I’m not so thin-skinned that I can’t handle the occasional criticism. But there’s something about App Store reviews that really bugs me.
Like most indie developers, I put blood, sweat and tears into my app, Reps & Sets, which I develop with my partner. It’s our baby, and we love and cherish it. So when some random dude posts an inaccurate one-star review, I’ll be honest: It hurts. That’s why I’m so excited that Apple will be giving developers the chance to reply to reviews in iOS 10.3.
Nobody loves a critic
This week, Hollywood director and producer Brett Ratner took issue with movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, arguing that its aggregated scores effectively killed serious film criticism and are harmful to movie production.
I may not be a hot-shot movie director, but in my humble way as an app developer, I kinda know how he feels. It’s painful to see your app distilled down to an aggregated star rating on the App Store.
A Rotten Tomatoes rating can make or break a movie, and the same is true of App Store ratings for apps. They matter. Big time. After all, who’s going to use a one-star app?
App users are a necessary evil
Every app developer needs users. Without them, your app is pointless: It becomes one of those zombie apps that lurks deep within the gloomy, cobweb-ridden recesses of the App Store, waiting for its inevitable cull next time Phil Schiller decides to zap some cruft.
The whole point of being a developer is to delight users, so they’ll pony up some hard-earned cash for more of your sweet app goodness. And yet it can be hard to feel the love.
Users sometimes seem like a necessary evil. They grumble about the frequency of updates; they threaten to stop using your app altogether unless you add that one special feature they crave; and they post mean reviews on the App Store to punish you, even though they continue to use your app every day.
The irony of punishing the developers of your favorite apps with a negative review is that it is likely to have the opposite effect from what you intended. Bad reviews are bad for business. With less money coming in, it is less likely a developer can afford to fix bugs, or add support for iOS updates — let alone add new features.
Negative reviews are a real buzzkill. Users may think they are delivering a feisty pep talk, but in reality, one-star reviews are more likely to sap the motivation of indie developers. Many indie devs work on their apps in their spare time as a hobby, and only earn peanuts from the App Store.
Developers no longer must bite their tongues
Up until iOS 10.3, which is currently in beta, Apple expected app developers to act like saints — stoically enduring the slings and arrows of disgruntled users without any chance to answer back. That can be more than a little infuriating.
If a reviewer just doesn’t like the basic premise of our weightlifting app, or the way we designed it, that’s fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and there’s not much to say in terms of a reply.
But if a negative review is based upon “alternative facts” like our app doesn’t support HealthKit (it does), or it only works with kilograms (it doesn’t), that proves really frustrating. These reviews sit on your app page for all to see, with no opportunity to set the record straight.
Fortunately, with the imminent release of iOS 10.3, Apple is giving developers a chance to respond to their critics. I won’t be staying up all night to correct everyone who is wrong on the Internet. But at least I’ll be able to highlight features that a reviewer may have overlooked, or even promise a fix now and then.
No good deed goes unpunished
Recently, we switched our app to a freemium model. Previously we’d charged a one-off up-front payment of $1.99. By switching to free with an optional in-app subscription for premium features, we hoped to reach a wider audience and establish an ongoing revenue source to help pay for new features.
Things did not quite work out that way. Instead, we got lots of negative reviews. Previously our app enjoyed a healthy four-star rating, but the free version got only two stars. It’s exactly the same app — the only difference is that we made it free. (Plus we added new features for premium users).
Why would an app that enjoyed good reviews get punished for becoming free? Probably because, when the app cost $1.99, you had to buy it before you could post a review. Now anyone can review the app without paying a cent.
When you pay for an app, you tend to read the description on the App Store carefully, and consider whether the app is likely to meet your needs. But when it’s free, you can just download it and find out if it’s what you want. That’s all very well and good, but it’s hardly fair to leave a one-star review if the app turns out to not do what you were expecting.
Punishment for making our app free? Just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.
Thumbs down for star ratings
Gaining the ability to reply to reviews sounds promising, but there’s another way Apple could help developers fight back against the tyranny of App Store trolls.
After all, there’s not much you can say to a one-star rating where the user does not explain why they felt your app deserved such harsh punishment. That’s the whole problem with star ratings.
In theory, reviewers should carefully weigh exactly how good an app is, relative to all the others they’ve tried, then place it on a scale of one to five based on its relative merits.
In practice, most users only bother to rate a review if they feel strongly about it — if it sucks or it rocks. So most star ratings tend to be one star or five star. As John Gruber pointed out this week, that’s why YouTube scrapped star ratings in favor of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and why Netflix is planning to follow suit.
Apple should do something similar.
I’m happy to admit that my app is not perfect. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve a five-star rating. But I know for sure that it doesn’t deserve a one-star rating, either. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But since the two-, three- and four-star buttons seem to almost never get used by reviewers, I think it’s about time Cupertino came up with something better.
Maybe a metric based upon app usage patterns would be more appropriate and truthful. If a user launches an app every day and uses it for several minutes, or even hours, that surely tells you more than a battle between five-star and one-star reviewers.
Fortunately, some of our users rock
If all this grumbling sounds a bit ungrateful, let me say for the record that we have some awesome users. Especially our beta testers, who put a huge amount of time and effort into helping us make our app better.
Their feedback is not always praise, but it is always constructive and polite. Some of our testers have made great suggestions on how we could market our app more effectively, and even introduced us to potential business partners.
Users like this make it all worthwhile, and give us the encouragement we need to keep investing time in the app.
No failure, only feedback
Ultimately, whether you are a top Hollywood movie director or a humble indie app developer, everyone needs feedback. We can all get too close to our work sometimes, and need some external input to help us raise our game. Behind every great athlete, there’s a great coach. And behind every great app, there are great users providing insightful feedback.
What really counts is how feedback is delivered. The way in which Apple designs the user feedback systems in the App Store has a huge impact on the quality of feedback developers receive. The changes Apple is introducing in iOS 10.3 are an important step in the right direction, and I hope that Apple continues to focus on this area. It will result in better apps, which is a win-win for developers and users alike.