Category Archives: Opinion

Dissection of a Good Bad Review on the AppStore

or is it ‘Bad Good Review’…

So there has always been a lot of talk about how broken the AppStore review system is and developers have pleaded with Apple to fix it. So I thought I would demonstrate just a bit of the problem using a recent review I received for my top application Extreme Agenda.

It starts out:

“This is a good calendar and reminders application. Apparently, creating a calendar and reminder’s app is very difficult. There are a bunch of them and most are bad and/or don’t work with all the iDevices and/or have some bad oddity.”

Great. I’m happy this reviewer i.Doug took the time to write a thorough review of my app. And at least he went into some detail about his thoughts so I can see what people are thinking. I respect that. So he then went on to point out a couple valid points and a couple of very strange ones, that Im glad I get to see to try to see into the mind of customers out there…

“Not all features work in all screens. Example: Drag and Drop only works with the ‘Interface” of Tabs in the Month calendar view. Then only by selecting the day and from the day section(upper right), select the event or reminder, by holding it and then dragging it to a different day. This means you can cannot drag and drop to change the time, nor can you drag and drop from any other view in any other interface.”

Ok, so there are a couple places we can add drag and drop functionality. But to set time using it and dragging things to other views, how does he see that working? And if he has an idea in mind, how about sending it to the developer? Basically it works where you would definitely expect it to. (Note: we have move/copy and paste implemented everywhere that essentially cover his drag and drop ideas. And we do plan to do more).

But here is where it gets a little strange.. Essentially he starts complaining because we have too many options. You bought an advanced application. If you want an over designed, highly locked down 1 or 2 theme app with very little customization, don’t buy one that at every turn tells you it is more than that…

“Be prepared to do a lot of editing to get the estherics to your liking. The developer(s) have made a huge error in providing many cosmetic options for this app. By providing the options it is easy for a use to get lost in verbage. The option labels are not clear(“Back Color” & “Cal Back Color”, I could not figure out which one changes what.)

Ummmm… “Cal Back color” changes the month Calendar’s Background Color and “Back Color” changes the Background Color everywhere else? I can see where with our limited room(because of the iPhone) some labels can get a little confusing, but this is your example?

“and not all possible options are available(no text color option).”

So do you want more or less options, Im confused(see below)?!

(We will consider adding ‘text color’ though, thanks…)

“it would be a big help if the developer would hire a designer. Then remove the cosmetic options and leave a small number of themes.”

Well, there kind of is a designer. That is why there are like 6 pre-made themes that ship with the application that you can just use by selecting them and not mess with the display options at all. How about just not tinkering in that screen if you don’t like to as the default theme is a very clean well done theme.

Maybe it just isn’t clear to this user that the very top choice of a theme is what is controlling what is selected in every other box in this screen. I’ll definitely consider ways to point this out better…

Many many people love the flexibility of adjusting almost everything to their liking…

Also, they should remove the “Interface” option and just pick one, that would make testing all the themes easier. As is, not all screens work with all themes/options.

Fair enough. We have debated dumping the 3 available “Interface options” (2 for iPad), as there are a few very minor option differences as he suggests. But all themes work with all interfaces, they are just color and drawing settings. I like that the reviewer is exploring the options, but in this case I would think then that you would be someone who wants the most options available.

We default it to what we think is the ‘best option’ but ultimately decided to let the customer decide if they want to change the interface setting and live with the various limitations and advantages(screen real estate, tabs, features, etc…)

“My guess is the developer is trying to be everything to everyone with this app. Frankly, the end result works, but it is a mess.”

Well you get our program, but I guess the “mess” part is subjective. If you want a simple calendar or reminders app with less options, there are plenty. But like he suggested, they don’t all work that well… Ours does, but if you try to tinker with the options it becomes ‘a mess’? I would argue all day that out of the gate our app is much cleaner and simpler than any of the other few apps that even come close to the functionality found in this app.

So what would you expect after reading the first paragraph of the review. Yeah, 4 or 5 stars. Even after reading it all, still probably 3 stars right? Well the problem with the AppStore is each customer gets their own scale… And ‘i.Doug’ decided that a “good calendar and reminders application.”  ultimately deserves 2 stars because in his over exploration of it’s flexibility he noticed some small but planned/known inconsistencies.

I guess the point is that it is handy for a developer to see a review like this. But since we can’t respond like I did here it is just straight out confusing for new customers to be fed half the information like this. And then the two star rating is rather contradictory and probably doesn’t fall on the scale where average users would put it. Now that score will ultimately be on the store pulling down the App’s all important ratings forever, as customers like this rarely revisit a review…

So thank you i.Doug for the good bad review… but really we would be better served with an email containing your thoughts and not the inconsistent review you ended up sharing with the world…

 

 

 

Cleaning up the AppStore.

So I follow a lot of developers on Twitter, mostly guys anywhere in the range of somewhat to really successful. And I do find it funny that some of them have become like rockstars in our own little community, even though they don’t know much more than any of the rest of us… They just have found an ego somewhere and decided they are now experts and ‘influencers’ because the one or two thing they tried they did pretty good at. And they learned to play parts of this new game pretty quickly. A lot of that was just making the right contacts. And while I respect them and some of their opinions greatly, I just think that thinking you know too much in a market this volatile can be a little toxic. I prefer the guys that are studying the market outwardly, and not the guys that make profound statements that they then are forced to change every six months, but I learn a little bit from all of them….

The AppStore has changed and is hurting small developers with a whole bunch of factors like race to the bottom, discoverability, Apple breaking the top list algorithm’s etc etc etc…Well while a lot of us had started feeling it earlier this year these guys banked on their previous success to continue to say that it is great to jump into the AppStore with new apps. And then they finally got around to trying it!!

They, got their press, they got their features(both feats in themselves).. They had some initial success. But now they are noticing that the long tail of sales falls off much more steeply and the app gets lost even more quickly. And these are the rockstars, the guys we should be looking up to, with products that are mostly good…

So now they all have abruptly changed their tune and are like ‘Oh, we can’t maintain a company on just this’. So what can be done. They all have opinions. Even journalist ‘influencers’ with no real background chime in. And having done this for over 10 years, so do I….

Some say freemium can be the ‘magic bullet’. And I’m experimenting with that, and will continue to do more. But it’s a hard game to play, you need a lot of downloads, and there simply aren’t enough slots in the free top 200 lists for all of us to get those downloads… So you have to figure out how to jack up your conversion rates in creative ways without annoying customers or find some other way to make it work… Real added value is key, but it is not enough by itself.

Others say Apple needs to offer us trials. I TOTALLY AGREE. I actually did better than what Im doing now in a market fractions of the size of the iOS world back in the Windows Mobile(WM) days with trials for applications. They worked. The world hasn’t changed, people still want to see what the app is before spending money at a higher price point. Shareware made sense then and still does, whether you or Apple understands it.

Others come up with it having to do with switching business models. Of course you can do that. But you don’t encourage everyone to do it. It won’t work in all situations. And good luck if you are trying it. Shoehorning what should be a product into a service based system isn’t always a great game plan.

How about paid upgrades. Obviously Apple is trying to drive prices down and is against this based on what they have done with their own software. We all know they are trying to sell hardware, but come on Apple, making us guys living off software try to follow your lead doesn’t work. We have no controls to erase reviews when customers backlash over having to re-buy a new App(SKU) or feature our own apps in the store to counteract this. You’ve actually made this worse with including ratings in top list rankings.

The ‘Clear’ app is cited as a good example of this and how they broke down to customer complaints that were wrecking them.  I don’t necessarily agree in this case. They recently tried the new SKU upgrade path and then backed down.  I appreciate Clear’s simplicity and uniqueness and their ability to market that. But it is a simple app. And they don’t add many features and use their own design idea as an excuse not to, effectively keeping it simple. But they then tried the new SKU method and started charging radically more for a ‘new version’ which is essentially the same app, only universal, whether they changed a ton of things to use iOS7 or not. Most people wouldn’t have noticed 90% of the changes they did to use iOS7’s new abilities, and it can be argued they wouldn’t have had to do most of it anyway. Ive seen what they claim to have done. So they wanted to charge customers $5 on an app most paid $1 for to essentially continue getting the regular progression of the app when they added no value to it except to the people wanting it on iPads too… Ultimately they backed into what should have been the solution to begin with…They didn’t devalue their product by backing up.  So it is more of an example of why steering us towards this new SKU plan is not a very good idea. If paid upgrade was the model, would Clear have gone that way or just done the right thing to begin with and made the new SKU the Universal version and leave the original title that feels about the same…It should have been more clear to them. It just shows that even a very successful app at these low price points needs to find ways to make enough money, and the solutions aren’t well defined.

But what would be great and what I hope is that Apple finally realizes what is needed is to clean up the AppStore.

Ideas:

How about charging more to publish apps or keep apps. Think if they charged $100 to be a developer but $300 a year to be able to put apps up. That barrier to entry is bigger and guys that have their apps they wrote in 2010 and haven’t updated in 2-3 years, wouldn’t continue to pay the $300 a year to keep those apps up there. A lot more free apps would also disappear which is great for developers, and the guys that really have good free apps will probably pay it. Maybe after 20 apps or so, they need to pay even more.. Just think how that alone would clean out a lot of the poorly done or older stuff clogging up the store.  Nobody cares that you have over 1 millions apps in the store Apple. You don’t play the numbers games elsewhere, how about dropping it here too..

How about forcing apps to be current or don’t have them show up unless directly linked or directly searched if they are not.

Think of the ramifications counteracting the race to the bottom this could have if a lot of the bloat and lesser alternatives go away. If there are only 3 free titles competing against your superior niche app instead of 40, that changes the customer mentality a ton.

How about adding more categories. Back in WM the store fronts were broken down into sub categories a lot more and it worked well. Apple does it with games and now kids, why not productivity, business, etc… That many more top 200/300 lists… That much better discovery.

And how about a little consistency with those top lists. Make it the same on iTunes as on the AppStore. Why not show us the top 500? Most people are going to stop after top 25 or 50 anyway, but the ones that don’t would like to see and find more that way…

And what you did with the top list algorithm is a lot worse than it was last year at this time. Make it better. Why is it based so much more on ratings? Guess what, and this is not new, some users are vindictive, or still think reviews are the best way to report bugs. A majority of the great users just use the software, they don’t go and rate it…

And reviews are broken, fix them. They always have been. A 1.0 version bug should not be pulling down the rankings of the 4.0 version of the app just because your customers in 2010 saw that as the main way they should contact anyone…. How about we can have those go away if they haven’t applied for years?!

And come up with some good ideas for discoverability. Do you really think that ‘apps around you’ is really going to be handy almost ever. Really?

But I guess we’ve been talking about this for a long time. And a lot of it is and will continue to stay broken. Actually half the time lately I can’t even get the AppStore on my phone to work right, so… Maybe fix those things first. But come on Apple, if you really care about developers and don’t just pretend to then STEP UP. You are forcing most of us to move on… Ultimately it will be in your best interest for this ecosystem you control to be beneficial to the most developers, not just the largest ones. I hope you figure that out before it’s too late.

And good luck to all you developers out there. Until we do get the market cleaned up there is no one right solution.. It got messy and hard. Make a great product, promote it, and get lucky.

New iPhone Smart Calendars

So the media has started to adopt a new phrase in the iOS market for a ‘new breed’ of calendar apps. So let us explain what you should probably know about Smart Calendars.

1. They can be intrusive

Just like any app, if they are giving the product away, it is likely because they will hook you later or YOU are the product. What that means is, they approach features in such a way that they can collect your data while they are doing things on their servers. So not only do you need an internet connection to do a lot of calendaring things, but they are collecting information from you, which ultimately might be sold.

For example, Apple has set it up so it is very easy to see your Facebook events in any calendar that uses Apple’s own Event data. Just turn it on in Settings > Facebook. But to go ‘further’ a lot of these ‘smart’ apps require you to sign into Facebook so they can interact with your events directly, Oh and see your other Facebook information. This may be needed if you really really need to edit and live by your Facebook calendar, but do you? And arent you more likely to see it directly from Facebook?!

2. They aren’t necessarily very smart yet.

So the new smart calendars are supposed to give you this idea that they have way more functionality than existing calendars. Most don’t. Not even close. And a lot of reviewers don’t really understand the market so will believe the app’s hype. They buy into buzzwords.

For example, I just read an article/review that bragged about how this new ‘Smart’ app has sync so can interact with Exchange/iCloud, etc… Well guess what, that is just what you get when you use Apple’s event databases. It is the same sync that all of our apps have. The default calendar app has it. So why is this special?!

So a lot of these ‘smart calendars’ have even less of the great features that established apps in the market have had for a long time. More view types, drag-n-drop and moving and copying, multiple alarms, advanced repeating options, templates, more information displayed, the list goes on and on… Just stop and compare more established apps like our Extreme Agenda and The Grid, and other veteran apps like Pocket Informant and Week Calendar. And the established apps have proven their ability to update and are more likely to keep improving and can catch up quickly, with the better features like weather, natural language entry, smarter locations all already added or coming soon..

These new apps are simply too new and have sacrificed on features in order to look pretty and ultimately get your data.

Some of them do offer very neat ideas for integrated features. But those killer new smart features don’t always work very well. There are a lot of predictive tying of data together and displaying of educated guesses. But if the prediction is wrong, which IT IS A LOT, or can’t be filtered well then it actually makes the feature more of a nuisance. Who wants to be shown the wrong location on a map or shown the wrong connected contact. They could be handy when they are ironed out, but rely on connectivity and a lot of data to work seemlessly together.

So just remember ‘Smart’ is just an idea. I think all calendars are moving to be ‘smarter’, but be sure to think about what the company is ultimately trying to do. A lot of the more established apps are a lot smarter than anything that has gotten that tag lately…

 

 

Playing Devil’s Advocate..

Ok, I am getting into the “heavy design” stuff, Extreme Agenda 4.0 will be a big step in this direction. And as of yet I have not proven that most of my design heavy apps are over the top great. Well, PokerTimer is the most popular Poker Clock in the AppStore(I did that original minimalist design a few years ago). And ‘The Grid’ did get 120K downloads in 3 days last week…. And the original XA 1.0 was pretty crazy experiment into alternate design. But by no means do I label myself as even ‘good’ yet, I’m learning like everyone else, this whole design focus is relatively new.

And I like to discuss development and all of this stuff with other developers. But recently I was left out of a Branch.com group of App-Makers because I wasn’t known/big enough, which actually includes a lot of people with less popular apps or no apps at all, because they are considered “influencers’. It so far has left out quite a few of the developers that have a different take on the AppStore, the ones I’d like to hear from. So I figured I might get back into posting some opinions here…

The most recent post of the branch.com App-Makers is about App Ideas. And granted quite a few in this group have had 1 or maybe 2 really good ones… But so far the direction of the conversation has gone in the direction of high design, one basic idea, simplicity and good UI. Makes sense…and we as developers have all heard it so many times before. That is what is working in the AppStore right now. But let’s examine this.

This is a response from Ellis Hamburger, a journalist at “The Verge”, so an Influencer:

“Any time I review an app, I compare it to the baseline in the category. When I reviewed Fantastical for iPhone I compared it to apps like Calvetica, Week Calendar, and Agenda. Not only did I find that Fantastical had a better feature set, but it also delivered a smoother user experience. The calendar app category has been around for YEARS, and Fantastical had years to prepare to win. Ultimately as a developer you must aspire to be the best in your category, which often means looking to competing apps and making sure you can outdo them from the get-go — and *don’t launch your app until you meet those goals* since any category only has a few real winners. If you can deliver, then you’ve got a “good idea.” You have your work cut out for you.”

Side Note:coincidentally those are the exact 3 apps I was shooting at with ‘The Grid’ too, that came out at the same time and was overshadowed by Fantastical.

So, yeah, he likes Fantastical. But now dissect Fantastical.

Really, the App is two views, both beautifully done. But both not always practical in everyday use. Take Fantastical and try to check out what you have going on in October. Yeah, you can’t get directly to October. How about October 2015? And yeah, once you get there they just use the standard ‘colored dots’ to show you an overview of the month. Know what they are? Have 5 events on a day, sorry we only made room for 4 dots. And dont even think about trying to see October in the week/list hybrid view.

Now re-create a commonly used event, move an event to another day, hide events in the calendar you don’t want to see…

Their other big feature is natural language event entry. And unless you are a speed typer on your iPhone, having to type in events in real language is neat, but isn’t the most practical (to do certain things you have to have shortcut formats memorized). And a small hint: you can use Siri to do it with Voice for all iCal based Apps. It’s genius on a desktop, which is where the idea came from. Want to edit events the regular way, well another secret you wouldn’t know, they just used an SDK call to Apple’s exact same event view, but put their pretty title bar on it.

Is that fully designed?

So I give Ellis the fact that besides ‘Week Calendar’, which blows Fantastical out of the water feature wise, the other calendars mentioned are lacking in areas as well. But they also are priced lower. So what made him overlook this and believe it was ahead was the “Smoother user experience”. Pretty design and a couple neat new takes on features seem to make you not fully examine an app’s long term use?

Or Clear is another often used example. Clear did some amazing things with gesture based list interaction. It tried something different and was rewarded for it. But they also went overboard, and did stuff that doesn’t and won’t ever feel natural in order to stick with their paradigm. And Clear offered very few “standard list” features, things that you just expect to be there to make it really handy and usable. You have to dumb down how you use lists in order to stay ‘in love’ with using it, all for the sake of good design and this trend of less features.

These are both widely considered what are the ‘top bar’ of what iOS apps should be and are crazy successful, though I will contend with a lot of help from the media and Apple(different can of worms). But they know how to play the game, and obviously put a lot of thought and design into making the Apps…

They are just not my kind of apps, they leave out key features because they don’t work for their ‘design’. Maybe its a function of the fact that for the price apps are now they are throwaway, so you can be wowed by the new calendar’s slick ideas, and dump it 3 weeks later realizing you originally agreed with the reviews, but now see the holes in it…

It’s convenient to use this less is more excuse, isn’t that what Apple does, but yet we are all also clammering for a revamp and more functionality from iOS7 from Apple…WIDGETS WIDGETS WIDGETS. And just think what we could all do if Apple opened up even more development flexibility. That might stifle simplicity.

Some of the best apps out there don’t all fit into a simple “Elevator Pitch” and depend on a glossy icon. The ones that do sure are easier to maintain though… 🙂

So it makes me wonder. Are we just at a time where we’re tearing it down to build it back up, making cheap apps what cheap apps should be. As one developer said, these *great* app ideas “reset the baseline”, but it seems some are doing so with inferior apps. Will these apps grow up or be passed in the mainstream by a higher level of app.

Will the vasty majority of users mature over time, to want well designed apps with great user experience, but with FULL MATURE FEATURE SETS…

Im shooting for maturity with great design, and I could name a bunch of great apps that already do too, I just hope the ‘bar’ can move up…

Branch App-Makers Thread

UPDATE: Well, it appears Branch pivoted, which made their site way simpler and less usable, but also does away with the group/clique thing that had irked me. It is just as well, the ‘moderator’ that had created the clique had dropped the ball and not kept it active, something that having more members would probably have helped. I recently noticed a post he made about how his original app, that one a design award, was outsold by his new app. He is one of the design and simplicity guys I talk about. I don’t get how he never realized that his first application was only half an idea, and had he actually created a full application with his award winning design abilities in the first place it would have sold a lot better, instead another product took all of those sales and more and does extremely well. Luckily he did better on his second product, but not realizing this makes me wonder about having him be a speaker and an ‘influencer’ in our market. And using the simple thing as an excuse failed ….