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Monica Guzman

If you were to make a mobile app that serves content to users, you’d probably think a lot about how you can get those users to spend more time using it.

Something else you could be thinking about could make just as big a difference: where your app falls in your users’ mobile lineup.

Here’s what I mean: Unlike desktops or laptops, people tend to use apps on their phones in frequent fits and starts. Content apps are no different. And because they plug into a stream of what you’d expect is relevant stuff, users check them more often than most. Email is probably the most popular of these apps. Facebook and Twitter are up there too. And maybe the Seattle Times app or the Cheezburger app, depending on where you live and what you like.

When you open one of these apps to check out what’s new, it’s like you’re opening a mailbox. But just about everyone who has one content app has several — each its own mailbox. With so many mailboxes, so little time, and so much repetition, you fall into a pattern that eventually becomes a habit: One app you check first, another second, another third and so on, until you get on the bus, sit down at the movies, check out the menu, say hi to a friend you bumped into or otherwise direct your attention to the physical world.

Like a batting lineup, the power players in your mobile life are right up front. Unlike a batting lineup, a new inning won’t pick up where the last one left off. Facebook may have been the last app you checked last time you had a minute, but now time has passed. New content awaits. Even minutes later, after your friend gets back on her way, your power players might already be revved up and ready to swing. So inning after inning, the order might stay largely the same.

At the back of the lineup? Good luck getting an at-bat.

When I flick through my phone screens in a rare wander and my eye lands on a content app I never use, it’s usually because I never put it high in my lineup. It makes me feel a little guilty. I must have downloaded this app for a reason. Maybe I didn’t give it enough of a shot?

From here, one of three things can happen. Either I try out the app, giving it a second or third or fourth chance to deliver; I keep flicking, maybe starting back at the top of my mobile lineup; or I decide the guilt isn’t worth it and delete the unused app from my screen.

Such is the cruel, cruel world of the mobile content space. If it want a good spot in the lineup, a new app has to come out swinging and earn a great batting average — fast.

How can an app get a good spot? Content quantity helps. That’s one huge advantage social sharing apps like Facebook and Twitter have over pure content streams: With not too big a network, you can get more new items in your mailbox more quickly in your social stream than the New York Times staff could ever hope to generate.

But content depth means something, too. Facebook posts are so short, I need a lot of good stuff to hold my interest for even a minute. A good article in the New York Times might keep me there for three. And yet — Facebook is no. 2 in my lineup. The New York Times is right around no. 5.

App notifications are a rocket launcher to the top of the lineup. Again, point to the social sharing apps: As disruptive as they are, notifications stay on users’ good sides when they’re about content the user herself shared. But notifications hack user habits, and there’s a risk. If you rely on app notifications to pull you into an app, you might take the app our of your lineup altogether. At that point, you might get stuck in the role of self-interested sharer, only consuming content on the app when it’s feedback on your own stuff.

Twitter was no. 1 on my lineup until Twitter rolled out mention and direct message notifications via email. Delighted, I pulled Twitter out of my lineup, but didn’t realize it until I started to miss the Twitter list feeds I used to scan when I went in to check for new replies. Now Twitter is back in my lineup, but — my following feed being huge and my Twitter lists a couple app clicks away — at no. 3.

At this point it probably seems impossible for a scrappy young content app to get anywhere near the top of a new user’s lineup. If we’re honest, it nearly is. But the long, perilous climb can go quickly for some users if, for example, the app can strike the right emotional chord.

This spring, Instagram did something nutty. It reached the top of my mobile app lineup and stayed there for months. I checked in first in all my free moments — before Facebook, Twitter, even my current no. 1 — email. When I finally realized what I was doing, I had to wonder — why? I shared way more on Twitter and Facebook. And those apps had much more content and many more connections.

The answer was that while content on Facebook, Twitter and email was for me a mix of work and fun, leisure and burden, Instagram was all leisure. All play. It felt light and easy, and it floated right over the rest.

Got an app that’s broken into the top of your lineup? Share them in the comments.

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