Designing in-app purchases that work

With the rise of mobile, more and more people are looking at in-app purchases to monetize their products and services. But, as usual, there are design aspects to think about. I this article I intend to explain two of the most important things to think about when designing for in-app purchases: Relevance, and Access.

In-app purchases are really nothing new. It's just the name for how to buy extras in apps. We've been buying extras for decades already: "cheaper rims with the car", "buy two jumbo sized bags of spam for the price of one!" and the list goes on.

What is different this time around is that these extras are virtual. You're more or less buying the use of a few more lines of code. This makes the value proposition for the customer very different from the real world extras we're used to. Which makes relevance and access more important than they would be for fuzzy dice.


Relevance is the most important aspect for an in-app purchase. If the extra on sale isn't relevant, why would you care? But if the fuzzy dice at the car dealership are exactly what your wardrobe needs, perfect!

Take Punch Quest for example. Punch quest is one of the most popular games to hit the AppStore in late 2012. But despite having millions of downloads and tons of active players, Punch Quest didn't make much money. It's was a free app, and great game, but the in-app purchases lacked relevance.

The extras you could buy for Punch Quest were... Odd. They either didn't have impact on gameplay, being visual gimmicks, or they did but had strange, nondescript, names. I even bought some to support the developer, and I still have no idea how what I bought impacts the game. Without relevance, your in-app purchase is doomed to fail.

Compare that to Analytiks, my favorite iOS web statistics app. While popular, it's nowhere near as popular as Punch Quest. Yet it's much more successful. The in-app purchases in Analytiks are very relevant. Analytiks shows you a screen for every site in your google analytics account. Just swipe for the next site. But it's limited to 8 sites. After 8 sites instead you find a screen offering another access to neither 8 sites for a small sum. Brilliant. Instant purchase when needed. If you don't want to pay extra, you still have full control of which 8 sites are shown.


The other important aspect for in-app purchases is access, which loosely translates to "ease of use". Ever found a business that seemed to not want to take your money? They had poor access.

Punch Quest has in-app purchases, but they are not a part of the actual game. You can play for hours without having any idea there is anything to buy in the app. Worse, when you navigate through the menu structure it's still hard to find.

The customer first needs to want upgrades for the game, most of which are quite hard to understand if you haven't played extensively. Then the customer has to run out of coins collected in the game with which to buy upgrades. Then, finally, they need to find a small call to action hidden in the navigation bar. Not very accessible even for advanced users. Terrible for casual players looking for an advantage in the game.

Analytiks does it right. In the main app, after your sites, you are presented with the upgrade where the content ends. The screen is uncluttered and has only one message and call to action, the cta is clearly labeled with the price. Making it a simple few clicks to make the purchase, there is no lack of information, not ambiguity, about the product that makes the customer want to think it over.



If people are already using your product or service. Chances are they might be open to extras or upgrades.But by making them relevant to the use case, and making them accessible for the user, they become useful extensions to the app. Which are much more likely to sell.

  • Relevant:
  • expands the product
  • solves specific problems
  • not removing artificial limitations in the product
  • Access:
  • clear and understandable purchase information
  • presented well for the use case
  • not a "bolted on" design or user flow

Why great customer service is the best marketing

Customer service is often a necessary evil. Something companies must do to wheel out stats from when there's a PR crisis. But usually it's costly and no one really wants to do it. Bad Customer Service

Ye Old Way

I'm starting to think all PR education begins with the creed "keep the customer as far away from the company as possible" since most companies I contact have elaborate systems in place to "streamline" the communication out of existence.

Enter a new marketplace: The social web. Suddenly recommendations are worth double their weight in gold, but companies are still struggling keeping up. They start Facebook pages with no idea of what to do there. They start Twitter accounts that only tells tweeps to call customer service.

The new way

But then there are the other companies. Companies that have embraced the tribal culture online and depend upon customer interaction for their business. They are no less motivated by profit than the other sort of company, but their strategy makes them a very different sort of animal.

Yesterday I downloaded an app to my iPhone. The app was supposed to show me my Google Analytics numbers quickly and beautifully. I was thrilled I finally found an app that looked like I might use it. But it didn't work. I couldn't log in.

I immediately browsed over to the company's site and looked for any information of the problem. When I couldn't find any I emailed them a question, expecting to never hear from them again.

Within ten minutes I had a response.

Someone from the company read my message and sent me a quick response. Short, to the point. Solving my problem. Apparently the guys and gals at Google had changed the API and while the app had been updated the new version wasn't in the AppStore just yet.

They even offered to buy me coffee while I waited:

Sorry about that. It sucks. We can buy you a coffee while waiting for the new version ( we'll PayPal you the money for Starbucks if you want).

Since it was late at night in Sweden I declined. But I was also a surprised and happy customer, not only had they solved my problem (or at least, explained what the problem was and had fixed it), but they had given me relevant information, a schedule, and a coffee!

When was the last time a bank or a telephone company did that?

The result

Because of this short communication, not only am I inclined to tell people about my experience. I'm also more inclined to recommend the product. The cost of this interaction for the company is negligible but the worth of a happy customer advocating the product is huge.

The take away

Invest in communication. Realize that all interactions with the customers are chances to turn them from faceless consumers to happy ambassadors of your company. Keep them close. Keep them communicating with you. The costs might be high, but compared to losing those customers to the competitor this should be a no-brainer. If you're in a huge corporation, try finding customers who became ambassadors and use them as arguments that the model does work.

And also, download Analytiks right now. It's awesome. And Blatt Labs does a great job.