Heuristics in the age of the smartphone: how do heuristics help us decide which app to buy from the app markets?
Louis had just been given a new smartphone for Christmas, he’d wanted a new smartphone for some months now. He charged the phone, setup his contacts and began to browse through the app stores. He searched for useful apps and entertainment apps. Whilst browsing the app store he noted that among the hundreds of apps a small selection of the apps were prioritised by positioning the apps at the top of the app list. Louis wondered some of the apps were displayed in a better position than others. He didn’t give it a second thought and continued to load apps onto his new smartphone.
Smartphone apps are small computer programmes that have become a useful and sometimes important part of life. These small apps have helped to change mobile phones from a basic communication device to a small personal computer that can complete a myriad of functions (e.g., listening to podcasts, searching the internet, playing games). The apps that enable the large variety of functions are primarily available through proprietary online shops such as Google’s Play Store, Apple’s App Store, and Amazon’s App store, these apps can be created by skilled computer programmers. Since the advent of smartphones (mobile phones with the ability to use apps) over a billion smartphone have been sold and 50 billion apps have been downloaded worldwide (ABI Research, 2013).
The popularity of smartphone apps have lead researchers to investigate how and why we choose to download one app whilst ignoring the vast amount of other apps that available. For example, when searching for a messaging app one must pick one app with the desired attributes from among a vast collection of apps that are all very similar. Some of the aids when choosing an app include graphic rating systems (Gage Kelley et al., 2013) and customer reviews (Poster Felt et al., 2012). Decision-making researchers have found that users (consumers) spend more time reading customers reviews than the privacy permissions, despite the importance of clearly understanding what you ought to allow the app to access on your smartphone (Should you rely allow a game to access your phone call log or photos?) (Porter Felt et al., 2012). Other researchers have revealed that graphic rating systems are considered to be a more reliable source of information and quality of an app than full-text customer reviews (Gage Kelley et al., 2013). Many user prefer to simply look at the number of stars that an app has been given by other users rather than reading customer reviews.
One exploratory study by researchers at universities in Germany and the United States sought to investigate what decision strategies are used when deciding which app to download from an app store (Dogruel et al. 2015). They recruited 49 smartphone users with experience of the Google Play Store and asked them to browse through a total of 189 apps, after which they chose three apps to download from different categories. The researchers used screen capture software to monitor and record the activities of the participants so that they could observe which decisions were made. The researchers found that half of the selected apps (n=93) were chosen from the default list at the top of the screen, here the participants did not scroll down to look any other apps. In just 1 in 4 cases (approx. 48) apps were selected after viewing at least 10 other apps. The Take-the-first (TtF) heuristic which states that a user simply chooses the first option that they encounter explains about half of the decisions that were made.
So, like Louis if you have recently received a smartphone as a gift or had bought one and are now filling the smartphone with useful and entertaining apps, remember that many of the most popular apps (in the default list) may have simply been chosen by other users because of the Take-the-first heuristic. We like to think that we decide which app to download carefully however heuristics like Take-the-first can explain some of our decisions. As apps become more popular with the advancement of technology the heuristics-and-biases literature can inform us about how we make these decisions, decisions that app store creators can use to their benefit to make greater profit.