Aleksandar • Vacić

iOS bits and pieces

Few proposals for better App Store

The blog post published by Gedeon Maheux and short discussion with Joe Cieplinski on Twitter got me thinking a lot about the state of the App Store. This happens often and for good reason: Apple infamously stomped out all apps that attempted to create their own storefronts thus we are left with just the official app.

The most important issue is searching as research shows most customers find apps that way. The way search works now, it’s best suited for one-off free apps backed by huge marketing push to drive up the downloads, then switch to paid model and just leave it be, with infrequent compatibility updates. There are quite a few apps that did this in the top free and top paid lists.

But improving search is not and should not be enough. That’s why I first lay down some talking points on improving the browsing experience, customer engagement and thus app discoverability.

I have sent enhancement radars about all this and I encourage all developers to do the same. My radars are all marked as duplicates, some of them even years ago.

Current state

Outside of Games with which I have no experience at all, these are the assumptions I’ve based my observations on:

  • Editorial content is updated every Thursday
  • Once it’s updated, content is frozen for next seven days
  • The only exception is when some really big and well-connected developer publishes an app - those can be featured out of schedule
  • Number of customers actively looking beyond the front page is small
  • No one is looking deeper than one level down, not even into the editorial collections
  • The only exception seem to be heavily promoted sporadic events, like App of the Year

Regarding the search:

  • Results are heavily based on number of downloads, followed by number of ratings and reviews
  • Actual average rating value has no effect at all
  • Number of updates, rhythm of updates, date of last update - none of these matter
  • Editorial features and any possible awards does not matter as well

I can’t wait to get my hands on the promised App Store Analytics and check these assumptions versus the raw data. I’m most interested in the bounce ratio - how much potential customers looked at my app’s page and did not buy. Until then, this is what I’m working with.

The following are a set of proposals I believe will greatly enhance the quality of the App Store, both for customers and for developers and thus I assume for Apple as well.

Encourage discovery

There are hundreds of millions of iOS customers which should translate to millions of visits to the App Store app each day (wouldn’t it be nice to have public analytics for this? Eh…).
All those people get just one content refresh every 7 days and once that happens, it does not change, at all. There is zero incentive for the customer to look around beyond their first visit in those 7 days.
There is one banner carousel and that’s about it. It’s static, more akin to weekly paper magazine than digital storefront.

This leads to very low customer engagement. Throughout the store there’s a lot of hidden content, that 99%+ of customers never see. The most egregious example is the best new apps horizontal scroll on the front page. For any good developer, getting on that list is a badge of honor, a welcome recognition of hard work. It’s one of the best pieces of marketing you can have, with one caveat: did you know that best new apps list can have way over 20 apps but only 16 are shown in the horizontal scroll in the iPhone App Store app?

“Comparison between the full list and what’s shown on the iPhone”

Speaking from first-hand experience, almost no one is tapping the minuscule See All button at the right edge of the iPhone screen, above the icons. Even those that do it are not presented with the 17th app in the list; instead they see the 1st one again. Thus have to scroll down multiple times to see the rest of the apps.

What’s my proof for this claim? My (paid) app Banca was part of this list in one week in October, but below the fold (at 20th position) and it had 36 downloads on its best day while being featured in 53 App Stores around the world. That’s just ridiculous number.

On the other hand, my other app – free Run 5k – was at that precious 16th place for 3 days during which it had 3-4k downloads per day. Than it got bumped over the edge to 17th position and its downloads per day plummeted from 4k to 400 in less than 12h and then to 200 after 24h.

This is just one level down from the most seen place in the entire Store app. Why so low? People see it, recognize it’s the same static list like before. Stays the same, every hour, every day. One easy solution to drive up customer engagement is to simply randomize the apps order in the list. I’m aware that some apps must be given higher places (either because they are truly awesome or due to some higher-force agreement) but still – even with weight factors applied, randomization would do wonders to keep people interested and pick their curiosity.

Randomize all sub-sections

And don’t stop there - randomize content of all the sub-sections on front page and on inner pages, like categories and collections. If you look at the Health & Fitness category, this is how long the horizontal scroll of apps promoted by the little banners is, versus what’s visible on the iPhone screen.

“Have you ever scrolled to the end of this row of banners?”

It’s easy to imagine just how huge an advantage the apps on the left have over the ones at the very end. It’s a similar story with featured collections like Money Management, Get in Shape etc.

The static nature of these pages discourages customers to re-visit them. They might get in few times, quickly learn that everything is the same and don’t bother to come again.

I’ll again use Banca app to illustrate the problem. Banca is promoted and featured for over 3 years now. It was part of Finance Essentials collection for several months. It’s part of Personal Finance inside Money Management collection for years. All that has negligible effect on its download numbers and no effect at all on its search rankings. Having an app in there made me visit and re-visit these sections many times – I was and still am proud to be there – but even I got bored of doing it, because it’s always the same set of apps, every darn time.

Randomize the layout of the sub-sections

While on the topic of randomization, why not write few variants of the collection view layout the store uses and change them from time to time. This would make the Store app more interesting for customers and would lead them to explore what else is new.

Possibly the most important change here - increase visibility of the app categories by order of magnitude. On the iPhone, Categories are hidden as the top-left button in the navigation bar. In the sea of graphical content that small button is lost and no one, really no one goes there.
Proof? Run 5k is currently promoted with the category-ruling banner. These banners take-up 50% of the category main page on the iPhone.

“There can’t be a better promoted spot in category than this one”

Having my (free) app in the most valuable promotion slot in main category page lead to less than 1% increase in daily downloads. Seriously, it’s practically impossible to recognize it. The number of downloads per day is identical to the 4 days before this promotion started. It has not changed at all, 5 days into this promotion. This is a free app, there’s no spend-your-money wall to hit here, thus it’s perfect indicator.

Bottom line

I’m actually very satisfied with the editorial work that App Store gals and guys do and it pains me to see it so undersold. There are true app gems hidden in the bowels of the Featured and Explore tabs that deserve the spotlight.

Common counter-argument to all this is that customers will potentially see some featured app but don’t check it out immediately. They come back later, the app was moved and they get annoyed.
I don’t really buy that as none of these sub-sections is so big to present such an issue. And in case the customer really has lost the app it wanted, a good search will help. If it’s good.

Search improvements

It all boils down to respecting everyone’s effort — editors, developers, customers. It takes better, more complex ranking formulas instead of taking the easy road of download count + rating count.

Respect the editor’s effort

Plowing through the 100s and 1000s of app updates per day/week must be very time-consuming. Jean-Louis Gassé argues that App Store lacks human editorial but I think he missed where the problem is. While more editors could only benefit the store, I believe that there’s already plenty of editorial work being done yet it’s mostly short-lived and thus wasted away.

If the editors deem certain app feature-worthy, then it’s because it was manually checked and vetted as good. Being featured and promoted should figure as big factor for the search ranking.

It should also be highlighted in the search results list. If some app has won an award (like App of the Year) then show it off next to the app with some small icon. If it’s part of the promoted collection, then display some other badge.

Make these badges tappable, so that customer can see what all that means. This greatly validates the editor’s effort, awards good developer work and aids the customer when deciding what to buy.

Respect the developer’s effort

Every conference talk I have heard from Apple people has one promise: they will promote and feature apps that implement latest technologies. They really do.

And yet this hard, very hard work – it takes a lot of dedication to keep up with Apple’s pace – means nothing when it comes to search ranking. Your shiny new update implementing multiple iOS 8 technologies is ranked 30th or 50th place while some months old (sometimes even years old) competitor is sitting pretty in first 5 results because way back it was free for a week and got millions of downloads.

Note that it’s not enough to rank apps higher just because they are freshly updated. We had that in 2008-2009 and it was a disaster: constant stream of meaningless updates just to get on the new and updated list.

No, apps need to be freshly updated and feature new tech, new APIs and only then qualify for rank boost.

Add-in the previously discussed editorial factor and that combo should be the strongest rank driver.

Respect the customer’s effort

A rather small chunk of customers will took the time to review the app on the App Store. There are ways and ways to nudge them to write the review but that’s another topic.

Trouble here is that each time you update the app, all existing reviews are wiped out. By default, App Store shows only the reviews for the current version with additional option to see reviews for all versions.
This is far from good.

By hiding past reviews, customer’s effort is unappreciated. If someone reviews the app today and I publish an update tomorrow, that fresh and thus very valuable review is hidden. This discourages people from doing it again.
It also looks bad for the developer; when people browse casually their app will look like it has no customers, at all.

Instead, App Store should by default show latest reviews which would be a rolling list and average of the 50 or 100 most recent reviews. This would yield multiple benefits:

  • potential customers will have more realistic picture about the current state of the app
  • writer’s effort is awarded as the review will be visible for at least some time
  • app will not look like a ghost
  • developers will be enticed to do way better testing of the updates to avoid a flood of negative reviews

Last 100 ratings are averaging to 5/5 stars? By all means, push that app higher in search results.

The way forward

I can’t help thinking that I’m preaching to the choir here. I find it hard to imagine that people working on the App Store are not aware of these issues and have not come up with the same ideas.

The only mistery is – what’s stopping them? It’s not like Apple never changed the layout and ranking algorithms, thus is baffling why it’s still so inefficient.