App Store reviews: Of one-way streets and sidewalks

Yesterday, I had an interesting (to me, that is) discussion about App Store reviews with Smile Software‘s Jean MacDonald (@macgenie) and Unmarked Software‘s Mark Munz (@mmunz) on Twitter (I’m @petermaurer, of course). It started with me trying to reach a user who had left an App Store review, including a suggestion that prompted me to believe he’d be interested in testing a beta build I had just completed.

So I took to Twitter, mentioned the name he had given in the review, and asked him to contact us. No result, as usual. From there, the following conversation unfolded…

petermaurer I really don’t like the App Store’s review system, because its one-way-ness keeps us from supporting users as thoroughly as we’d like to.
macgenie It’s a system in dire need of a makeover, for sure. It makes me crazy to read the reviews and not be able to do anything.
petermaurer And the occasional unjustified rating isn’t even the problem—seeing users seek support and not being able to contact them is. In other words, Apple doesn’t want us to reply in public—fine. I’d gladly settle for forwarding private messages to customers.
mmunz Although to be fair, there is a big link on the upper right of MAS page that says “Product Name” Support.
petermaurer Hehe, it’s a meta support problem that mirrors a typical non-meta problem: users don’t always do things the way they’re supposed to.
mmunz True – Seems like a discovery issue. Perhaps providing a second link at the top of the reviews section might help discovery.
macgenie I think the general low level of discourse in the comments discourages people who would otherwise write thoughtful reviews.
petermaurer OTOH, as a customer, I like the “reviews only, no drama” simplictiy of the current system. (Expansion arrows for replies, maybe?)
mmunz I think providing a way to send a private message to the reviewer or providing developer comments would really help.
macgenie With an opt-in checkbox. “Would you like a response from the developer whose life work you’re trashing?”
mmunz I think I need to put that checkbox on my support request forms. :)
petermaurer Hehe. The trashing doesn’t really bother me. We often get over-the-top praise, so unreasonable critique seems fair… I mean, for every user who alleges you’re the best developer EVER, there should be one who swears you’re the devil.
macgenie No, I think it’s not 1:1. If it is, then I’m very depressed. I think it’s more like 20:1.
mmunz Agreed, it would be very depressing if it were 1:1.

I’ve edited this ever so slightly for brevity and clarity, and to get rid of @mention prefixes that aren’t really necessary in this synopsis. If you’d rather read the original conversation, start with this tweet.

Now, everyone’s expectations for the best ever to devil ratio, which is obviously different from the 5 stars to 1 star ratio, will differ. But the gripe a lot of App Store publishers share is that there’s no way to contact people who offered their opinion via a review — not even the well-meaning ones.

The Problem

Here’s a typical example: You get a review stating that your app is nice and useful, but that it has one or two issues the user would really like addressed. Such a review is typically accompanied by a rating somewhere between 3 and 5 stars, but that’s not important for the topic at hand — we’ve even received 1-star reviews in the past, which were still sensible, and which were sometimes updated with a more favorable rating later.

But there’s that issue the user mentions, be it a suggestion or a question, and you’d like to respond to that. You’d like to excel at what you consider one of your strengths as a small indie developer: building a relationship with your customers. You’d like to say “We can’t do that, because…” or “That’s a great idea! Please try the beta build you can download at…” or even “You can already do that, and here’s how…”, but there’s no reliable way to get in touch as of now. Sure, there are workarounds of sorts — some developers have tried replying to those questions within the app description, and we’ve actually created “Conversations” pages for our App Store products, as described in an earlier blog post. (These conversations have since moved to separate pages that are accessible from the respective App Store product pages via the standard “[Product] support” links, right above the “Information” box.)

Trouble is: I’d be surprised if as many as 10% of the users who wrote a review for one of our apps ever clicked that link. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever received follow-up feedback for these pages. So we feel like being in a phone conversation where only one person can hear what the other is saying.

A Solution?

The ideal review system, speaking as a publisher, would be more like a discussion board. Each review would be a thread, where the developer, the original reviewer, and maybe even other users could chime in.

Speaking as an App Store customer, however, I’m not sure whether I’d find that useful. The best thing about user reviews is that they’re spontaneous — they often are a vivid representation of what users thought (and sometimes even felt) when they first started using the app in question. And if I’m in the middle of considering an app purchase, that’s what I’m most interested in. I know pretty much every issue can be explained away somehow, and I know there sometimes are misunderstandings that turn out to be resolved easily. Nevertheless, the first impression is what makes or breaks an app, and that’s what those undiluted reviews are good at conveying.

So I can see why Apple made this a one-way street, and I’m humble enough to recognize that the people who work at Apple usually think long and hard about what they do. I bet they had additional reasons I haven’t even thought of yet. But this is one of those rare occasions where I do think Apple could improve communication between users and developers/publishers without diluting the abovementioned undiluted reviews too much. There are a couple of ways to do that, and we’ve already touched upon some of them in the Twitter conversation summarized above — pick one:

  • Turn reviews into threads, but make iTunes and the Mac App Store only display the original review initially, along with a button or expansion arrow. Users who are interested in all the details and drama can click that to make the entire thread display. (This would also be nice for tracking updated reviews.)
  • Let us contact our customers in private. Some people, including certain high-profile bloggers and/or journalists, will make the point that we shouldn’t have the customer’s e-mail address, lest we sell those addresses or do other evil things with them, because we’re the devil, remember? But that’s not even necessary: Apple does have the customer’s address, so they could forward messages we enter in a form, for instance.
  • For all I care, Apple could even try and turn Ping into something useful by using it for customer-developer communications. Let us “ping” our customers. From there, the customers can ignore or block us if they want, just like the other two methods should have opt-out or even be opt-in in the first place.

Please note that I’m not asking for an additional way to contest ratings or make unfavorable reviews go away — every customer’s voice should be heard, even if a given customer does believe Many Tricks is run by the devil or simply enjoys being a jerk. Ratings might not be as important with regard to sales as some developers think anyway — after all, there are lots of apps with abysmal ratings that still manage to be top sellers in their respective categories.

And again, I understand that one-way streets have a purpose, namely preventing the head-on crashes that are endless customer vs. developer feuds, as well as minimizing the number of rubbernecks chiming in and thus clogging the system.

But please, Apple, consider giving us a nice and quiet sidewalk where we can step up to those customers who seem willing to talk to us, without affecting the bulk of the review traffic too much. I do believe that would be a win/win/win scenario.

3 Responses to “App Store reviews: Of one-way streets and sidewalks”

  1. Once again I find myself subscribing wholeheartedly to Peter’s views, so I wanted to add my support FWIW.

  2. Tony says:

    Interesting discussion, but I’d like to point out a thing you’re missing; international stores.

    What happens if developers are allowed to offer support in the comments? Customers will start expecting every single developer to do just that. So being able to offer support there would turn from a possibility into an obligation.
    Only large companies can do that around the world in all the different languages. And in my opinion, the App Store is about indy developers! And they will loose out.
    There is a whole world outside of the USA, sometimes you guys forget that. ;-)

    The best solution here, considering the above, would be to largely keep it the way it is. The Store is still pretty new, and customers will have to adapt. If they want support, they should seek it. And since every developer has the same issues, those dumb reviews will simply become background noise. Customers will learn to read over it and pick out the useful parts. Just as we do when reading news comments or forums.

    Small suggestion for changes:

    – make the support button more visible, the support process more unified/streamlined. Apple should work on this. It is now easier to just write a review than it is to get support.
    – perhaps have customers rate other users’ reviews, or have some sort of reputation system for reviewers.

    And Moom is very nice BTW, thanks!! :-D

  3. Peter Maurer says:

    That’s a good point, Tony. I still think some communication in some markets would be better than none, but I bet there are a lot of developers who would subscribe to your point of view.

    By the way, regarding that world outside of the USA you speak of — me, I’m German, so I’m actually somewhat aware of that. :)