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My app got 30,000 downloads in 24 hours as Apple’s App of the Day. But I didn’t learn how to get featured overnight.
A few years ago, I decided to run an experiment to learn why some apps are big hits and others flop. I downloaded every single App of the Day for a year — 365 apps total. From free apps to paid apps, I went all in and spent 30 minutes studying the top apps every morning.
I discovered the best apps have certain traits in common that set them apart from the rest. Since then, I’ve been featured on the App Store over 100 times and helped millions of users.
Here are eight common traits of the top apps (and how to apply them to your own product):
1. No tutorial
The best apps are easy to use and simple to understand. They don’t require a tutorial to get started because the app’s design guides the user.
Headspace, an app that helps users meditate, is a great example. The app’s interface is clean, with intuitive navigation and lots of negative space. You feel calm simply by opening the app as you start your first meditation.
Nearly all top apps focus on doing one thing best. They could add a lot more features, but instead, they have a clear and specific purpose.
Duolingo could teach you all kinds of new skills, but they focus exclusively on teaching language. FaceTune could provide a toolbox of photo effects, but instead, they focus solely on making your face look better in selfies.
What do you want to be known for? Focus on that one thing.
3. Beautiful icon
When searching for a new app, your first impression is the app icon — so make it beautiful. Most featured apps have a foreground icon with a solid or gradient background.
Cramming text into a tiny icon doesn’t work well. Vibrant colors make it pop and catch the eye. Make your app icon relevant and pleasant to draw users in.
The best apps are user-friendly for people with different abilities, preferences and needs. Following the iPhone’s global dark mode was a common trait, as well as changing contrast and text sizing based on iPhone Settings. Top apps also use icons instead of text whenever possible to communicate clearly across different languages and cultures.
5. Full ecosystem
Apps on the App Store are more likely to get featured if they use the latest Apple features. Almost all featured apps included versions for iPad and Apple Watch, and many included iMessage and home screen widgets. These don’t always improve the user experience, but Apple typically prefers them for using all their latest and greatest features.
While this may increase your chances at getting featured, I personally discourage these add-ons when first launching. They take time to build and can be distracting if they don’t serve a real purpose for users.
6. Ask for reviews
There’s a simple reason why top apps have thousands of reviews: They ask for them. Featured apps are very intentional with asking users for ratings at specific times — completing a task, hitting a goal or reaching a milestone. At those times, users are in a positive mood and are more likely to leave a 5-star review.
Don’t go overboard bombarding users for ratings right away. Instagram asks after you share your third post. SoundHound asks after you successfully identify a song. Find an elegant way to prompt them immediately after providing value.
Spotify recommends new music based on your preferences. Snapchat suggests new filters you might enjoy. Todoist provides custom theme colors to make the app yours. Even your banking app probably greets you by name.
Find ways to make the user feel special just by using your app.
8. Variable reward
Last but not least, there’s a magic category of top apps that keeps users coming back for more. They release frequent updates, add new features and keep content fresh. This encourages users to engage more often to see if there is something new.
Netflix drops new content. Photomath supports new equations. Starbucks has new rewards specials. Keep things exciting for users so they keep coming back.
Before we wrap up, there’s one trait you might expect to be on this list but isn’t: pretty design.
Most featured apps do indeed look beautiful. But that’s not a requirement if your app solves a clear problem and is intuitive. WhatsApp, Reddit, and GroupMe are some of the ugliest apps with millions of users. Being pleasant to look at is not the same as being helpful and easy to use.
If you’re building an app and want to get featured on the App Store, know this: Getting featured by Apple is a wonderful side effect of building a product people love. Focus on helping customers, and things will fall into place.