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A developer's guide to mobile app personalization

User experience for a mobile app can improve significantly with the use of personalization. Learn about the benefits of app personalization and how to use it.

Customers who automatically receive their go-to coffee order at a local café are usually impressed by the experience....

Personalization can similarly enhance the end-user experience with mobile apps.

Personalization is the next evolutionary stage in mobile app customization. When an app effectively incorporates personalization, users can avoid many of the steps they need to take, which makes the app more usable or specific to their needs. Mobile app personalization uses machine learning algorithms to automatically adapt the app to the user's current circumstances based on factors such as geographic location, individual demographics or past actions.

Benefits of mobile app personalization

Users want, and even expect, personalized apps. Static apps have little appeal and, consequently, have shorter lifespans. Personalization drives engagement and brand loyalty by providing users with the information they need when they need it.

For example, a retail company might offer customers a mobile app to view and purchase products. To personalize the app, the organization can analyze the customer's browsing and purchasing history and provide that customer with special offers for similar types of products, while avoiding products that do not match the customer's location or demographics. Mobile app personalization can help to create more useful home screens, send targeted notifications, or provide search query defaults or recommendations.

Mobile app personalization also makes it possible to target messages at specific user segments. Organizations can use location data to provide relevant content to users in certain regions, based on their particular demographics. Personalization prevents a retail company from trying to sell flip-flops to a customer in Minnesota in the middle of winter or snow shoes to a customer in Florida.

How to use mobile app personalization

Organizations can use notifications combined with a device's built-in GPS features to target content based on a user's location. For example, if a user walks past a clothing store in a mall, the app can send a notification about regional sales that might interest the user. Some apps might identify patterns in a user's behavior, such as browsing or purchasing activities, and then make appropriate recommendations. For example, if an individual routinely uses a recipe app to search for Brazilian dishes, the app might recommend Brazilian recipes, cookbooks or specialty items. Or if an employee regularly accesses a certain client on a customer relationship manager app, the app can make contact information suggestions on the homepage, which can boost productivity.

A tale of two notification types

Two of the most effective ways to deliver personalized content is through in-app notifications and push notifications. In-app notifications are triggered when a specified event occurs. For example, if a customer makes a purchase, the app might display a notification that suggests useful accessories to go with the purchased item. Or the app might generate a "thank you" notification after a purchase or a reminder notification if a customer leaves items in the shopping cart. In-app notifications can be useful for extending a user's interaction with an app -- as long as those notifications are more useful than annoying.

Push notifications do not rely on the user triggering an event but can still offer a way to re-engage users after they've logged off the app. For example, if an item in a user's wish list goes on sale, a push notification can notify the user of that sale. Organizations can use push notifications as part of larger marketing campaigns, although organizations need to be careful not to overwhelm users with notifications. Most importantly, an app should provide users with a mechanism for opting out of notifications.

Personalization can give users a favorable initial impression during the app onboarding process. To personalize an app for onboarding, the organization should collect a limited amount of data when the user first tries to use the app. The organization might also use data from other sources, such as usage data from previous app versions.

Mobile app personalization can also provide users with incentives to try out different features. For example, an organization might collect data about how different types of customers use an app and which features they tend to favor or ignore. For those underutilized features, the app might prompt users with helpful content or instructions. This approach, however, is not a substitute for effective app design.

Development teams should also involve their end users when they need to update and improve the app. Developers should ask users what they like and dislike about the app. In addition, an app should prompt users to review it. One of the most effective ways to provide users with a personalized experience is to make them feel part of a community that values their feedback.

This was last published in November 2018

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