Why do users uninstall apps?

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For developers, it is often difficult enough to get users to download your apps. Gaining exposure in any of the app stores is tricky, often with apps from larger companies monopolizing the featured apps and best-of lists. Harder still is finding a way to keep users satisfied, thereby ensuring they purchase additional apps, rate the app highly or simply keep playing long enough to make in-app advertising profitable.

And, while it is bad enough to have an app that goes unused, what's possibly worse is to have an app that is so hindering that the user goes out of his way to uninstall or delete it altogether. An app that is useful in emergencies, a flashlight app or emergency communication app, for example, may not get much use but is less likely to be uninstalled. An app that serves little to no purpose is likely to get axed.

Are there tricks that developers and app marketers can follow or mistakes they can avoid in order to limit the number of times an app is uninstalled? What types of apps are rarely ever uninstalled? And what is the No. 1 faux pas that app developers make when it comes to designing an app with staying power?

Methods of measurement for app uninstalls

First, it is important to look at the method of measurement for application uninstalls in order to ascertain if the number of times an app is uninstalled is a cause for concern. Even the most popular app will be uninstalled by some users, so simply looking at the gross number of times an app has been uninstalled is worthless. 

In addition, self-reported data about apps can be unreliable. Users often forget or under or over estimate the number of apps they own, much less actually use, making uninstall rates a difficult statistic to measure.

AppStoreHQ, a company that specializes in app discovery and personalized app recommendations, thinks it has a solution to this problem. The company's CEO Scott Blanksteen explained in an interview with FierceMobileContent that AppStoreHQ's AppESP for Android can, among other things, keep track of what apps a user installs and uninstalls. While the main purpose of AppESP is to provide app recommendations, Blanksteen thought it would be interesting to look at the data surrounding what apps were uninstalled most and least often. The data is broken down as a percentage, meaning that an app that is uninstalled hundreds of times but installed at a much higher rate would not be penalized as severely. 

App Uninstall Rate (high)
Dolphin Text Sizer 18.2%
PicsIn Magic Effects 17.4%
Reverse Lookup 16.0%

Baseball Superstars II

14.5%
News360 for Phones 13.6%

Blanksteen's data found that the Dolphin Text Sizer for Android was the most commonly uninstalled app, with 18.2 percent of users removing the app. The next most commonly removed app, PicsIn Magic Effects, was deleted 17.4 percent of the time. But what do these apps and the others most commonly uninstalled have in common?

Dolphin Text Sizer and PicsIn Magic Effects are both free utility apps and have overwhelmingly positive reviews from users on the Android Market and AppStoreHQ. Both apps are rated 4.5/5 stars and yet are more commonly uninstalled than apps with much lower rankings.

The negative reviews of Dolphin Text Sizer mainly complain that the text resizing capabilities are limited to activities conducted within the Dolphin HD browser, while PicsIn Magic Effects naysayers were discouraged by an update to the app changing some of its features.

Apps that lack unique characteristics, said Blanksteen, are uninstalled frequently. There are many text messaging apps and Twitter clients, for example, available in app stores. A user may try three or four of these types of apps and keep the one he or she likes best. The others get uninstalled.

What makes a user uninstall an app?

Unfortunately the answer to this question isn't simple. There are four trends that influence whether an app is likely to be uninstalled at a later date, but even taking these ideas into consideration, there is no foolproof way to prevent users from deleting or uninstalling an app.

Paid vs. Unpaid - Users are more likely to risk downloading a free app. If a user pays for an app, he or she is less likely to want to delete it because it feels like a waste. "If you have skin in the game, i.e. 99 cents or above, you might be less inclined to uninstall it," said Brad Spirrison, managing editor of app directory Appolicious. Still, a paid app is also less likely to be downloaded in the first place. Blanksteen noted that with branded apps in particular, like Electronic Arts' Scrabble, a user knows what he is getting when he installs the app. Apps like these, thus, have lower uninstall rates.

Buggy - If there are problems with an app, users will want to remove it. While PicsIn Magic Effects had many positive reviews, its low ratings came from users who had problems with the app crashing after a new version of the app was issued. Repeatedly testing an app, especially running on Android where users have a variety of devices and run different versions of the same operating system, can limit the number of bugs and user issues.

Novelty - A novelty app, usually listed in the entertainment section of an app store, provides a small function or gimmick for a limited amount of time. Geico's BroStache app, for example, lets the user pretend to sport a variety of mustaches by placing the device screen in front of the user's face. "The official iOS entertainment [section of the App Store] has a lot of fun novelties that are fun to play around with and impress your friends, but then they get old," said Spirrison.

Completed - Apps with limited functionality or levels, such as lite versions of apps or apps that are not often updated, are more likely to be deleted. Blanksteen said that Jamie's 20 Minute Meals is one of only three paid apps on AppStoreHQ's list of the 100 most commonly uninstalled apps. The app includes 60 recipes. A user who already has memorized these recipes or is tired of them would delete it, despite the $7.99 price tag.

Replaced - If an app does the same thing as several other apps, it faces a lot of competition in the app market. Shazam and SoundHound, both music identification apps, compete for the same users. SoundHound began offering free unlimited music identification in late 2010, and Shazam followed suit earlier this week for its app for iOS after its app ranking began to plummet.

App Uninstall Rate (low)
Armored II: Tower Defense 0.64%
Starbucks 0.65%
Twitter 0.66%

Droidlight LED Flashlight

0.66%
Mozilla Firefox 0.70% firefox

Not always a problem

Of course, not all deleted apps should be viewed as failures. An app promoting an event or special occasion is not meant to last forever on a user's device.  Movie-themed apps, for instance, lose their relevance when the title leaves theaters or is no longer being marketed on DVD. A hurricane survival app, like Hurricane and Hurricane HD for iOS, isn't likely to get much use in the off-season, nor will the user of a pregnancy tracking app probably need such an app for more than a nine-month-stretch.

Uninstalling an app like one of these isn't an end-game.  A user with a positive experience with one Disney-themed app is more likely to try another of the company's apps tied to a future release. And, the hurricane app user could purchase another weather-themed app or recommend it to a friend living in a different climate.

Apps can be costly to maintain, with expenses related to fixing bugs, troubleshooting user issues and adding new content. So in these instances it is actually better for users to leave satisfied than to have them deal with an increasingly irrelevant app.

"In that case it's not that the user wasn't satisfied with that app. Some [apps] are designed for a specific time period and it is time to move on," said Spirrison.