January 15, 2013

Your Users Hate Your App

A real review of Google Earth appSometimes an app just isn't living up to its potential. Its no one's fault; the idea was fantastic, the analysis work was stellar, the coding exact, the testing meticulous and the marketing flawlessly executed. Yet, your users hate your app. Their scathing reviews in the app store leave even the most jaded shocked. You have more single star ratings than the Milky Way has stars.

You begin to ask yourself, how did this happen? We put our best people on this thing. We modeled it after our web experience, something that works perfectly and our customers love. Why is it that what we thought would be so quickly and fully embraced has ended up a pariah, especially when compared with similar apps from our competitors.

These are not questions that any company is unique in asking. Apps are hard. You don't have all that gorgeous screen real estate a 27" cinema display gives you. Getting good reviews is even harder, in large part, because your users know you have little recourse when they blast you publicly.

Yet for all the problems, pain and heart ache of launching an app to the heights of notoriety, it can be extremely gratifying when it works, not to mention potentially very lucrative. That's not to say that making an app is easy or guaranteed to make you a success because it most definitely is not. Your first app will likely not be a raging success but that doesn't mean that you didn't have a great idea, it might just need a little help to bring that great idea to fruition.

Its not an easy process to follow if you want to make substantial improvements to a floundering app. Your app is a representation of the blood, sweat and tears that you poured countless hours, and possibly a good portion of your savings into, in hopes of making something people truly love as much as you love it. To make it really work, you will be required to cut away some of the things you love most about your app. That lovely little easter egg you thought was so cleaver is the one thing your customers probably hate the most, because you had it appear right over that button they are always trying to tap. That lovely tartan background your family used for kilts a thousand years ago makes the text nearly impossible to read.

The hardest part is to really understand which parts of your app are really hated and which ones are just amusing quirks that people feel give real personality to your app. With little to no ability to converse directly with your customers due to how the app stores are set up, it can be a daunting task to know what is great, what could use some help and what absolutely must go.

High Gravity Consulting is here to help you. We know apps. Not only do we know them as users who love them, we know what it takes to make them and what it takes to fix them. Lets talk a little bit about how we go about finding and fixing the problems in your app that your customers know about but are not telling you.

Down In The Trenches

App store reviews are a cesspool. That's actually a kind description. Anonymity along with a sense of entitlement about your beliefs in an app 'free' some people into hideous beasts. They're actually really nice people, just like your neighbor who brought cookies over on the day you moved in your house, but they sure don't seem like it when they're comparing your app to something found floating in a New York City sewer.

Yet, with a thick skin, some hip waders and a clothes pin for your nose, there can be some really good information to be found in the reviews, even the nasty ones, your customers leave for you in the app store. Its painful to sift through the poor grammar, misspellings and inability of customers to find the 'Save' button that takes up the entire bottom half of your app's screen, but there are important lessons to be learned, both from what they are directly telling you and from what they are not saying.

First, pick some apps from your competitors. Make sure that they have a similar purpose and have a similar audience reach to your own app. If you're a small-time player in a specialized market, don't pick the Starbucks app as your competition; pick on someone your own size. If your app has poor ratings and reviews, try to pick a competitor who has similar reviews and ratings as you plus another who is loved and getting 5 star reviews for everything. Pay attention to the reviews and make sure they don't look fake. The worst thing you can do at this step is pick an app who has paid a bunch of strangers to rate their app really highly in hopes of misleading customers. Fake reviews smell, mostly because they don't really say anything of value and you find a lot of them for an app that doesn't seem to deserve them.

Now comes the difficult part. You need to look through the reviews and categorize them, both good and bad, for your app and your competitors. It is critical to be brutally honest with yourself when reading these. If a customer says they don't understand your app, do not consider them to be incompetent. Its true that they might be incompetent and not understand the genius of your app, but its a lot more likely your app is simply incomprehensible to your users. Even the ones that are needlessly abusive tell you something, even if that lesson is that your app is attracting users you would rather not have. Go through at least 100 reviews (if you have that many) of each app.

Once the reviews have been reviewed, you should be noticing a few themes. Find the things most said positive about the apps; these are most likely the things your customers are looking for in apps like yours. See how many times those things were said about your 5 star competitor versus how often they were said about your app. You'll likely see a big difference here. These are what you need your customers to be saying about your app.

You will also be seeing a set of negative things customers are saying about your app that they are likely not saying about your competition. These are the places you are likely failing. Lots of crashes? You need help with stability. Lots of confusion on what your app does or how it works? You probably need to work on your usability, focusing on the core pieces and hiding or removing the 'power user' features you thought would be so important. Once you've got a few things in the good and a few things in the bad category, its time to move on to look at how the apps are used.

Use Cases Galore

Now you want to put all three apps head to head. Think about what are the things that most typical users will be doing with your app and identify 7-10 processes that you believe they are commonly doing with your app. You want to get a good understanding of how each app is used to finish each of those processes.

Along the way, you are looking for a few different key pieces of data. For each use case, record how many screens, taps and data elements are required. Once you've got that data, compare the apps and see if any of the other apps do things in an easier manner than your app. The fewer steps, the less work, the faster your user can complete the process, the better your customers will feel about your app.

Look for data that is not in the place the customer really needs it. Identify if there is any data collection going on when it really isn't necessary for the process. Remove any extra navigation, either in the form of changing screens or lots of scrolling. Better organization of functions will lead to a more user friendly app.

How did your app do? Did you find a lot of places to tweak or did you realize your processes need to be completely rethought? If you didn't find a lot of difference between your app and your competition, that just means your problem hasn't been found yet. Lets keep digging.

Fit and Finish

Now we need to think about how your app fits in your platform. A common method that is used to design a mobile app is to take an existing mobile website and 'translate' it to an app. You end up with an app that doesn't feel right on the platform for which it was built. Imagine walking into a 500 year old home in Europe, full of polished, rough-cut timbers, to find someone replaced the front door with one of chrome and frosted glass. Some things just don't fit.

Did you use some toolkit that promised cross-platform compatibility, but instead left you with something that doesn't really feel like it belongs? Doing cross-platform development in the name of decreasing your time to market and cost of development is great, but if your sales are in the dumps because of it, you made a bad decision.

That's not to say that your app needs to look exactly like everyone else's app. You can use your own buttons, form fields, navigation elements, etc, but only if you can do it better than the platform creator. That is not an easy task, so do not rush into coding such a design lightly. If you did make your own and you are suffering for it, do not keep with it just because its already done. If your users are giving you 1 star reviews because the app looks or feels poor, you need to change it.

Being Fully Functional

Now comes the hard part... creating a functional map of all the apps. If you have a relatively simple app, this probably won't be a big deal, but if the app does a lot, this process can be painful. Open up a new spreadsheet, add columns for screen name, function name and a column for each app. Now go through and catalog every function and every screen element for all the apps. Compare in detail how each app works, what it does and what it does not do. This will take a while. Make sure you bring plenty of coffee.

Don't skip out on this one because it is hard. The very first app review I did like this, I learned something very important... too much functionality is as bad as too little. If your app's column has a lot of checkmarks, far more than your competition's, then its pretty obvious what your customers don't want and that is options. They want a simple app that does what they want. You're probably over thinking it, giving a power user app to customers who want something that does one thing well.

If you're in the opposite situation, it sounds like you're in a power user market and you've brought a Yugo to market. You need to add functionality, pronto. But it needs to be the important functionality. Head back to the first review we did, the one where we searched the app store reviews, and see what customers of other apps are praising them for. Implement the things that get mentioned the most.

Parity in functionality is the hardest situation to be in because the problem isn't likely what you've done or not done, but how you've done it. It is possible to have an equal amount of functionality as your competition but to be missing one or two important things where your competition skipped the relatively minor things you thought were important. Figuring out what the issue is in this situation is difficult, but the answer is likely to be found in the analysis you did in previous sections.

The Hardest Part of All

Yes, that would be fixing the problems. Once they are identified, you now need to pull apart the strings of your beloved app and reweave them into something your customers love equally as much. If you've got a lot of changes to do, don't get daunted by the list. Start by figuring out which items will resolve the complaints of the most users and fix those things first. Don't spend time on little things, especially if they're not things that your customers have clearly said are important to them.

Don't try to remake your app into a clone of one of your successful competitors, either. Imitation is a form of flattery, but its not the path to making a unique app that your customers really want. If they wanted your competitor's app, they would buy it and not yours. Keep the things that make your app uniquely itself, but mold them into something your customers will want to use.

It is also possible that you've come to a different realization after all this analysis, namely that it will take more work to fix your app than it is worth. This is a painful realization, but is an enlightening one. If you've made the app you really want to use and it is not something you really feel passionate about changing, then you always have the option of leaving everything the way it is. Remember, its your app, not your customer's, so your vision for it charts its path. In this situation, you may be the only person who ever regularly uses your app, but it is your app and no one can take it from you.