The Unfortunate State of App Store Reviews9th Nov, 2013
Or, why your App Store ratings suck.
It’s truly unfortunate when a good app gets terrible reviews in droves. Push.Co, for example, had a bug in the version following the one I reviewed where the apps wouldn’t load at all. I reached out to them and provided as much information I could. Turns out, a combination of network issues and login/logout problems caused the bug and a fix has already been sent to the App Store. It’s a piece of software; bugs happen. Unfortunately, a vast majority of people don’t respect that. Push.Co received a number of 1-star reviews due to this bug.
The problem with App Store reviews is that regular people can write them. Despite the increasingly tech-savvy nature of consumers in America, many of them are still completely oblivious to the work it takes to develop an app. As a developer, I have a little more patience for apps when something goes wrong because I understand the work that went into it. “Regular” people don’t have the same perspective, the primary reason I believe everyone should learn to code. And while not everyone will learn to code and gain that perspective, they could at least change their behavior. Instead of rating an app poorly over a bug, contact the developer and let them know. Sadly, getting the average consumer to adopt that mentality is probably an impossibility.
But problems exist on the other extreme of app store ratings. What the hell makes a 5-star app when the developer asked you to rate it 5 stars? The rating literally means nothing at that point. There’s very little analysis happening in app store ratings. The average person will either write an inflammatory 1-star review over a single detail or give an app 5 stars because they don’t consider it thoroughly.
Take Words with Friends. The app is extremely slow. Loading times, even from a suspended state, are painful. By the time the data downloads, each element in the UI loads, and my games are listed in the proper order, I’ve waited a minute or more. This is on a fast wifi connection on an iPhone 4S (which is hardly a slow device). The poor performance kills every aspect of the experience because it’s not only slow to load, but it’s slow within each game, as well. But with over 1,200 reviews, the app is rated 4.5 stars.
If your review includes the statement, “I could probably pick it apart” the way Judy Janee’s (see screenshot) does, you imply there are aspects that aren’t great. But a 5-star rating suggests the complete opposite. So if there is something wrong within the app, but you give it a perfect rating anyway, what value does the rating have? The whole point of a rating system is to suggest at a glance the overall quality of an app for others. Very few people will read what you write in the store, but they will see the overall rating. If an app with a bad experience is able to top the charts, what good is the system?
The problem is that the average person is too eager to give a reactionary rating. Those are easier than putting in some thought and considering the overall experience an app offers. For other average people, those reviews may be good enough, but ultimately they hurt everyone.
What incentive is there for Zynga to improve Words with Friends when the authoritative rating system for the platform rates it 4.5 stars? By inflating the upper extreme, developers are led to believe the app is already great. People seem to love it. In the end, app quality will suffer because there’s nothing pushing for higher quality. If consumers accept (or worse, rate highly), sub-par software, that’s all we’ll ever get. It’s easier to make. And if good software has a bug and is pushed to the depths of the App Store as a result of reactionary 1-star ratings, it has a much harder time competing.
I’ve put a fair amount of thought into how to fix this. But it wouldn’t be within any app store. App stores on any platform are built for regular people. Instead, another authoritative community would need to be established. There are tons of app review websites out there, but most of them are not community-driven. They ultimately will not help people find better apps or push developers to make better software. They’re too spread out and don’t have large enough communities to compete with app stores.
Until such a community exists (and I’ve seriously considered trying to build one), we’re stuck with the incompetent rating systems offered by platform providers and the regular people who provide the ratings. With every 5-star rating we’re accepting lower-quality software, and killing great ideas with every 1-star rating. Tell me… Who wins in that scenario?