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This article was published on June 22, 2012

It’s time for Apple to allow developers to respond to App Store reviews

It’s time for Apple to allow developers to respond to App Store reviews
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

It’s safe to say at this point that Apple’s introduction of the App Store was a watershed moment for mobile marketplaces. But the lack of options for addressing reviews directly in the store has caused frustration for many developers and the time has come for this to change.

Since it hit the scene it has set the agenda in a lot of ways, making and breaking fortunes with featured spots on its ‘top 100’ lists. But it hasn’t been without its various hiccups, including those same lists getting polluted with crap knockoffs and a lack of transparency in the review process.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to dozens of developers at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference about the new changes brought about by Apple’s new iOS 6 and OS X announcements. Outside of that, I had the chance to talk to them about issues surrounding selling their apps on Apple’s Store and how they felt the process could be improved.

By a huge margin, the number one request by these developers was for Apple to allow them to respond directly to reviews on the App Store.

If you frequent the App Store at all, you know that the reviews below app listings can be of varying helpfulness and accuracy. Sometimes they’re working on false assumptions of the app’s capabilities, sometimes they’re simple issues that could be fixed with a settings tweak. Sometimes they’re completely insane.

And then there are the complaints that are completely valid, but that the developer may already be in the process of working on or submitting a fix for. The way that they’re sorted doesn’t even make sense either, as the ‘most helpful’ metric means next to nothing. Although a review must be filed by a customer that has purchased the app, the ‘upvoting’ of these can be done by anyone, including the developers themselves.

This causes a natural corruption that can surface silly ‘this is crap’ remarks or just as inaccurate ‘best app ever’ remarks. And that’s not even attacking the ‘5 star ratings’ system at all, which has its own issues when taken as a sign of quality.

Check out the reviews for Temple Run: Brave. This is a version of the popular Temple Run app in which developer Imangi worked closely with Disney Mobile in a collaborative effort to transform the uber-popular platformer into a game for the new Pixar movie Brave.

There are hundreds of assets in the game, including textures, audio and more, that came right from the movie itself through the Disney partnership. These are the ‘most helpful’ reviews:

The app’s rating overall? Four and a half stars.

The time is ripe for the App Store review system to grow into a two-way conversation between reviewers and developers, rather than a static ‘complaint board’.

I delved into this topic a bit back when Apple announced it had acquired the app search engine Chomp. At that time I talked about the need for a platform for discourse between app makers and consumers:

But even more importantly, an app community would create a two-way platform for discourse between users and developers. Apple’s current App Store is a one-way conversation, with a customer of an app making one concise statement, at times misleading or misinformed, but nevertheless practically unaddressable.

What’s needed is a deeper system for commenting on apps, replying to comments, within reason, and most importantly, rater accountability. The system that personal cab service Uber has in place is an interesting one, because it allows the driver to rate the passenger as well as the other way around. This means that you can actually be held accountable for being a jerk.

And now the precedent has been set in a big way by Google, who enabled developer replies to reviews on its Chrome Web Store a few days ago and today announced that the same was coming to the Google Play store. Google is rolling out these ‘review reply’ privileges to its ‘Top Developers’ first, but it will eventually end up in the hands of anyone publishing on Google Play.

Google has cut the path here and Apple needs to follow. It would go a long way towards making the App Store a place for discussion about apps. Starting out with a subset of developers is an interesting way to ease into it, and allowing those replies to be sent directly to the commenters by Google email creates a conversation chain that didn’t exist before.

“It’s something I have wanted for years,” says Justin Williams, of Second Gear and the creator of Elements. “Reviews would be more useful for both developers and customers if we had a way to interact and address their issues.”

Developer Craig Hockenberry, of Iconfactory, the creators of Twitterrific, believes that “being able to respond to customer problems is a basic need for any business. If you can’t keep your customers happy, you’ll end up losing them.”

“App developers who enter into a partnership with Apple are in a difficult situation where there is absolutely no way to contact a customer who reports a problem via an iTunes review,” says Hockenberry. “I appreciate Apple’s desire to keep the customer’s information private, but in the process of doing that we’re denied that basic need of contacting the customer about any issues they’re having.”

Hockenberry also agrees that many issues could be handled simply, due to many being related to changing a setting or another simple operation. Even a recommendation to visit the developer’s website in order to get further help would be a welcome ability.

Until this issue gets sorted out, both app developers and their customers will continue to be frustrated by simple little problems,” Hockenberry added.

Some developers are excited about the prospect of this kind of conversation, but have reservations. Tapbots’ Paul Haddad, the co-creator of Tweetbot, thinks that Google’s solution is interesting, but is concerned with logistics.

“I think its an interesting move by Google, my concern would be with possibly cluttering up existing reviews and the increased costs associated with having yet another support mechanism,” Haddad told us. “Between Twitter, Web, in app support and Email the various support avenues that an app developer needs are already a bit overwhelming, this will add a new one.”

Replying to reviews is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Using the tools that Chomp had active when its own service was alive, Apple could do so much more than just add ‘review replies’. It could use it to gin up a full-on community that allowed for more organic sharing of apps, recommendations from friends to one another and more.

The addition of Facebook ‘liking’ in iOS 6 is interesting, but it’s essentially an outward-facing feature. Apple has, by far, the best platform for this to take place already, and it’s not Facebook. There are hundreds of thousands of people that never venture outside of the App Store to find apps. They may see and download an app on Facebook, but the potential for frisson is much higher if you’re in the store, looking for things to buy and a recommendation is surfaced to you by a reviewer with a good reputation, or with a relationship to you.

Apple has several months before it is likely to release a new device, probably an iPhone. It would be fantastic to see a portion of its efforts over that period be dedicated to improving not just the look and feel of the App Store, which it’s already doing, but the sense of communication and community.

Mug image via Marco Arment

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