No matter where we live, we all switch apps in similar ways

We unknowingly stick to a universal pattern when we flick between apps on their smartphones, scientists have discovered.
Written by Eileen Brown, Contributor

Although we spend a varying amount of time glued to our screens, the way in which we specifically switch between our different apps is remarkably similar.   

Research has uncovered a universal pattern in the way we surf on our smartphones. 

Experts from Cardiff University in the UK, scientists from Maastricht University Holland, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have published their study in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

To arrive at their findings, the team monitored the app switches of 53 volunteers over a six-week period through a bespoke app called Tymer.

Across the entire period, the volunteers made a total of 192,000 app switches on their smartphones.

On average, each of the participants had around 60 individual apps on their smartphones and made an average of 87 app switches a day.

The research has shown that our smartphone usage is governed by a 'power law,' in which our second-most popular smartphone app is around 73 percent as popular as the first.

Our third-most popular app is around 73 percent as popular as the second, and so on. As the apps become less popular, the percentage similarity between their popularity gradually increases.

The research shows that as soon as we unlock our phones, we are likely to enter into a unique pattern of events in which we access a 'hub' of our most popular apps and occasionally switch back and forth between a much larger group of similarly unpopular apps.

The team of scientists, and experts in psychology, believe that this pattern is governed by the cognitive limitations of the human brain and the inability to remember all the apps on our phones.

Wherever we live around the world, we all switch apps in similar ways zdnet
Cardiff University

WhatsApp was shown to be a user's most popular app, with 34 per cent of users having this as their top app, followed by Facebook with 21 per cent of users having this as their second-most popular app.

The team are now looking to do a follow up study, researching how app-switching can be related to addiction and mood.

Americans only tend to use five apps per day, yet their smartphone app switching behaviour shows similar characteristics, despite differences in the specific apps that individuals engage with.

Co-author of the study Professor Roger Whitaker, from Cardiff University's School of Computer Science and Informatics, said: 

"We believe that the pressures of time and memory influence the results that we are seeing – we may remember and use a few popular apps, such as those that get embedded in habits, and then there is a long tail of less popular apps that we dip in and out of.

Even within the most popular few apps, it seems we still gravitate to having a clear favourite, with popularity of apps dropping off quickly."

I know I certainly fall into this pattern -- but what about you? do you break the mould and use your phone in a unique way? Let me know in the comments below if you feel your pattern is totally unique.

Top apps for iPhone users

Previous and related coverage:
Delete those useless apps! Americans use only five apps per day

As more apps flood the market, it becomes increasingly difficult to cut through the noise in order to appeal to users. But what triggers mobile users to engage and stay active on their apps?

Mobile consumers make twice as many purchases by app than on mobile web

Gaining insight into mobile consumer shopping behavior and activity in apps compared to the mobile web can give you a strategic advantage throughout 2019.

Workers use unapproved messaging apps to get their work done

Although workers use messaging apps up to six times daily to get their job done -- HR is often unaware of its use.

Over half of Americans would stop using an app if their messages could be read by others

Social media platforms must evolve to higher privacy standards -- to stop their users leaving for more secure channels.

Editorial standards