User Reviews Matter!

five-starsJust Another iPhone Blog posted an article about the application store reviews, and I was a little surprised that some of the commentors didn’t see the problem. How reviews are handled is very important to both developers and consumers, and this isn’t just an Apple issue. With new application stores popping up everywhere these are issues that can impact every store out there.

The Review Problem
It was pointed out that reviews in the iTunes App Store are sometimes inaccurate, occasionally inappropriate, and completely incontestable. This means that someone could post a review like:

This application doesn’t make coffee!

…when in fact the application does make coffee and has made coffee since the application was first released. Or even worse – it’s software – of course it doesn’t make coffee – what sort of review is that? This sort of review is useless, misleading, and undermines the validity of the entire review system.

People Don’t Take Reviews Seriously Anyhow
This is one of the arguments I heard, but people take these reviews very seriously (at the moment anyhow). For a customer who’s never used the application before, they have no reason not to believe a review. Yes, if the customer buys the application they’ll find out this review was wrong, but they might never get to that point.

It’s Someone’s Opinion So It’s Okay
This is another argument that was voiced. Opinions are one thing. Falsehoods and misinformation are another. Using the coffee example, let’s look at a real review:

It makes coffee but I had a really hard time finding the functionality.

Excellent review! It doesn’t lie but makes clear a deficiency in the product. Most likely, the “doesn’t make coffee” review I used as an example was actually THIS review but written by someone who didn’t get help (see my note later about letting developers respond).

Developers Are Afraid of Bad Reviews
This is something else a commentor mentioned. When developers complain about reviews, they aren’t complaining about people who don’t like their application. Even reviews like:

This app sucks! 1 Star!!

…seldom get complaints from developers. It’s the false or wildly inaccurate reviews that developers care about.

This System Works Everywhere Else
Although this is true, that doesn’t mean it works for software. For music, books, and other types of media a loose system is great. For more complex products like cars, computers, or software, a simplistic system just doesn’t cut it. The products are just too complex with too many features. You need a more robust review system that better handles the complexity of these products.

Why Should You Care?
Bad review systems do the following:

1. Mislead consumers about how popular or unpopular a product is.
2. Give consumers false information about a product.
3. Make consumers eventually reject the entire review process as pointless.

When this happens consumers skip products that might be excellent solutions for their needs, they make decisions based on false information, and eventually they lose a valuable tool (a review system) for choosing which application is right for them.

The Solution
Unless they want something akin to the comments section on YouTube, here is what the retailers have to do it.

1. Review the Reviews
Block poorly written or inaccurate reviews. Is this censorship? In an anarchistic society possibly, but if reviews are to fulfill an actual purpose you’ve got to have a system for vetting them.

2. Let Developers Respond
Let us help these people! When retailers do this, we’ve had many cases where a person who initially posted a bad review pulled it and posted a positive review after we helped them!

3. Let Reviewers Change Their Reviews
Assuming you let developers respond, give the reviewer a chance to alter their review. That way they can come back and say “You know, I was wrong.”

4. Solicit Both Positive AND Negative Reviews
If the retailer only asks for reviews when the user uninstalls, you get a “Rate It If You Hate It” system. It only encourages everyone who hates the app to review it. This skews the reviews making it hard to tell which apps really are good.

Wrapping It Up…
This stuff affects consumers as much as it does developers. If implemented badly, a review system is an exercise in futility. If implemented well, a review system can be one of the most important buying tools available to a consumer. So email your favorite retailer today, and tell them to clean up their review system!

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  1. #1 by Thomas on October 26, 2009 - 6:58 pm

    really great post, Marc…and my, what an interesting site you linked to! :P

    anyway, one question I had was : aren’t users able to change reviews right now anyway? I’ve seen quite a few that say UPDATE: in v.1.1 all is good.

  2. #2 by Marc on October 27, 2009 - 8:36 am

    @Thomas: Thanks and Yes (re: reviews). But retailers don’t always think of this up-front and as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s more than just an Apple issue.

  3. #3 by John on December 5, 2009 - 4:34 pm

    Very well written – but perhaps the most basic problem is the pervasive limitations on revisions to previously written reviews or blogs. I’ve yet to see a single blog that lets any user update a published comment – at most one can attempt to post a new update that references an earlier post. It is almost as unusual to see any site that allows reviews to revise a posted review.

    Until this very basic problem is addressed, we will continue to have far more inaccurate reviews than updated reviews.

    There is a great deal to be said for the Wiki model.

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