Matt Gemmell

Replying to App Store reviews

5 min read

In the wake of the recent announcement that Google Play will allow developers to respond to user reviews of apps (Google Play being the Android version of Apple’s iOS App Store, iBookstore and iTunes Store combined), there’s been a resurgence of sentiment amongst iOS and Mac developers that Apple should similarly let us respond to customer reviews.

I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Welcome to Earth

As developers with a functional centralised software distribution mechanism, we love to complain about capricious reviews by customers. It’s so unfair, we essentially say. And it no doubt is, but at some point, at least one party has to stop being a teenager – and it won’t be our customers.

Crappy reviews aren’t surprising, even if your software is the best thing ever. I always get a mild feeling of unreality when I (regularly) hear a CrapStore-review complaining session, because people haven’t changed. We’re selling to humans, and a few things hold true for the vast majority of humans:

  • We’re petty, emotional and vindictive
  • We can’t think properly
  • We don’t do due diligence or reasonable research about anything
  • We’re poorly educated
  • We lack empathy, and have a deep distrust of companies
  • We universally dehumanise businesses
  • We don’t read, and we’re not interested in starting now

Then you factor in the age-skewed vocality aspect of the Store, and you also have to concede that:

  • We have a hopelessly warped concept of the value of our money
  • We have a hopelessly naive understanding of the effort that goes into making software
  • We’re hopelessly egocentric

So, yeah. There’s zero surprise in how awful the reviews are. It should be a bald statement in any “getting started with iOS dev” book or tutorial: you’re going to get crappy reviews, and you’re going to feel angry about it. The same way you feel when you have to go outside and deal with humanity, but much, much worse because anonymity lets people switch off society’s painstakingly-imposed fuckwit filter and let their inner sociopath run wild. See also the internet fuckwad theory.

Fix the actual issue

There’s nothing to be gained from engaging with people at that level. Here we come to the nub of the matter: I’m not saying we shouldn’t be able to engage with customer reviews. We should be able to. Google understands that, but they’ve (as usual) chosen an odd and poorly-considered mechanism of encouraging app devs to air dirty laundry in public, and burn out due to having an additional public support forum over which they have zero control. That’s horrible. Count me out.

The problem with responding publicly is that it’s soul-destroying. If you’re able to respond to reviews, you’ll be checking them obsessively, and you will respond. Worse, you’ll inevitably do so in a snitty, defensive way that pleads the value of your time, or the extremely modest investment the user has made, or your need to support your family, or the triumph of rational thinking. Don’t be that guy. Nobody cares, least of all some idiot sixteen-year-old, or Mr. I’m-An-Important-Lawyer. You’ll only lower and tarnish yourself. You’re screaming at the wind.

The other problem with responding publicly is that you’re calling someone out, no matter how much you equivocate or try to uphold the laughable and utterly broken concept that the customer is somehow always right. You’re not just making a public reply: you’re obliging the customer to post another public remark as a follow-up to yours. People get defensive when they’re called out in public. Some will suddenly transform into Miss Reasonable, and some will instead turn into (or continue to be) Mr. Nutcase.

When conversing privately, the dynamic is a bit different. The internet fuckwad syndrome more often goes into remission, because suddenly society’s social rules start to re-apply. Don’t call people out in public. Don’t lower yourself.

What the App Store would indeed benefit from is:

  1. A way to up/down-vote and/or flag reviews (it has those already) which affects how those reviews are shown.
  2. Much more visible app-specific support links (they’re wilfully, cynically inconspicuous).
  3. A strong encouragement to use support before posting a review. Right there, in the review-writing UI.
  4. (Perhaps) user karma, which affects how new reviews are shown based on prior crowd votes (which has problems of its own too).
  5. And above all, a way for devs to reply privately to (public) reviews.

Would those things solve all the problems? No. You’d need to go to a different planet for that. Or sell to dogs, whose default position is that they love everything. Meanwhile, here in reality, there are stupid, mean people who will leave stupid, mean reviews.

The review system still basically works, though. You can still use it to get a flavour of whether you should download an app, and you can still use it to give feedback. It’s not a complete write-off in its current form.

Sure, you get lots of idiotic, unpleasant, unnecessary reviews. That’s not unique to the App Store. Wait for any major videogame release and then read all the one-stars on Amazon about how the delivery company didn’t get it there on day one. Read the reviews of any product to see how one person got too much packaging, or the postman left it on the doorstep, or how the occasional schizophrenic genuinely thought an iPhone case was going to arrive as a teapot. This is our species, looking in the mirror and not liking what it sees.

The problem is social

It would be better for everyone if we had this disagreement in public.

Nobody Ever

A review that you feel compelled to respond to is probably, in essence, a conflict situation. We have a rule of thumb for this: deal with conflict privately. Don’t shout at subordinates in front of the whole office. Don’t bicker with your spouse at someone else’s dinner party. It’s the same rule. It doesn’t matter what the tone or content is, on average; it’s still a crappy way to handle a situation.

People aren’t really people when they’re in public; they turn into grandstanding, entitled, mutant versions of themselves. Talk to them privately, and suddenly you have a person again. It’s a cruddy reflection on our cruddy species, but wishing it away isn’t helping anybody.

By all means keep the ability to flag a review, and bring it to the attention of moderators. That’s necessary and fair. But flagging a review is a sign that at least two failures have taken place:

  1. Someone publicly wrote a crappy review. Person fail.
  2. That person was allowed to publicly write a crappy review. System fail.

You can’t fix people, but you can fix the system – and not by introducing further person-fails on top of the first. Fix the actual, earlier problem. Push them towards support, hard. Restructure the reviewing process, and make it stick to the customer as they move around, like a true social system that quickly learns to exclude undesirables by reputation.

And when you then do get cruddy reviews regardless, directly engage privately with those people. Engagement is orthogonal to whether it’s public or not. Give them a chance to understand your position, away from the ego-contaminated spotlight of a public forum. If they suddenly turn into someone you wouldn’t punch, then encourage them to update their review. If they remain a fuckwit (or fuckwad, if you prefer), scrape them off and move on.

Footnote

Disagree? Comments are off, so you can’t even leave that initial one-star review, but you can find me (@mattgemmell) on Twitter.