While it’s estimated that the UK has one of the world’s highest levels of smartphone penetration – at around 81% with some 43.6 million connected users across the country – it’s now becoming clear that apps are no longer a major factor driving smartphone usage.

The latest Adobe Digital Insights study, for example, suggests that in Europe the growth in apps has actually levelled off and that the trend is now likely to follow the US market where there has been a 38% fall in mobile app installs since 2014. Comscore research also recently reported that almost half of US smartphone users downloaded zero apps in the last month.

We’re certainly picking up on this trend in the customer engagement sector, where many businesses are now starting to rethink the role that apps play in their customer journeys. While brands were initially quick to leap on the B2C apps bandwagon, there’s been a growing realisation that dedicated apps simply don’t work for many of the tasks that they were originally designed for. So, does this spell the end of businesses pressuring customers to use their dedicated apps as the preferred route into an organisation?

Today’s apps reality

When Deloitte conducted its Global Mobile Consumer Survey at the end of last year they asked people how many apps they currently had installed on their smartphones. It turned out the majority had downloaded 20 or fewer, and 12% had stuck with only the original pre-installed apps they had when their phone was new. In the 18-24-year-old demographic, where you might have expected more apps usage – particularly for games, only 1 in 10 had more than 30 apps.

Many businesses – perhaps optimistically – thought that their loyal customers would be happy to sign-up to a branded app experience. However, the reality is that people are much more selective about the apps that they choose to host on the limited smartphone screen space. According to Deloitte, the Top Five app activities remain weather, social networking, navigation, email and games. Online banking only ranks sixth, while dedicated apps from retailers just scrape into the Top Ten.

As customers, the apps that we keep coming back to are those that handle tasks or processes that are simple, repeatable and that we use throughout the day. We always want to know what the weather’s going to be like, we regularly dip in and out of Facebook to find out what our friends are doing, we need to check on how our journeys are progressing, and we all have to check our emails. Because these are all repeat tasks, it makes sense to have dedicated apps that make things easier. Simplicity and repeatability are at the heart of these experiences.

However, where things start getting more complex, people are much less inclined to use apps. If I’m shopping online, for example, I want to browse, look at items in detail, compare prices across different sites, perhaps even visit a store to confirm what I’m going to do next. I’ll probably do the same if I’m booking a holiday, with many people still preferring to call up to make a booking or visit a travel agent. Apps simply don’t give me the flexibility I need for these tasks.

Similarly, if I’m thinking about home or car insurance it’s something I only want to consider once a year - and if I can do it online, via a messaging chat bot, or with a quick call to an agent then I’m generally happy. If I must download and register for an app that I’m just going to use annually, then I need to be convinced of its value if I’m going to keep it on my smartphone screen for another 12 months and remember the password!

That’s not to say apps can’t work well – many have a fantastic use case, just ask Uber customers. However, it’s clear that customer engagement teams are now having to think much more carefully about which digital channels work best at different stages of the customer journey – and combine to deliver a better-quality experience. For some use cases, an app is great, for others, an online Virtual Assistant is ideal, while many users will increasingly prefer the continuity and two-way dialogue that’s characterised by messaging chatbots.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is on record as saying that ‘chatbots are the new apps’, but I suspect that today’s complex customer journeys aren’t so black and white. With over 100,000 bots now registered on Facebook Messenger, for example, it looks like the major social networks are busy trying to replicate apps functionality within their messaging platforms.

Transitioning to a messaging bot model, however, won’t necessarily result in a better customer experience or enhanced loyalty. As ever, organisations will need to make sure that they provide their customers with services and technologies that are appropriate for their current context. Apps, AI-enabled chatbots and conversational interfaces will all have an important role to play in helping to remove friction, and keeping your customers at the heart of this digital transformation process will be critical if organisations are to succeed in avoiding costly mistakes.

However, as the increasing evidence of the slowdown in apps usage suggests, its initial acceptance and repeat usage that earn technologies there place in a successful customer journey.


By Daniel Whaley, digital principal solution manager at Sabio

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