’d be 100% focused on an easier signup process and sexier marketing pages.

Acquisition is important, but what often gets overlooked is retention. It’s easy to see lower retention numbers and assume it’s happening because you don’t have enough features. But that’s the wrong place to start. It’s as if the ship has sprung a leak, but instead of plugging the hole, we decide to add a third deck and bring on more passengers.

Before you rush off to build the next great feature, first figure out why you’re losing users. The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the core problems in your app and continue building it out. If you don’t address its holes, you won’t stop the bleeding. And while your total user count may be rising, your active user percentage will drop faster and faster. New users come in, experience the same problems the previous group faced — and then never come back. No amount of new features can cover up the core frustrations that caused your other users to leave.

Break it down:

  1. Measure. Data drives decisions. Figure out what your active user percentage is. For your app, define what action qualifies a user as “active”: That they’ve logged in in the last 30 days? Posted a comment? Made a purchase? You may be saddened shocked to see that percentage.
  2. Ask Questions. Let your users know you want to fix their problems. Send a simple survey or start digging into Google Analytics data. Look for patterns in the feedback and brainstorm ways you can make your users’ experience better.
  3. Build. Keep it simple. Fix the biggest issue your users have — and ship it! Don’t waste 3 months building some new feature. Make your users happier NOW.
  4. Measure Again. Yes, again! The only way to determine whether your efforts have been successful is if your metrics are improving: more users logging in, more posts, more purchases. If you changed a key feature, did a key metric drop? Stop everything and rip out that change. If you’re properly experimenting, failure is a valid option.
  5. Rinse and Repeat as Needed. Find the next biggest complaint and fix that. Then do it again. How do you know when to stop? You’ve stopped the leak and your active user percentage begins to rise.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s absolutely a time and a place for the next big thing. If your app never progresses or improves, your users will move on. You may get swept away by somebody else’s hot new product. But before you install that jacuzzi on the top deck of the boat, make sure you haven’t just hit an iceberg.

Hi there, I'm Jon.

Writer. Musician. Adventurer. Nerd.

Purveyor of GIFs and dad jokes.