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.