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29 August 2008 @ 9am

Development, General, Opinion

A Developers Perspective on AppStore Reviews

The last few months have been a blur of activity. New product, actual customers, future releases to plan, bugs to fix, strategy to plot and the world to conquer. Heady days indeed. I owe much gratitude to the AppStore for providing a venue that has allowed me to ramp up quickly. Yes, the AppStore has its warts as well and hopefully many of them will be addressed over time. However, there is one particular aspect of the AppStore that has caused a particularly high level of frustration. Comments or “Reviews” as iTunes calls them.

I have always promoted open communication and discussion and I am no stranger to feedback. Yet, the one-way, anonymous, and often eviscerating nature of AppStore reviews shut down open communication and further degrade any sense of community. Both positive, negative, and often misguided reviews suffer from this affliction. I guess I could chalk it up to human nature in an anonymous environment, competitor “App Rolling”, or even immaturity. But, I think the system itself could be tweaked in order to increase the quality of reviews without compromising users ability to express themselves.

First, identify users in the reviews that have purchased the product from those who have not. I don’t necessarily agree with the often bandied about idea of blocking out anyone who has not purchased a product. Users may see a feature that they need or some interface peculiarity that they would like resolved prior to purchasing. While the best way to communicate this type of information is to contact a products support team directly folks seem reluctant to do so, whether for time and effort of for other reasons. Clearly identifying users who have purchased a product from those who have not would allow review readers to mentally place a weighting on the validity of a review. All of the information is in the system to make something like this work it just needs to be made a priority.

Second, make reviews semi-anonymous. Allow the public facing nickname of a review to stay in place and remain anonymous. However, give access to reviewer email addresses to the owner of a product. In this way, a developer can directly encourage or rebut reviews by directly communicating with the reviewer. Alternatively, in order to address privacy concerns in this area a form could be enabled for developers which would send an email or message to a reviewer by keeping their direct contact info private.

Finally, encourage reviews to be revisited from time-to-time. This could be handled in several ways from deleting old reviews to notifying a reviewer when a new version of an app has been released. In addition, reviews could be removed, hidden, or the user notified when a certain threshold of ‘No’ responses has been obtained to the “Was this review helpful?” question. Currently it seems that a review made in the AppStore is immortal but even bad credit will roll off of a credit report in seven years.

As a developer I like to communicate directly with my users as anyone who has emailed Babelingo’s support well knows. A lot of that communication can and does happen via email and a products blog. However, AppStore reviews are by far the most direct and most read form of product communication. Software is not like most songs or movies. The best stuff comes from community involvement by feeding back constructively into the work itself. The AppStore review system short-circuits the needed feedback loop by being both anonymous and one-way. While the list of improvements that I’ve outlined here is by no means exhaustive I think it would provide a good start at helping us all to both create and purchase quality software on the AppStore.

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9 December 2008 @ 6pm

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