Mobile App Best Practice: Design and Build Multiple On Ramps and Off Ramps

Why aren’t more people using your app? It’s well designed, works as expected and is a critical part of your marketing and customer service strategy. The problem could be a lack of attention to how your users get back to your app after they have made the time investment to download, install and take a tour of what your app offers. To solve this problem, you need to think really hard about how your users will leave the app (and what they will bring with them) and then how they will get back in (and what they bring with them) – in other words the app’s “On Ramps” and “Off Ramps.”

Avoid the Walled Garden Design Trap and Weave Your App’s Flow Into Your User’s Current Habits and Preferences

Many mobile apps fall into the “walled garden” trap where the user flow starts only at the app’s main view (logon, home page etc.) and then forces the user to keep his data and content within the confines of the app. If users absolutely love what they see while exploring the app for the first time, they will come back to get more from your app and help you achieve the usage numbers for which you hoped. This works for large platform apps that have thousands/ millions of users and lots of new interesting content published everyday, but experience has shown that this same level of engagement does not happen for the vast majority of apps. There is just simply too much inertia and competition for users’ attention.

Fortunately, you can still design a useful app that can achieve your business objectives by leveraging what users already know and the platforms and tools they are accustomed to using. The key is to interweave your app into your users’ own content, relationships and processes that are stored and executed elsewhere. As app designers we find that the “on ramp” and “off ramp”concept is a clarifying principal to make this happen.

Mobile App On Ramps and Off Ramps

On ramps are essentially communication pathways that help a user open the app in context to what they are doing. Examples include websites, email, beacons and social networking sites.

Off ramps are ways (also communication pathways) to share content or move content from within the app to a more appropriate platform for the next round of work. Off ramp examples include email, web portals and pdf reports.

As you can see there are lots of technical options to make these ramps, which can be costly to design, build and maintain. So, the challenge is to carefully select which ones to use and then plan where these ramps will occur in the app’s flow. The key goals for each pathway is that they work, are easy to figure out and help you achieve the app’s engagement goals.

On Ramp Use Cases and Best Practices

Getting users into the app through your on ramp in context is key. Many users are already overloaded with app messages and especially dislike push notifications, uninvited “marketing” communications and other interruptions to their routine. On ramps that work will thus have to make up for this annoyance by delivering a valuable, easy to act upon message that is relevant based on a trigger. Of course, the content for the message is unique the app, but using the right combination of technical capabilities will make the message work better.

For example, we have found that texts get a better response compared to push notifications since they are more likely to be noticed and read. To make it relevant, you need a user-specific trigger (reminder, new info, time of day etc.), good content (obviously) and a deep link in the message that will open the app up to the exact right view. Done correctly, you have a user’s attention for critical moment to collect information, share an offer or establish a connection.

A newer kind of on ramp is a small network of cheap and easy to install beacons that simply broadcast a device ID. As long as your app is active in the background, it can come to the foreground or generate some other kind of notification that takes advantage of knowing the user’s location. Instead of a deep link like the earlier example, you can open the app directly to the appropriate view based on a push notification from your server.

Off Ramp Use Cases and Best Practices

Off ramps are often overlooked because of the design focus on getting users into the app and starting to engage with the content. However, off ramps are critical to help users stay engaged with your app during their normal routines and sharing your app with others who might also be interested in its value.

Examples of off ramp use cases are emails with content that can be shared with friends or colleagues. Pictures, scores, summaries and other useful bits of information should be sharable with non-app users.

Facebook Open Graph is also a good way to get information out of your app so others can discover it. The key design point here is to make sure that the links in the Facebook post lead to relevant content and a way to learn more about your app.

For more data intensive apps, data exporting and reports are ways to make the investment in using the app pay off for your user. A user works to enter data (whether by hand or through the phone’s sensors) and having that data available to other programs (excel etc.) where the data can be manipulated more efficiently is viewed as a positive.

In general, off the ramp’s destination needs to be easy to find so that the user can come back to them when needed. Storing links to the data on a web portal, sending those links in an email or putting the output in a central location like Dropbox are good ways to make sure that app’s output is accessible.

Finally, a good practice for deployment will also include measurement of which ramps are used and whether they work as expected all the time. A behavior tracking service like Localytics plus a script that tests the landing points regularly to make sure all is up and running will give you this insight.

Summary

Using “On Ramps” and “Off Ramps” to weave the app’s flow into your user’s already established habits and communication expectations will reduce the barriers to adoption and increase the likelihood the user will incorporate your app into her routine.

Making this happen is a matter of thinking about your user’s app interactions and what is happening just before and just after that interaction. Doing this as early in the design process will help you make better decisions about how to combine functionality, content and triggers in a way that is meaningful to users.

If you pull this off then you will not only have a useful app but an app whose users are voluntarily raising its profile.

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