Earlier this month, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber linked to a website whose author collects a “wall of shame,” collecting iOS apps that use pop-up dialog boxes to ask users for a positive review on the App Store. Unsurprisingly, the topic has sparked a lively debate among many technical bloggers and developers in the Apple ecosystem.
The general consensus seems to be that a lot of people aren’t all that fond of those pop-ups, with Gruber suggesting that disgruntled users make their voice heard by giving those apps one-star reviews for “annoying me with a prompt to review the app,” and others suggesting that Apple do away with explicit reviews altogether.
These reminders have been around for a long time, and they don’t seem to be going away any time soon. As annoying as they are, I’d argue that that’s a good thing, because they remind us what a privileged marketplace the App Store really is.
Love and hate
Developers love to hate App Store reviews. Ask anyone who’s ever put any kind of software up for sale through Apple’s mobile ecosystem, and I guarantee that every single person you talk to will have something negative to say about the reviews that their users leave.
In all fairness, reviews can be hard on developers. When you’ve spent countless hours building an app, a negative comment accompanied by a one-star rating is difficult to accept; plus, it can have a significant impact both on sales and on the developer’s reputation—something that’s quite important to most of us, who want to show prospective clients that our work is well received.
On the other hand, good reviews make developers very happy, for obvious reasons. An abundance of five-star ratings helps buoy an app’s chances for success, increasing downloads and sales and boosting the developer’s chances of landing more development work. (On a more human level, they also provide something that every person involved in a creative effort secretly—or not so secretly—craves: validation for their work.)
A natural negative
Given their importance, it’s no surprise that reviews are controversial. Many developers have justly noted that, left to their own devices, users tend to populate the App Store with negative reviews far more than positive ones, even for well-designed and popular apps.
In a sense, this is inevitable; happy users are probably too busy enjoying their software to say much about it, and unhappy ones have a very real reason to complain about the fact that they have invested their time (and, possibly, money) in something that they perceive as incomplete or broken.
Thus, it’s only logical that developers will try to even the odds in any way they can. You’ll hear the rest of us scream bloody murder at the thought of anyone trying to game the system, but let the developer who hasn’t published an app, then immediately called up all their friends and asked them to download it and leave a positive review cast the first stone. I’d bet the virtual lapidation will be given another day’s respite.
In reality, a lot of bloggers and developers tend to forget that they come from a place of relative privilege when it comes to having their opinion heard. We take for granted—and sometimes abuse—the ability to create and run a blog, or publish reviews of our favorite (and least favorite) apps just because we have the necessary know-how to do so easily and inexpensively.
For most other people, writing a review is the only opportunity to have their opinion heard, and leaving a one-star rating the only way to influence the evolution of the App Store in what turns out to be an extremely democratic process.
This doesn’t mean that developers must agree with those opinions, or even that users are always right. After all, as Winston Churchill once noted with his typical dry wit, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
It does, however, mean that there is nothing necessarily wrong in attempting to influence the process‚ at least as long as one doesn’t try to do so fraudulently by either “buying” fake reviews or somehow tricking users into leaving reviews without their knowledge.
Pop-ups, shaming, and self-regulation
This is where those controversial pop-ups come into play. Admittedly, some software pushes the concept a little too far, but, by and large, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gently prodding users to leave favorable reviews if they are happy with an app. In the end, developers do it for one simple reason: because it works.
And I mean this in a very real way: not “it works” in the sense that it “gets the job done,” but in the sense that it helps balance the natural prevalence of negative reviews with positive ones, and reminds users that they have an opportunity to influence what ends up in the App Store by rewarding developers whose work they like, instead of just punishing the rest.
Bundling all the rating reminders together and calling for Apple to issue a blanket ban on their use also misses a larger point: Cupertino usually only concerns itself with issues that affect the stability or viability of the App Store itself, and this isn’t one of them. In fact, users already have a way to signal their displeasure with intrusive pop-ups, since nothing prevents them from leaving a bad review that indicates as much.
Ultimately, I think that this process will be largely self-regulating, and that Apple has, so far, done well to stay out of it. As Red Sweater’s Daniel Jalkut aptly puts it in a blog post on this subject:
It’s smart to take it as given that something should be done to encourage users to leave positive ratings and reviews. That’s good business sense. But also take it as given that the farther you tread in the direction of badgering and disrespecting users, the more you chip away at the meaningful non-monetary benefits listed above.
Why is Apple standing idly by?
However, there are a few things that Apple could do to make reviews a little easier for developers to digest, and a bit more useful for users to consult.
A common complaint among developers, for example, is that a large number of negative app reviews stem from what are essentially customer support issues, rather than genuine dissatisfaction with the software itself. The App Store, however, makes no distinction between these two very different kinds of problems, and presents users with an interface where the experience of leaving a review is significantly better than attempting to contact a developer to ask for help with a technical problem.
I have heard time and again that Apple should mitigate this problem by allowing developers to respond to reviews, but I believe that would be the wrong approach—not the least because it would turn what is a useful, if flawed, method for users to have a real say into the goings-on of the App Store into a free-for-all customer support forum.
Instead, Apple could simply help customers make a distinction between leaving a review and posting a support request. Given the choice, particularly if it were seamlessly built into the App Store interface, I think that users and developers would welcome the opportunity for conversation, preventing a large number of garbage reviews from ever being written in the first place.
The end result would be better for everyone: customers would get better service; developers would enjoy more realistic ratings that encompass both their software prowess and support savvy; and Apple would be able to run a store in which the fortunes of each product more accurately reflect the preferences of its users.
And who knows—maybe then those silly pop-ups wouldn’t even be necessary at all.
Marco Tabini is based in Toronto, Canada, where he focuses on software development for mobile devices and for the Web.