5 Lessons from a University App

Dec 10

5 Lessons from a University App

Almost a year and a half since the Sydney Uni App launched with a flurry of marketing, curiosity and usage has steadily faded. The app is suffering from the same retention problem that is a consistent hurdle for all apps.

The app was developed by Blackboard Mobile, who offered the same service to a variety of universities across Australia and globally. It is unsurprising then, that these apps offer a similar set of functions, including:

  • News and events
  • Photos of the campus
  • Maps
  • Integration with the Learning Management System, Blackboard


My own experiences with the app are mixed and reflect general student opinions. The app featured 3.5 stars on the App Store and 3.1 on Google Play from a total of less than a hundred ratings. Some students focused on lack of features such as personalised timetables while others noted that the available offerings provide good value.

Five lessons can be drawn from the Sydney Uni App about enhancing user retention.


[h1]LESSON 1.        Manage expectations through clear communication[/h1]

The difference between what users expect and what you deliver creates the difference between disappointment and delight.

People compare your app to:

  • Expectations, created by your words and actions
  • Preconceptions, based on past experiences

University Apps are a new concept and the marketing material used for the Sydney Uni App encouraged students to simply download and explore the app.  When students compared their experience with their expectations and preconceptions, many were disappointed by not finding the features they needed. Recurring usage was therefore low.


  • Market clearly. Know your value proposition and deliver this is a straightforward manner to users
  • Proactively seek feedback and update the App to match expectations (see Lesson 2)
  • Under-promise and over-deliver

Some other universities were more successful in managing expectations. Students rated the app as a useful reference on the university, rather than expecting a replacement to existing platforms.


Make sure you are attracting users for the right reasons and the app can meet (or exceed) their expectations

[h1]LESSON 2.        Integrate valuable feedback and interate[/h1]

Sydney Uni AppStudents are relatively eager to provide unbiased opinion and suggest what they are looking for. The comments left in the App Store for the Sydney Uni App show a continuous pattern of the same suggestions, with seemingly few attempts to address them.

Apps have the advantage of being able to continuously improve through ongoing updates. Feedback is a vital part of this process to focus the development of the app into what is of value.

Make it easy to capture feedback, since many users are more likely to simply stop using an app than provide useful information about it.

  • Include a feedback form in the app, with easy access from key parts of the app.
  • Keep it simple with one or two questions with multiple choice clicks (don’t make them enter loads of text on a tiny phone keyboard)
  • Allow for deeper feedback by prompting for free text entry of additional comments


To encourage a high response rate, it is also a great idea to take a proactive approach to prompting for feedback at the right time. This also allows feedback to be collected from targeted categories of users, such as those who have used the app extensively for a few weeks. StreetHawk Campaigns can be used to implement these surveys at the most appropriate time.

Feedback is likely to highlight differences between expectations and what was delivered. This allows you to develop greater understanding of user needs. However, also be careful not to assume that any piece of feedback represents a general consensus. Make sure to collect enough data before proceeding.

Once feedback is collected, make sure they are responded to appropriately, such as

  • Acknowledging users for their feedback
  • Implementing suggestions that occur frequently


Target key areas for continuous app improvement though understanding user feedback


[h1]LESSON 3.        Understand usage by using analytics[/h1]

Analytics is offered by companies such as StreetHawk, Google and Mixpanel to track data on:

  • Screen views
  • Session duration
  • App launch frequency
  • User demographics

These insights is especially important for the Sydney Uni App, since it offers a variety of functionality that would appeal to different students at different points in time.

Understanding what is valuable and where students get stuck would allow those sections to be fast tracked for further development.

Questions can be asked such as:

  • What function does the users normally use first?
  • Where is the most time being spent?
  • What sections of the app are visited least?
  • How many times do users open the app before they start exploring other features?
  • How do light vs heavy users interact differently with the app?

The app would then consistently rise beyond user expectations.

However, be careful when drawing conclusions. Not all time spent in the app is equal.

Look at the pattern of how a user interacts with the app to make finer distinctions on the nature of usage.

  • A user flicking through a lot of pages very quickly is likely to be searching but unable to find what they are looking for. These users are likely to be close to leaving. Target these users for feedback or provide additional incentives to decrease the churn rate.
  • A user who visits frequently and spends a significant time on each page is more likely to be gaining good value from the app. Perhaps you can ask this user to Rate your App


Track key analytics to understand important ways in which customers interact with your app
Finer distinctions provides greater clarity


Sydney University Campus
Sydney University Campus

[h1]LESSON 4.        Provide a personalised experience[/h1]

Personalisation is a vital component to the success of future apps. An e-consultancy report from this year, ‘The Realities of Online Personalisation’, states that 94% of surveyed companies agree that personalisation ‘is critical to current and future success’.

There were many requests for personalization in the Sydney Uni App – concurring with the studies findings. Personalisation could include easy access to the students own timetable, reading lists and events of their interest.

Personalisation provides users with easy access to the information they need at the right time, which greatly enhances its value.

Personalisation starts from providing targeted communications:

  • Switch from general emails and broadcasts to targeted segments and in-app communications
  • Communicate based on the actions users take, their demographics and their demands
  • Match data collected about users, such as Student ID’s with information stored on other systems to provide further insights


Generic is long past
The invitation to be constantly within reach comes with an expectation to provide a highly personalised experience


[h1]LESSON 5.        Form a habit[/h1]

In order for an app to be frequently and consistently used, it must be the very first action to come to mind when a trigger occurs.

Existing habits the Sydney University App has to fight against includes asking a friend for news and events instead of accessing the app, or visiting the web versions of news and Blackboard.

In order to disrupt these existing behaviours:

  • Understand the triggers that are relevant to the value of your app
  • Provide a simple and reliable service that is directly connected to the value students gain rather than trying to provide a smorgasbord of services that clutters the main offerings
  • When users first enter an app, guide their experience to the most useful sections and initial actions before allowing them to freely explore the app

Fortunately for the university it is also fairly easy to predict the habitual needs of the student users, including

  • Yearly recruitment/induction/orientation process
  • The information needed by a first year student to dive into university life
  • Weekly access to lecture materials


There is no point being the second best alternative
Loyalty comes from encouraging habitual use



With the growing flood of apps in the marketplace, retention is the key question for providing ongoing value and return. Developing an app is only the first stage of the journey. Clarity and continual improvement are key. These 5 lessons drawn from the Sydney University App are valuable to keep in mind to boost retention.

For Sydney University, an innovative app can do a lot to enhance the student experience by truly anticipating student needs and encouraging integration into the university lifestyle. It can help develop the brand of the Uni as leading edge and student facing. Hopefully, a breakthrough is just around the corner.

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