Rather than just letting developers respond, Apple should fix App Store reviews for everyone

Rather than just letting developers respond, Apple should fix App Store reviews for everyone

Getting what you want and getting what you need are two very different things. Time and time again Apple has shown that rather than providing faster horses they'd rather create cars. Instead of opening up multitasking in iOS, they'd rather provide APIs so people can listen to Pandora, use TomTom, and make Skype calls. Apple isn't always right, but for anyone whose ever had to problem-solve user-facing issues knows, Apple typically takes the right approach.

That's why I don't think we'll see App Store developers gain the ability to respond to App Store reviews.

Google Play (the artist formerly known as Android Market) recently gave "top developers" just exactly that ability. Here are the highlights, courtesy of Phil Nickinson of Android Central:

This has been a long-requested feature, for the obvious reason. App reviews and star ratings mean life and death for an app. And while many customer reviews are helpful, you'll also see a number of reviews that don't make sense, or ding an app for something the developer has no control over.

Now, the developer can respond.

OK, so flamers and trolls are the negative side of this. On a more positive note, developers will be able to actively address issues and answer questions. (Until now, that's been next to impossible.)

One catch: Google's initially rolling out the feature to developers who have a "Top Developer Badge," but that should cover a good many of the most popular apps out there.

All in all, it's an excellent addition to the selection and purchasing experience on Google Play.

Matthew Panzarino of The Next Web talked to Apple developers and, not surprisingly, the ability to respond to reviews is their most-wanted feature for the App Store as well.

Google has cut the path here and Apple needs to follow. It would go a long way towards making the App Store a place for discussion about apps. Starting out with a subset of developers is an interesting way to ease into it, and allowing those replies to be sent directly to the commenters by Google email creates a conversation chain that didn’t exist before.

All of the above it true. Allowing developers to respond to reviews is certainly a solution. But I'm not sure it addresses the core problems.

Not reviews

I'm not going to opine again about the need for trials on the App Store. I've done that ad nauseum infinitum. Many developers would likely prefer to refund an unsatisfied customer after 15 min. than endure a terrible review in the App Store for months or years.

So, if I constrain the discussion to the App Store reviews, the biggest problem right now is that many of the "reviews" are anything but. That's because, as long as someone has bought an app, they can pretty much fill in the App Store the "review" field with anything they want. And anyone can up or down-vote those reviews. And the calculation (or weighting) of those reviews and votes many times serve no useful customer purpose.

This results in an app's review section that's a quagmire of bug reports, price complaints, competitive astroturfing, feature requests, rants, seemingly random strings of text, and all sorts of other things that are decidedly not reviews.

If developers were allowed to respond, they could assuage complaints, assure users that fixes are on their way, explain pricing, point out astroturfing, address feature requests, counter rants, and otherwise mitigate negative perception.

Or they could fan flames and create even more chaos.

Apple is not Google. Apple is not Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or a forum. Open, unfettered communication isn't something for which has historically shown any interest. It's certainly not something they've historically put in front of tens of millions of customers.

Given the hundreds of thousands of developers on the App Store, any risk analysis on Apple's part would no doubt include what would happen if a developer responded in an inappropriate way. In bold. In neon.

Even with seasoned developers providing excellent customer service, it would only fill what should be "reviews" with even more content that's not reviews.

As much as Henry Ford's customers ultimately preferred cars to faster horses, and iOS users learned to live with Pandora, TomTom, and Skype rather than real multitasking, everyone might just be better served not by making "not reviews" more answerable, but by making the review system itself better.

Ubreaking App Store reviews

Giving developers the ability to respond back to App Store reviews, under the current system, is like giving a group of "not-going-to-take-it-anymore" citizens neighborhood watch shirts, whistles, and baseball bats.

Why not actually clean up the streets first?

Apple hasn't only intermediated the customer relationship for developers, they've actively obscured it. Because of that, whenever a customer has a problem, is feeling frustrated, or simply intends to be a jerk, the path of least resistance is to unload on the App Store.

Yes, Apple does provide support links to developer web sites but -- sorry developers -- many of those go to absolute junk pages that are anything but customer friendly, and often send users right back to the App Store.

Customer relationship management is incredibly important in any business. It's simple (if not easy) to get right, but getting it wrong can be disastrous. Reputations have been built and lost, and fortunes made and ruined, off the quality of a company's customer relationship management.

Given that reality, Apple, developers, and users would all be better served by Apple taking that path of least resistance, splitting it up, and providing some direction.

Instead of a user getting a blank text field to fill in willy-nilly, Apple could stage the review process. They could query the user up front to see if it's actually a review they want to leave, or if there's some other reason they're there. A few pertinent questions and flow options, and Apple could remove a huge amount of "not review" content from the App Store.

Report a bug. Request a feature. Get help. Get a refund. Post review.

Based on the response, users could get properly routed to better tools for handling their specific needs, including actually posting a review.

"Not review" content could ultimately be packaged and sent to developers directly for follow up, or Apple could provide a ticketing system within iTunes or iTunes connect for handling what should be direct customer interactions outside the App Store spotlight.

(I'd also encourage Apple to do a better job of hiding reviews, and especially star rankings, that pertain to older versions of apps. If an app fixed a 1.0 compatibility issue in 1.1, I don't need to see a 1 star review pertaining only to that.)

Conclusion

Right now App Store reviews are horrible for developers, for users, and for Apple. While giving developers the ability to respond to reviews would ease developer frustrations, allowing them to go from ball-gag to bullhorn, it wouldn't fix the core problem.

Letting reviews be reviews and filtering out anything that's not reviews is a better solution. It makes the content more relevant for other users, fairer for developers, and more valuable for Apple.

Then, even if developers are given the ability to respond, what they'll be responding to is more likely to be relevant, reducing the chance for potentially calamitous exchange, and creating better content for everyone.

Win. Win. Win.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Rather than just letting developers respond, Apple should fix App Store reviews for everyone

12 Comments

I agree. I'm sick of seeing the Kindle app reviews of people complaining because they can't purchase a book inside the app. Those are Apples rules. Not Amazons decision.
This kind of stuff happens with a lot of good apps.

I don't really see that as an answer. In fact, based on comments ( rebuttals ) that developers leave on their own forums, I'd say that a developer feedback is the wrong approach. A better approach would be to offer developers a single opportunity to directly respond to specific comments. Since comments are accepted by users that have installed the app & since Apple has the email addy of every customer, they could easily include a reply field for developers to introduce themselves & offer personal assistance to resolve any user dissatisfaction. The reply is sent to the user's email on file, but is not revealed to the developer, ever. The user can reply, the message is sent with the developer's email addy & at that point the 2 parties can conduct their communication personally & privately rather than possibly risk a developers short-sighted comments made public

Apple already holds the Sword of Damocles over each and every developer in the App Store, so I doubt they are concerned in the least about developers engaging in flame wars with users. They are, however, crucially interested in keeping the developer at arms' length from their users, because they want to make sure every such relationship is wholly dependent upon Apple.
In a very real way, Apple has succeeded, so much so that your point is not strong enough. Yes, some developers have crap CRM, but even when developers have quite competent customer relationship facilities, a large number of users are apparently so conditioned to going to the App Store only that they will unload there rather than seek the location where the developers are willing and able to assist them. This is the biggest point of frustration for developers and CRM -- when they can help the user, but users are unwilling or unable to find the help. I am not sure I would like every interaction between me and my customers having to travel through Apple as you propose, but it would probably be better than the current situation, where people unload through Apple, and I have no way to respond at all, and, unless Apple finds some way to better highlight the path/retrain users to find our customer support through the App Store, there might not be a better solution.

@Dev Apple must not be doing a good job of keeping developers at arm's length from their customers because I was able to easily contact the dev of a particular app that was broken AND get a refund from said dev, NOT Apple!

"at arm's length" was probably a bad choice of words. They are not trying to keep developers away from customers, but they are trying to make sure that the main path the path the user sees goes through Apple.
I am surprised that a dev gave you a refund not through Apple -- assuming they gave you a full refund, they essentially lost the 30% cut Apple takes there. Either way, I am glad you resolved your problem, though.

You mean like the Samsunng phones that already use that feature. It seems as if Apple is just catching up to the competition everytime they update our phones. Bought the 4s thinking I had the latest greatest. Boy was I wrong. Competition has always spurred innovation. So come on Apple, make me want to buy the next generation because it is truly ground breaking new tech and not just because I like Apple. Oh, to all the people who say a bigger screen is the wrong direction. If we had the bigger screens first or more choices of screens we'd be the one's saying bigger is better. We have no other choices. I wish Apple made multiple models to choose from. Just my 2 cent rant!

Given that someone wants to leave a review, an important factor is Reviewer Reputation. The overall upvote scores of this reviewer's reviews across many apps. Those who haven't left many reviews and that don't have many upvotes for their reviews should be lesser reviews than others and thus should be sorted to the bottom or subsequent pages. Only Amazon does a reasonable job of this.
Also, right now, the most recent review is the first review that shows up on the iPhone App Store. Literally the worst possible UI choice. You could have 2,000 good reviews and then some crazy guy comes along and puts graffiti on your review page that is posted right at the top on the biggest platform.
Right now, claiming something is "Not a review" as a developer seems to do basically nothing. Maybe if someone threatened criminal acts they would take it down, but almost nothing ever disappears. Standard for that should be raised way up.

It was worse when Apple asked users to review apps when they deleted them. That was a disaster. I (and probably a lot of other devs) wrote up a nice executive summery about why this helped no one. Not the users, not Apple and definitely not the developer. Now users are asked to leave a review after they have used the apps for some time (I suggested this as one way to improve the quality of reviews). Unfortunately I admit that I routinely click through that annoying box because it always seems to pop up when I am least interested in leaving a review. Perhaps they could gameify the review process so that the people leaving the best honest reviews get achievement points or status or something. They could link app purchases through Facebook so that their friends can see which apps they own and use the most. That may reduce the need for reviews to get good apps noticed.

Although I agree that they are not, technically, reviews, I find "[the] quagmire of bug reports, price complaints, competitive astroturfing, feature requests, rants..." both enlightening and useful. I agree with our esteemed author... my biggest complaint about the App Store is the lack of trials. I've used this feature several times on Android; conversely, I have had to delete App Store apps I paid for but found irretrievably flawed. My advice in such a situation: contact the developer and ask for a refund. This worked for me as, indeed, the developer chose to refund (and possibly give me his app for free) rather than risk public, negative feedback. Thanks for a great article!

I like the idea of feedback channels. And as Alan said before, it would be nice to have access to all of those. But perhaps we are biased to the side of more information is better. And Apple seems to be opposed to providing users with too much information up front and distracting them from their current task....the opposite of Microsquish design.
Amazon's approach is not bad. It would be better to see % of total per star rating as I generally look at how many people give 1 and 2 stars, then cull through those for something of relevance. But Amazon also provides a better UI for comparing products to each other in some respects.
Amazon also allows some companies to reply to users' complaints. Perhaps that is not the best forum, but I find it refreshing to see a company address an issue raised by a reviewer. Amazon also acts as a mediator between the buyer and seller if their is an issue requiring email communication. I have have only had to use this once but it worked well and the issue was resolved without the seller actually having my email address.
To the issue of dev rants....well if you are immature or psychotic enough to flame your reviewers then I think that will reflect appropriately on your future product reviews and sales. I assume Apple's concern is some isolated, unmonitored battle between devs and users showing up as a New York Times headline. I guess that explains Apple's Hu Jiintao approach to freedom of information.
I honestly think most of the review / response related issues could be mitigated by a trial system. Let Apple develop the APIs. Allow the devs to determine length of trial. Apple could even have a special section or filter just for trial apps in the app store so the user can monitor when their apps expire, and include "Buy Now" options. They could keep the current review system (or preferably expand it to the channels that Rene suggested) and also include a trial purchase/return ratio. Perhaps split the reviews into those that purchased and those that didn't.

This article spent more time telling me why this was a bad idea than convincing me that this is a bad idea. Honestly I think it's a great way to respond to people who are just straight up incorrect about certain functionality within an app. It prevents FUD and gives a Dev the ability to publicly address an issue or issue thanks for a great review.

I've read a couple of "why responding to reviews is a bad idea" blogs now. But still disagree. As a developer, there are occasionally misinformed 'reviews' or 'bug reports' that I'd like to have a visible response there re-assuring any possible customer that the issue has or is being addressed.

Actually, I'd really like to see the whole review stream replaced or supplemented with something more like a 'youtube' comments stream and so we can promote active 2-way community conversation about an app.