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5 Ways to improve the app store for customers

Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Intercom

Des Traynor

@destraynor

As the music companies found out, distribution is about ease of use. Actions that make products harder to buy and consume ultimately hurt sales. Actions that make it easier to buy products than to steal them improve sales.

Apple are the kings of amazing distribution. App stores are changing software. Many multi-million dollar companies have been created and sold in the past 5 years, all because Apple made it easy to sell software. Windows 8 and Android will be following suit, and going by any of the developers reports the days of downloading executables from a website are numbered. The best experience for the consumer wins. Again.

Paving the way

When you’re the first to do something everyone has the benefits of your hindsight. It’s easy for Microsoft to roll in years later avoiding many of the early problems and spotting opportunities. That’s second mover advantage: the difference between followers and leaders.

Apple has taken plenty of criticism in the process of changing the software industry, and much of it has been from developers themselves. Bad review times, unjustifiable exclusions, ever-changing terms and conditions… they all make things tricky for developers looking to pin their future on iOS.

It’s not that Apple doesn’t care. Far from it. It’s just that they care about the customer experience much more than they care about the developer experience. That’s who they are.

Improving the customer experience

There are four things I think Apple could do to make the browse/purchase/review experience for end customers a whole lot better.

1. Give customers fully featured trials

The process of producing a “real” and “lite”, or “basic” and “pro”, version of an app is messy for customers. Given a choice you’ll always try the free one first, and by definition the free one isn’t the best one. This leaves an awkward situation where the customer is basing their purchase decision on the worst version of the app. It’d be like a car salesman giving you a test drive in dirty dusty dented version of a BMW, hoping that you’ll be able to imagine how good the real thing will be.

Games get away with this by giving away a few levels free and using in-app purchases or different versions to make the money back, but ultimately time or usage restricted trials are a better experience.

Trials can also let developers charge more money. After 5 uses of Camera+ I would have happily paid $10 for it. But because I couldn’t try it out, it had to be priced low enough to get me over the hump.

2. Accept reviews in app

The right time to ask a user about an app is when they’re using it. Apple got that right. However, to review Instagram I have to bounce out to the App Store and fill a form in there. That never makes sense if all I want to do is look through my friends photos when I’m sitting on a bus. A review option like the one above would encourage more reviews from end users.

3. Offer better ways to browse

The best indicator of a quality application is when users keeps it installed and use it regularly. Sites like First&20 are built around this principle. Rather than sort by recent releases, or top grossing, what I really want to know is “Which one is being used most?” or “Which can people not live without?“. The only better way I can imagine to shop around would be to find out which apps my friends use, as I know they’re very good at finding great apps. Which brings me to my next point…

4. Build social into the shopping experience

I can sign into Etsy and see what products my friends like. I can sign into TripAdvisor and see what hotels, restuarants and activities my friends rate and recommend. As Paul Adams has said on many occasions, the web is being rebuilt around people. So it follows that I should be able to see what products most of my friends use that I don’t have yet. Every other commercial platform that has adopted this approach has profited. The App Store would do well to follow suit. And please, let’s not mention Ping.

5. Separate value and quality in reviews

People have different perceptions of value. A common trend in the app store is “Works great but at $2.99 it’s a tad pricy”. I tend to group all prices from 99 cent to $4.99 together as “low cost”, so for these I’m only interested in the works great part of their reviews. Asking people 2 different questions will solve this “Good but pricey” problem.

This is contentious, no doubt. Apple needs to realise that grading software in terms of 1 to 5 stars doesn’t expose enough buying information. In all the work I’ve ever done on e-commerce sites, one rule holds true: the more information you can provide about a product, the more likely potential customers will purchase.

A race to the best

App Store pricing is a race to the bottom. The 99 cent app market is full of mostly crap, and the occasional gem worth 10 times its price. As The Oatmeal points out, customers are price sensitive in illogical ways. For some reason a $3.99 app is pricey, even if it delivers lasting value over many years.

Letting would-be purchasers find great apps, see how often they’re kept, used, and valued will inform the buying decision. Letting customers experience the full power of the app, for a period of time, or number of uses will make it even clearer.

When you’re selling software the one thing you want a buyer to know is how good it is. That’s how you justify a fair price.

Alternatively if you’re selling shit apps, hoping for accidental purchases from gullible shoppers, this approach will hurt you. And that’s for the best. If you’ve more suggestions, please add them in the comments.