Jamie Lawrence

Let’s be clear: Maximising time-in-app is hostile to users

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can measure the value of a service to its users recently. This has led me to look at some ‘engagement’ metrics which often boil down to “how much time does the user spend on the site / in the app?”. The goal, apparently, is to get your users to spend as much time as possible on your site or playing with your app.

If you adopt this position, I’m going to state this clearly: you are selfish, misguided, and actively hostile to the best interests of your users. Your users have friends to meet, kids to play with and lovers to spend time with. They have important work to do, work which pays their household bills and puts food on the table. They have a beautiful world full of sights and activities to enjoy. They should not be spending their short life in your app.

Apple recently rejected the Hueman app because:

Apps should provide valuable utility, draw people in by offering compelling capabilities or content, or enable people to do something they couldn’t do before or in a way they couldn’t do it before.

Draw people in? No. No, no, no!

If you measure your user’s time spent in-app, the aim should be to minimise it. What is the shortest time that your users can accomplish their tasks within your app? How can you reduce the time they spend in your app whilst still helping them do their job?

I use Intercom to get some idea of what my users are doing but the most annoying aspect is the 30-day “Your users are slipping away” emails. I beg to differ. I only want to see those users every 2-months, at most. Dead Man’s Snitch is a valuable service that I use, and I expect to spend no more than 10-minutes on their site this year.

Not all apps are like Dead Man’s Snitch but I contend that measuring time-in-app is a still a really bad proxy metric. Instead of measuring time-in-app, measure the number of plans they create, or the invoices they send, etc. And if you value your users’ time, divide time-in-app by the actions they performed: 20mins / 2 invoices sent = 10 mins per invoice. That (hopefully, fictional) example is pretty bad but we can work to get that ratio down. Remember that the user has some (perhaps notional) hourly rate. So, 10-minutes/invoice might be costing the company $10 in salary. For a freelancer, it might be costing them $30 in lost time. What about aiming for 1 minute invoices?

In summary: stop trying to maximise a user’s time-in-app if you want to maintain any pretence of caring for them.