Why 'Feature Blindness' Is Killing Your App's Retention and How You Can Fix It


Digital advertising spend approached $60 billion dollars in the year 2015—meanwhile, more than 80% of ads go ignored. Ironically, the more advertising we see, the less we pay attention to it.


The heatmaps above visualize eye tracking studies of three different web pages conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group. Areas users spent most of their time looking at are lit up in red, while yellow represents fewer views, and blue even fewer. As users quickly scan webpages, they completely ignore design elements that suggest advertising.

This phenomenon is known as ad blindness, and most product people understand it to be a marketer’s problem. What they fail to realize, however, is that the same mental process that makes us ad-blind renders us feature-blind, too. We juggle a constantly shifting assortment of applications every day, and in doing so, don’t even register features that we don’t use regularly.

At work, we change windows nearly 37 times an hour. You might have built a powerful product decked out with sparkling features, but if no one uses them, all the effort you put into development goes to waste. Users suffer from feature blindness—and only see features that they’re already accustomed to using.

The good news? By understanding how feature blindness operates within your product, you can launch countermeasures and ramp up user engagement —without building anything new.

The Psychology Behind Feature Blindness

Feature blindness is rooted in the human brain’s instinctual ability to filter out unnecessary information and stimuli.

Imagine that you’re at a noisy party. The sounds of people talking, laughter, and loud music all even out into a pleasant haze of white noise. Yet the moment someone mentions your name from across the room, your ears perk up, and your attention switches into high gear. You immediately drown out all other noise to hear what that person is saying about you.

Psychology tells us that this isn’t just because you’re a narcissist. Signal Detection Theoryexplains the manner in which the human brain filters out extraneous noise in order to focus on what it deems as immediately relevant—it’s how we navigate the world under constant, sensory assault. How we detect certain stimuli and ignore others is dependent on a variety of psychological factors: what we gain from detecting relevant signals, the cost of missing relevant signals, and the cost of mistaking noise as an important signal.


Developments in brain imaging technology illustrate the neural pathways of the brain as bursts of color—strong connections and high activity are colored red. The majority of our brains, however, are more passive and painted in cold blues and greens. Feature blindness occurs when your app is in these green zones, you want them in the highly active red.

Users of your app are there to get things done. They build behavior patterns and workflows around the features they really need, and in doing so, start to forget about the others. As they sink into your app, they become feature blind. Our brains are “use it or lose it” organs—like muscles, they atrophy by sitting still for too long. Your app becomes dormant and ordinary in the mind of the user—easily replaced the moment a shinier competitor comes to market.

As a product person, it’s tempting to let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t. By identifying feature blindness at every turn in the customer journey, you gain an incredible opportunity to rewire the way users engage with their apps—and possibly even their brains.

1. Reactivate Neglected, Must-Have Features

The core value of your product is already there, only it’s hidden in the miasma of feature blindness. Users will often try features out a couple times, before forgetting about them and limiting their use of your app to a narrow set of features. Even if they found other features valuable, they may never use them again as they enter into the user’s blind spot.

This is okay for seldom-used, complimentary features, but this spells total disaster when it comes to core features in your app. There’s a lot at stake here: fail to get the user engaged with must-have features and the user is certain to drop off eventually and become inactive. But get the core feature back in front of the user, and you’ll be able to incorporate it back into the user’s usage pattern.

What’s most important is to look for the intersection between must-have features that you already have, and forgotten features that users have tried but are now blind to. It’s the hot zone for feature reactivation.

To land in the hot zone of feature reactivation, do the following:

  1. Use an event tracking platform like Amplitude to dig into the “must-have” features that users used a couple of times, and then forgot about. By conducting behavioral cohort analysis, you can identify the features that correlate with long-term retention. Those are the ones that you want to make sure to bring back to your user’s attention.
  2. Run user tests and conduct surveys to reach out to users in-app to discover why people aren’t using these features. If the feature has a setting that you can toggle off, then find out why users toggled off a core feature. Find points of friction, and develop a reactivation strategy.
  3. Segment out users unengaged with the feature, and reactivate it for them.

It’s tricky knowing what specific features to reactivate, and how to do so. That’s why it’s so important that you build a systematic process to increase user engagement, and avoid the blind leading the blind.

Sidekick’s open tracking

At Price Intelligently’s SaaSFest Conference, Wolchonok described his growth strategy to increase long-term retention for Sidekick, HubSpot’s email tracking and scheduling product. For Sidekick, the key to boosting Week 1 retention was getting users to send their first tracked email as quickly as possible during user onboarding, to get to that glorious aha! moment.

Tracked emails showed the user when an email recipient actually received and opened an email—and that gave users the feeling of having x-ray vision as a superpower. A salesperson, for example, could see when prospects opened his emails, and schedule follow-ups accordingly.

Even though this lifted retention across the board, the growth team at HubSpot noticed something strange: over time, users would turn off tracking. Weirdly, users saw the core value, then for some reason, they would disable it, neutering the product of its core value. User engagement would drop-off, and they’d eventually churn out.

After surveying their users and conducting extensive user testing, the HubSpot team learned the surprising reason why this happened. It turns out that users didn’t always want to receive notifications every time an email is opened. They’d uncheck the tracking box after sending a personal email, and completely forget its existence. Over time, they became blind to the little, but hugely important, checkbox—and it would stay unchecked forever.

One solution was to leave open-tracking always on—but this would have forced users to uncheck the box every time they wanted to send an untracked email, leading to even more friction.

Instead, Sidekick implemented an incredibly simple and effective strategy. After long periods of inactivity, they automatically turned tracking back on for users who hadn’t used it in some time, and reintroduced the feature with a little tool-tip. It allowed users to rediscover Sidekick’s core value, and it took the checkbox out of the user’s blind spot.

When it comes to re-engaging users, take a page out of HubSpot’s book. Minimize the cognitive effort it takes for users to get the most out of your app, and you’ll be on your way to inspiring long-term delight.

Push notifications on Peach

For mobile apps, push notifications are often the magic ingredient to user engagement—leading to increases of up to 278%. And yet so many apps only ask you once, during onboarding, before you know whether you like the app, whether you want to enable push. Say no, and the app won’t ask again, making long-term engagement with the app far far less likely.

Peach, the hot new social network and messaging app, takes the opposite approach. The app doesn’t immediately ask users to allow push notifications during onboarding—users create a login, pick a profile picture, and connect with friends. It’s only after they’re greeted by an empty activity feed for the first time that users are asked to turn them on.

Because we’re already collectively swamped by notifications, we’re always reluctant to add more, especially early in the app experience. Instead of immediately emphasizing push notifications, Peach bides its time and it presents you with the request on the page for which it’s relevant.

But even if you say no to push notifications at that point, the app will present you a persistent banner in your notifications feed inviting you to turn on push. This banner only appears in your notifications feed, and not on any other screen, so you don’t grow blind to it.

The purple call-to-action at the top of the feed gently reminds users to enable notifications, and allows them to do so at any time. What’s brilliant is that as a user’s feed fills with activity with friends, they’re increasingly motivated to re-enable push, because they can clearly see its benefits. Turn push notifications on, and whenever Eli “boops” you, you’ll know instantaneously—and then you’ll really get addicted.

2. Dust Off Never-Used Features

Before developing a new version of Office, Microsoft surveyed users and asked what new features they’d like to see—over 90% asked for features that were already available.

When you announce features, don’t just get them launched, get them used. Most of your users will never use certain features, and miss out on the full value they could be receiving from your product. We often think that once a feature goes live, our work is done. Weknow that it’s there, so we assume that our customers do too. The simple truth is that your users don’t care nearly as much about your features as you do. They’re focused on other things, like getting their own work done.

Even if a feature has been sitting around for a while, you can re-launch it as a new feature for users who never touched it.

However, you don’t want to indiscriminately push all of your existing features upon all of your customers. You’ll lose credibility and customers will stop listening. Remember, you’re trying to alleviate feature blindness, not increase it.

This is absolutely critical because different user personas will use your app differently. While your product will have an overlap of core feature usage—hopefully greater than Evernote’s 5%—complimentary features will only make sense for certain personas and use cases.

The best way to go about this is to start by segmenting your users by persona, and measure their success metrics against each other—that way, you can highly target the group of users most likely to benefit.

For maximum exposure, relaunch features across various touchpoints:

  • In-app messaging: try Appcues for in-app alerts, tooltips, and hotspots depending on how obtrusive you want the notification to be. This will depend on the significance of the feature to the user persona, but also on the urgency of breaking a user out of feature blindness with respect to a certain feature.
  • Email announcements: use Customer.io, using segmentation to break up your list and send tailored emails based on recency of activity or user persona. Emails are powerful ways to reactivate users who haven’t logged in to view your in-app new feature announcements.

It links back to the cocktail party effect—relaunch features as if you’re calling out your users by name. Instead of pushing users toward what matters to you—your shiny features—eliminate noise so they can see what matters to them.

The Non-Intrusive Feature Relaunch

Let’s say that your product is a team communication platform, similar to Slack. A couple months ago, you launched calling capabilities for the app, and broadcast it in an email message and on a short blog post. You segment out the main user groups of your app that you want to target into engineers and customer success reps.

By analyzing usage data, you discover that some of your customer success reps have been making calls in your app—but the majority of engineers haven’t given it a second glance, or even a first. The moment they login to your app, they hop into the chat room, and never leave.

Don’t bother the engineers—they’re busy. Instead, focus on getting the rest of your customer success reps making calls, as they’re the ones who can best appreciate the feature.

Use hotspots and tooltips to reintroduce the feature to them, as if for their first time. That way, the next time they make their way to their eyes will get lit up by a bright red dot, triggering a small rush of dopamine to the brain. The hotspot breaks up feature blindness, preventing the eyes from just glossing over the call button in the action panel and compelling users to see and explore items they’ve previously overlooked. It directs users to take a specific action—configure calling integration, and get Tyrion on the phone!

3. Re-Engage Users with New Feature Launches

The introduction of a new feature is one of the most powerful ways to break existing usage-patterns within your app and helps create new habits and behaviors.

Getting users to build habits around your app is super important, but if they get stuck in the same behavior patterns, your product actually loses value in their minds. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Without change, users will begin to approach your app mechanically, as if on auto-pilot, and it fades into the background.

That’s why you need to use new feature launches to actually break the user’s conception of your product. Do that, and the user will look at your product again with blindness stripped away and fresh eyes.

When you launch a new feature, don’t just launch the small feature itself—launch it within a broader use-case, and the larger context of your app.

When launching a new feature:

  • Storyboard your onboarding flow before the feature launch. Map out how they’ll see and interact with it in a variety of scenarios, from giving a quick once-over, to a deep dive.
  • Clearly demonstrate to users how they can benefit from the new feature. Don’t just show off new features—use them to demonstrate larger use-cases of your product.
  • Launch the feature within context, instead of just tacking it on haphazardly. Not only will you boost adoption of the new feature, but increase user engagement across the board.

We often think it’s all about the next massive feature that will overhaul your app, and fix retention for good. What’s more important, however, are the small, marginal changes you make. Over time, they add up to seismic changes in user behavior. Constantly get users to look at your product in new ways, and they’ll continually rediscover, and engage with your app.

What’s New with Slack

Every time Slack introduces a new feature, a little red dot lights up in the top right corner of its app, triggering a dopamine rush. Once clicked, a sidebar opens that Slack users can then scroll down for an overview of new features.

The most recent feature gives users the ability to allow team members to edit their posts, and directs them how to do so in plain, simple english. What’s great about this specific announcement is that it builds on existing capabilities of Slack that users don’t necessarily know about.

Browsing through the “What’s New” sidebar, users learn about all the new ways they can interact with Slack—as they actually go and see for themselves.

Allowing others to edit your posts, for example, isn’t a particularly game-changing addition to Slack’s arsenal, but the update also subtly reminds Slack users that they have the ability to edit their own posts. By driving users toward a specific action—clicking on the ellipsis menu—the update gets users to see a whole range of features and options they can take, from marking posts as unread, to adding a reaction.

What’s effective about this feature announcement is that it’s situated contextually within a larger use-case for Slack. It opens up a whole new range of actions and ways that users can engage with Slack—that they might previously have been blind to.

Your Regularly Scheduled Help Scout Update

A good habit to get into is to make a new feature announcement every two weeks or month, no matter what. Don’t get caught in the trap of waiting until something is big enough or perfect enough to announce, so that you end up never announcing any new features.

Review what your product team accomplished over the period and turn it into a new feature announcement, even if it was just a simple bug fix. An app developer’s inability to recognize when an improvement is worthy of announcement is its own kind of feature blindness. Forcing yourself to do it will help you break the bad habit of procrastinating new feature announcements and it will motivate you to regularly produce customer-facing improvements.

Help Scout, a help desk for small businesses, consistently announces over 2 new features per month. But look closely, and notice how some of the “Latest Updates” aren’t what you’d conventionally think of new features at all.

They’ve announced as a new feature that “Mailboxes are 40% Faster”—more an enhancement than a feature—and a majority of the updates are actually tips on how to use existing features better.

Rather than strictly define what’s worthy of announcement and miss out on communicating the product’s value, Help Scout’s consistent cadence conveys an exciting feeling of non-stop product progress and evolution. The user gets the message: the app is constantly changing and improving, and therefore, worthy of perpetual exploration and experimentation.

Move Beyond WOW

We love to talk about the WOW moment—the first time a user recognizes the core value of your app. It’s what gets users to actually use your product, and justify paying for it. But in order to truly unlock longterm growth, you have to constantly WOW your customers all the time, and continually enhance the user experience.

The human brain is alive, and constantly adapts to sensory information. As we think, learn and experience new things, connections between our brain cells rapidly shift and readjust. By paying close attention to user psychology and how your app is implemented, you can get users to experience your app in a completely new way—and get them to really engage with what’s hidden in plain sight.

Building @appcues, startup that will improve your user #onboarding | Learned @BucknellU & @HarvardHBS | Proud St. Louis native | Explorer | Made in the 80s

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