Choices And Consequences

Apple’s iOS and Mac App Stores employ a crude system of ratings and reviews that nonetheless has an impact on how marketable an app is, and accordingly, how much money it brings in.

Since very early in the history of these stores, developers looking to raise the average “star rating” on their apps, and to garner gushing words of praise in their reviews, have dealt with a conundrum: users do not typically review apps unless angered or … encouraged.

So developers have encouraged users to review their apps, using techniques that span a spectrum from what most users would consider harmless, to tactics that even the most naive users recognize as badgering, condescending, and manipulative.

At the harmless end of the spectrum, you find gentle reminders on Twitter, links in the about boxes of apps, and earnest pleas in the signature footer of email correspondence. These are not a huge deal to most people, and are usually phrased in a way that extracts empathy and a sense of obligation from passionate users: “We know it takes time and effort to review an app, but if you value our work please consider leaving a positive review. It means a lot. Thank you!”

At the other end, you find blatant harassment and tricky language meant to confuse users into capitulating. Modal alert panels might interrupt a user’s workflow at inopportune times, demanding that they either leave a review now or be reminded later to do so. The natural reaction of any user in this situation would be to try to determine which series of hoops must be jumped through to get the app to leave one friggin’ alone!

Recently John Gruber addressed the problem of apps on the badgering end of the spectrum, and merely hinted at a grass-roots campaign that might make a dent in the problem:

I’ve long considered a public campaign against this particular practice, wherein I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

Of course, by alluding to such a campaign in the plain view of hundreds of thousands of readers, Gruber may in fact have launched it. I witnessed many hoots of agreement among folks on Twitter, but also this more considerate reaction from Cabel Sasser of Panic:

That said, ‘give apps that do this 1 star’ suggestion bummed me out — stoops to the level of ’1 star until you add X feature!’

Damn you, Cabel, and your empathetic rationality. There’s something to his call for civility and for taking the high road. On the other hand, damn it, too many developers have chosen the low road and users are entitled to react accordingly!

Probably the most uncomfortable aspect for me of this debate is that the temptation to … encourage users to write reviews and to rate software is completely rational. It makes perfect sense for us as developers to do everything we can to maximize the positive marketing of our apps.

But every choice in business comes with consequences, positive and negative. You implement a new feature that wows half your audience and increases sales among them by 10%, only to discover you’ve pissed off the other half and cut sales by 50% in their camp. It’s not fair or necessarily even rational. It’s just the mechanics of choices, reactions, and consequences.

Many developers cling tightly to the belief that because positive reviews can lead to increased sales, it’s unambiguously right to encourage more of them. And if producing a small number of reviews is a good thing, then producing a huge number of reviews must be a great thing. Mo’ reviews, mo’ money. What’s the problem?

The problem is that except to the least soulful among us, maximizing sales is not the only goal of writing software or developing a business. We need sales to keep ourselves and our families comfortable, but we need other things too. To many of us, these priorities are at least, if not more important than the specific need to make a living somehow:

  • The satisfaction that our customers are being treated well.
  • The ongoing support of customers for months and years to come.
  • The sense of pride in owning and stewarding a well-crafted product.

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.

If somebody like John Gruber incites your customers to rebel against the choices you’ve made in designing and marketing your product, take a step back before condemning him as the problem. Whether they knew it or not, your customers were already pissed at you before reading Gruber’s opinions. He’s only providing them with a context for expressing that rage. Take it as a wake up call and as an opportunity to re-evaluate your behavior before too many additional customers are moved to act.

Heavy-handed efforts to drum up reviews that produce a cash influx today might lead to unwanted consequences down the road. You might end up unsatisfied and ashamed that your otherwise brilliant app stoops to nagging and infuriating its users on a regular basis. And to top it all off, somebody like Gruber might light the match that sets them off revolting against you. It won’t be his fault, because the choices were yours all along. The consequences? Those are yours as well.