Requesting User Permissions: How and When to Pop the Question

By Paul Francis | May 7th, 2018

Don’t you hate it when you download a new app and the first thing you see is “This app would like to send you push notifications”? Don’t you feel like the app should take the time to get to know you, woo you even, before making such a bold request? Better yet, shouldn’t the app communicate how it will reciprocate this more immediate and intimate connection through added utility and value?

If we, as users, would hate when apps immediately and emotionlessly request such permissions, why do we (as developers and app owners) continue to build apps this way? Somehow even many of the most widely used apps struggle with this simple concept. This article will describe what app owners can do to more elegantly approach how and when such permissions are requested of their users.

What’s in it for Me?

Just for a moment, ignore the fact that you want to send push notifications to and receive location updates from your user for marketing purposes. Instead, focus on the user and try to understand why they might be interested in granting you these permissions. As you go through your app development process, think about what features require or could be enhanced by having these abilities. Perhaps your app needs to alert the user when their order is ready for pickup, or perhaps your app needs to determine how far someone is from a certain location. An app should always provide some utility to reciprocate granted permissions.

After a list of benefits has been created, the next step is to consider how and when these permissions will be requested.

Let Users Make the First Move

Chipotle’s app requests location access only after users navigate to the map. They also get bonus points for their clever placing of text that shows behind the native system prompt.

We have already established that immediately blurting out the question as soon as a user first opens your app is a terrible approach. Instead, designers should try to make these permissions contextually relevant. If someone taps a button labeled “Find my Nearest Location”, that is a great time to request location permissions. The user has made the first move and has shown they are interested in this feature. The user likely understands and even expects that location permissions will be required for the app to fulfill this request.

For push notification permissions, one approach is finding some process in the app which will complete after the user has left the app and will want to be immediately notified of. Maybe this is a chat feature (where the other users might take some time to reply), social features such as liking (where other users might like the image minutes later), order status updates, or new articles have been published. These are all things that users want to know about as soon as possible. The trick is identifying where in an app’s workflow the user first indicates they are interested in this sort of notification and asking at that point.

Be Smooth When Popping the Question

The Domino’s app does a fantastic job timing when they request permissions, provides a clear value for accepting those permissions, and utilizes an in-app preliminary permission screen.

There is no getting around the fact that an app ultimately has to show the system-native permission prompt, but that is no excuse for not properly priming users before displaying the prompt. Immediately sending users to this screen can be jarring and reduce the likelihood of their accepting. Instead, apps should provide a clear and well-designed value proposition to users. This explanation screen should let them know that the app is about to request this permission, explain why the app is requesting this permission, and detail how this will immediately benefit the user. Only once a user has confirmed within this custom dialog that they want to grant this permission, should they be taken to the system-native prompt.

One thing to keep in mind on iOS is that the first time an app requests permissions of a user, it is very easy for that user to accept without leaving the app. However, on subsequent requests, the user must manually go to their settings and change them. This means, that the first time an app makes this request is by far the most important. It is crucial that this opportunity is not wasted on a user who has not yet indicated that they are likely to grant the permission.

Making it Work for the Long Haul

MyFitnessPal is actually proactive about muting notifications to avoid being uninstalled or having push notifications disabled.

Once an app has managed to gracefully request and be granted its desired permissions, the next step is to not mess the whole thing up. Apps can never take for granted that users have granted them these permissions. Doing so can quickly lead to permissions being revoked or even worse the app being uninstalled entirely. App’s must consistently invest in their relationship with users and provide value in order to continue receiving the valuable access.

In practice, this means being highly selective about sending unsolicited push notifications and limiting the amount of data (particularly data that does not benefit a user) that is being collected. Apps that abuse these permissions will quickly lose them.

Final Thoughts

Businesses and marketers love mobile apps because of the more intimate connection that can be established with customers. Apps that can maximize the percentage of users that initially and continually grant these permissions are much more likely to be successful. Hopefully this article has shown that this is not only vital, but also something that doesn’t require too much effort to implement.

Paul Francis
Paul is a Partner & Product Manager at The BHW Group. BHW creates mobile apps and specializes in React Native development. At BHW, Paul works directly with clients throughout the entire app development process. He frequently writes about mobile development, technology, and business-related topics.

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