A podcast discussing news of note in iOS Development, Apple and the like.


#180: Enduring Features.


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I hope you fared better in the WWDC lottery than I did, though I’m hopeful for a possibility of a second round on Monday (maybe?). The system and process generally went really well and I think this is likely the process we’ll see going forward. It isn’t perfect but is as good as I could imagine.

Improving the App Store: Part 5

Ratings

The star rating of an application is the most important aspects of the sale experience that is outside of the developer’s direct control. It is displayed on every page and instance where your app is shown and gives the customer a general cue about the quality of your app. As such developers tend to take whatever actions they can to increase it. If this were just a question of improving the quality of their apps that would be fine but that isn’t where most developers stop off. Not to reopen the tempest about prompt dialogs, but there are a lot of potentially dubious and tricky things developers can do to try and ‘artificially’ boost their ratings. There are also some really solid, thoughtful ways to accomplish the same goal.

My general recommendations about ways this could be improved.

  • Define a clear policy about where, how, and when applications may prompt for reviews.

Much of the discussion around the dialog prompts stemmed from a feeling that ‘everyone was doing it’ so ‘I need to too’. The best way to reward earnest developers who are trying to optimize for their users’ experience is to level the playing field by establishing exactly what is permitted.

  • Make the rating scale a rolling, weighted average rather than just current, at least soon after updates.

I remember when Apple changed the review score from a global average to only the current version. This was an attempt to make sure that a single buggy version didn’t forever hang around your neck. It also makes the reviews perhaps more reflective of the experience the customer should expect. The challenge though is that immediately after submitting your update your reviews all go to zero which gives the customer a very different perspective about your app. It makes it look unused or low quality. This discourages updates and encourages annoying your users with review prompts immediately after updates. Either show the overall average or a rolling, weighted average, even if only recently after update.

Editorial

While the role and scope of editorial (feature) coverage of the store has been steadily improving over the years I think there is still a massive amount of room to be done here. Apart from the top lists, the featured area is probably the most visible place your app can be found. Building an app with the goal of being featured incentivizes quality, thoughtful and relevant app creation. Which is great but means that the value of being featured should be less abrupt.

  • Expand the scope and frequency of editorial coverage in the Store

It seems very odd that features are only ever updated once a week (typically thursday afternoon). New apps are added to the store constantly, updates are submitted constantly, it seems like features should be updated accordingly. I’d love to see things like ‘daily picks’/promotions or similar. Things that could potentially drive user engagement with the App Store app, checking in on what is new and interesting.

  • Make an app’s featured status visible after their initial feature

If an app is featured I’d love to see some kind of badge or notation on its App Store page promoting its selection. Apple has already taken the time and effort to identify apps that are worth the user’s attention, why not communicate that to user’s on the actual product page for the app. Similarly I’d love to see the curated lists that Apple puts together show up as search results. For example, if you search for ‘accounting’ the featured list for “Managing your Money” would seem like a great place to present the user with some apps that might be worth initially considering. This has the added benefit of improving the quality of search results.

Categories

  • Expand the diversity of categories associated with each app.

Lastly I’d love to see the variety and specificity of categories you could assign to an app be expanded. The current metadata assignment into one of only 24 categories seems paltry when trying to catalog over a million individual apps. I’m sure based on the search data that Apple has at its disposal I’m sure they could subdivide of the existing categories into several useful sub-categories (much like how games are treated). This would also help improve the relevance of the top charts. Being the top app in a more niche sub-category might be genuinely useful for developers and customers alike.

This concludes this series on the App Store.


#178: Customer Escape Hatches


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After taking credit ;) for Apple’s experiments in search improvements I dive into a few changes to the App Store that could improve doing business in the store.

Make the App Store Refund policy more obvious

I really don’t understand why Apple makes the refund process so opaque and awkward. I know from my own experience in physical stores that a clear and easy refund policy helps drive sales. It is far better than a ‘trial-mode’ because it sustains the value of the app (rather than giving it away for free then asking for money later). However, it still maintains that escape hatch for purchases unsure of whether they really want the app.

I’d love two things, neither of which are actually policy changes.

  • Educate App Store customers about what the policy is and ideally phrase it in clear terms.

I’m sure there is an internal policy within Apple customer support, but I haven’t been able to find a clear explanation of it. The legalese Terms and Conditions for the App Store states that “All sales and rentals of products are final” but that is clearly not the actual policy since people get refunds all the time. Whatever the policy is this should be clear the customers.

  • Make the process of applying for a refund clear and straightforward.

Right now you go to reportaproblem.apple.com and then fill in a form. I’d love to see this integrated into the App Store app itself. Perhaps even into the Purchased Apps area.

Make in-app purchases (especially consumable) more honest

Building on a blog post I wrote last year I would love to see the App Store better inform its customers about how in-app purchases will affect their experience of an app.

  • Present a typical overall cost for an app in the App Store description

Make it clear that when you are downloading an app that says ‘free’ next to it that you may not actually be making the less expensive choice. Also, provides a clear expectation about the type of app the user is about to interact with.

  • Show how much you have spent on the app with each new purchase.

Be upfront with the user about how much money they have spent. Allowing them to make a more informed (and less manipulated) decision.

Drop or reframe the Top Grossing Chart

The Top Grossing chart was ostensibly added to help improve the visibility of higher paid apps within the store, at least that is how it appeared to me externally. If that is the goal it entirely fails to do that. Either drop the list or perhaps change it to only include paid apps, or at least exclude consumable in-app purchases from the ‘app revenue’ number.


#177: Something in Mind.


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I will be at NSConference next week, if you are a listener of the show please make sure you find me and say hi.

Continuing my series of Towards a Better App Store, trying to find practical suggestions for how we could improve the App Store. Today I’m going to focus on Search.

  • Physical Design: Make the cards interface for search optional (if not eliminated).
  • Ranking: Rewards or punish applications based on objective measures. For example, recently updated, crash frequency, refund requests, reviews, etc.
  • Curation: While still algorithmically based periodically vet the most popular keywords to ensure good relevance.
  • Power Search: Add the ability to filter and manage search results to more finely tune the results.

#176: Make it up in Volume


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Towards a Better App Store: Part 2

Make it up in Volume

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series trying to explore practical ways that the App Store could be better for customers. Today I’m going to talk about the Store’s size.

The size of the App Store’s catalog is often thrown around as a valuable, useful metric for judging the heath and vitality of the ecosystem. That may have been true before a certain scale. There is value in having a diverse and deep inventory that mets every need but beyond a certain point it completely looses relevance. Duplication, ‘spamming’ and decay of older apps hurts the store more than helps it. In many ways the incredible volume of the Store is at the core of many of the other challenges it faces. App Review takes longer than developers would like. Search becomes tricky. Editorially curating new arrivals becomes daunting.

It isn’t an easy problem to solve. How do you determine which apps should be allowed in which should not. Just how many Flappy clones should be allowed to exist in the Store? 5, 10, 1000? It isn’t just the overall size that is a problem though, the rate of increase is also increasing.

This is only new apps approved on the store (taken from 148Apps), add to this updates and it is an incredible volume.

Also, how many of the apps on the App Store are being actively maintained. I’d guess the number is pretty low but the old apps still stay there. Buoying the numbers but not actually providing good value to

Aside on Apple

For this whole series I’m going to assume that tackling the questions of making the App Store better aren’t constrained by budget nor desire. I’m going to assume that somewhere in Apple’s Profit & Loss they can find whatever resources they need to attack these challenges. Furthermore, I’m going to assume that they have a desire to make the App Store as customer friendly a place as possible. Both of these seem like reasonable things to assume but I feel I should put that out there before I begin.

Recommendations

I had initially gone down the road of trying to work out ways to make judgments about which apps are the ‘good’ ones and which ‘deserved’ to be in the Store. It very quickly became clear that this was nearly impossible to do. While I (personally) can look at apps on the store and say they don’t belong, based on my own tastes. This never generalized. The App Store would be worse off if it were filtered with too harsh an opinion. I had also thought of applying other external limits on the number of apps. Things like raising the cost per submission or number of new apps per developer per year. These would only really affect the current trend of re-skinned apps (which can be better addressed directly), I’d rather have things simple for the majority than punish everyone for a few bad apples.

I’m reminded of a parenting adage. Have few rules but strictly enforce them. I think this would do much to improve the situation on the Store. The App Review Guidelines are a pretty solid set of rules. They have evolved and adapted to the times but overall they do a pretty good job of keeping out the stuff that is objectively ‘junk’. There are of course grey areas, as there should be, but I don’t have too many complaints with the guidelines we have today. The area that I think we could do much better on is the way in which they are enforced. Specifically, when they are enforced. As best I can tell, other than in exceptional cases once an app is approved it is always approved.

#1: Apps should be required to pass approval on an ongoing basis.

The purpose of the having app review and rules about what constitutes an acceptable app is to form and direct the content of the store in the customer’s favor. This applies to things like avoiding crashing, malware ridden software. It equally applies to establishing a baseline of design and development standards that everyone must meet. Having things like the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) as a requirement for submissions establishes a bare minimum for quality for all apps. However, the App Store is a vibrant, ever moving ecosystem. What was acceptable a few years ago is likely not today, at least not without any adaptations. This applies most concretely to supporting new versions of iOS. Since February 1st all new submissions just be built against the latest SDK and be “optimized for iOS 7”. If that applies on the front end, it should be reapplied to the back-catalog as well.

Exactly how this would be applied doesn’t really matter. It could be applied on a monthly, quarterly or (honestly) even annual basis. The important thing is that it would create a Store where any app a customer purchases would be assured of meeting and complying with the current set of guidelines. The stated goal of the Guidelines is to “ensure they are reliable, perform as expected, and are free of offensive material.” I believe every app on the store should meet those criteria.

If older apps no longer meet the stated guidelines for what an app should be they should be de-listed (still available to re-download if already purchased). Leaving space on the virtual shelves for apps that provide the best possible experience for customers. This would constitute a lot of work for the App Review team, but I think it is hard to argue that the result wouldn’t be worth it for customers.