Architecture & DesignThe App Developer Checklist: Seven Ways to Design Your App for Virality

The App Developer Checklist: Seven Ways to Design Your App for Virality

By Drew Hendricks

Let’s set the record straight: Candy Crush did not become the colossal time-suck that it is for its 93 million users just because people thought the game was really fun. Yes, that was a part of it, but there are hundreds of thousands of gaming apps in the App Store and many are super addicting. And yet, people aren’t flocking to any number of games. What made Candy Crush spread like wildfire was that it was ingeniously designed to go viral. Virality isn’t an accident. Of course, all app developers seek to make their app the next big craze. There’s even a model called the Viral Coefficient that gives developers a formula for viral growth. However, if achieving viral growth was a step-by-step process, everyone would be following it. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Virality is about striking a lot of important balances very well. Here are seven ways to build elements of virality into your app.

1. Add Value.

Users don’t just get excited; they have to get excited about something. This is simple, but it’s crucial. The core part of your app has to be the product. In a recent interview about making great apps, Rameet Chawla, a prodigious mobile architect and founder of the product development company Fueled, explained, “What’s going to determine success isn’t the added polish, but what the app is doing.” Is your app making users more productive? Is it really engaging and fun? Does it make users feel happier or smarter? Whatever it is that your app is aiming to do, it better be enhancing users’ lives in some way. Even if you’re app is aesthetically attractive, Chawla concludes, “If you aren’t adding value to the user experience, you simply won’t end up with a popular app.”

2. Test Your Word-of-Mouth Appeal Early and Often.

The number one reason people download apps is because they’ve heard about them from friends or family. In a recent study, Ofcom found that 77% of mobile users found their apps through word of mouth. Word-of-mouth appeal may seem impossible to quantify, but there are definitely ways to test if your app is sticky in conversation. Aaron Patzer, the founder of the budgeting app, gauged his app’s word-of-mouth appeal by heading down to a train station and asking commuters whether they’d use an app like the one he was designing. His team only had a few seconds to pitch the idea and was thus able to get a quick and dirty assessment of Mint’s immediate stickiness. For this test, Walker had his team simply track “yes” and “no” responses, and after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from busy strangers, they headed back to work. You may be convinced that you are adding value for users, but you won’t really know until you get their feedback. Don’t wait until you’ve fully developed the app before seeing if other people think your app has as much appeal as you think it does. Get out there early and often to pitch your idea to strangers in your market.

3. Make First-Time Use a Breeze.

First things first; offer one-click sign-in via Facebook or Twitter. From there, the flow of screens and required actions should be incredibly simple and intuitive. This is where design comes in. You want to strike a balance between looking new and interesting and following current trends enough so that your user knows exactly what to do. Finding this balance is hard, so if you’re not experienced in UX and UI design, now is the time to hire some help. As much as content is king, your app needs to look great and work just as well too. Otherwise, users will get bored or discouraged and move on to the next app.

4. Be Transparent.

You have to let users know they are in control of their privacy—make it very clear from the outset that that their activity will only be shared if they choose to share it. If you have one-click login via another social networking account, it’s a good idea to display a message right there promising never to share information unless you are given explicit consent to do so. By making this promise, you’re humanizing the people behind the app and letting your users know that you care about their privacy.

5. Keep Users Coming Back.

You don’t want users to download your app, use it once, and forget about it. You need users to develop a sense of loyalty and pride using your app and that comes from spending time on it.  Send users useful notifications that remind them to return to the app. Duolingo, an app for learning new languages, sends users a daily reminder that language acquisition requires constant practice. This puts the emphasis on the user’s self-improvement, not on the app itself, successfully motivating users to return. A word of caution: there’s a fine line between useful push notifications and spam. Make sure you know the difference.

6. Reward Users for Sharing.

Users are your best advertisers. Period. So, develop easy ways for them to get your message out there. In simple terms, this means incentivizing sharing by giving gifts to users for each time they share. These gifts can take any number of forms, be it a badge of loyalty or access to exclusive features. Dropbox offers users more storage space for sharing the app and PayPal pays users who bring in more customers.

The goal here is not just to have a share button but to create a viral loop in which users are driven to generate additional users over and over again. This is where Candy Crush does such a phenomenal job. The app ingeniously preys on people’s competitive nature by asking users to share the app when they’re in an emotional—some may say desperate—state, right after a loss. The user is told that if they share the app, they’ll immediately gain more lives and thus be able to ascend to the next level in the game. By transforming the act of sharing into an actual life-saver, Candy Crush drives down barriers to social sharing, making it a seamless part of the larger app experience.

7. Gamify

Gamification” is about applying the fun and addicting elements of games to non-gaming activities. People have a natural disposition to want to earn more, do better, and gain exclusive access. Tap into users’ competitive side by developing a point system or by breaking your app into different access levels. Use leaderboards so users know how they stack up against their peers. The goal is to make users motivated to use the app, think about it, and share it. By adding elements of competition and making users feel like they have something special to accomplish in the app, you’ll keep them engaged much longer.


Although there’s no sure-fire way to make your app go viral, by following this checklist you’ll ensure that the tools for viral growth are seamlessly built into your product.

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