A Better Way To Request App Ratings

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No one really wants to be interrupted, much less for something silly while they’re in the middle of doing a billion things. So, why do app ratings follow this pattern? And why don’t developers attempt to talk more with their customers?

In this article, we’ll investigate the various tactics of prompting for app reviews and ratings and how to make them better. We’ll also talk about how to ask users for feedback in a way that benefits everyone.

Getting feedback on your app is important. How else can people tell you that your app is doing well or poorly? I’ve seen some great ways to prompt for reviews, and a few apps get it right, but there’s still room for improvement.

The reason why app store reviews aren’t as effective as they could be is that they’re a one-way conversation, asking the user to say something positive to everyone else. There should be something better, something more conversational, especially when things aren’t going well.

Why Ratings And Reviews Are Important

Both Apple and Google put ratings right alongside an app’s icon and title, giving users a quick way to judge the app’s quality. People are unlikely to download an app that doesn’t have at least three stars, so developers are incentivized to get the best rating possible.

This system, while mostly effective, breaks down in a few places. For example, a ton of non-developers on beta operating systems might complain that a particular app doesn’t work on their device. You’ll also hear folks blame an app for something that isn’t its fault — for example, blaming an alarm app for not going off, even though the phone’s battery died. (I’ll let you Google around for silly app store reviews. They’re fun!)

Some tech pundits recommend1 giving one star if an app prompts you for a rating, which is a reaction to ratings being asked for the wrong reasons. Simply asking for a rating leaves a tremendous opportunity on the table, one where you get to engage with users. You could be asking what you could do better, or you could be helping them with their questions.

Why Reviews Don’t Work As Well As They Should

When the waiter at a restaurant asks me how my dinner is, without fail, they do it when I’ve just planted my face in the dish. Now I’ve got to grunt my approval like an animal. It’s awkward. (Incidentally, I haven’t experienced this outside of the US, so not everyone will have experienced this.) This is what it feels like when a user is asked for feedback. Don’t bother them when they’re in middle of something.

Think of how this plays out for your typical user. They’ve just opened your app — let’s say to tweet something — and are interrupted with, “Hey, could you rate my app, plz!” Guess what their reaction will be.2 They opened the app to complete a task, and now you’re interrupting them to give a rating. They’ve got a lot to do, and rating an app is at the bottom of the list.

header-image-500
Find the right time to ask for feedback and then ask your question.

Dan Counsell has some good insight3 on the right time to ask for feedback. Developers should find the right moment to ask, and that moment will be different for each app. Here’s what he says about Clear, a lovely little to-do app:

“Clear for iOS shows the ‘Rate app’ dialog after a few conditions have been met. First, the user must have been using the app for a few weeks. Secondly, Clear will only ask after the user has cleared the remaining tasks from a list. This is a great moment in the app; users are feeling good for having just cleared their to-do list and in most cases are just about to exit the app.”

To return to our example of tweeting, feedback should be requested only after the user has tweeted a few times. In a photo-editing app, it could be after the user has edited and saved a couple of photos. Whatever the app, the point is to ask at the right time and to time the interruption well.

ember-rating-500
I love how Ember does it, a great way to solicit feedback.

Shifting From A Rating Module To A Feedback Module: A Win-Win For Everyone

You might have noticed that I use the word “feedback“ more than “rating” here. I do it because we need to fundamentally shift our perception of app ratings. Developers should engage with the user to learn about their experience, whether good or bad. If things are peachy, then asking them to leave a review seems reasonable. If not, find out why so that you can make things better for them.

How do you do that? Ask them to email you.

This tactic is especially useful with frustrated users. If you don’t attempt to talk to them, they’ll likely post a nasty review in the app store, which you can’t reply to. Not being able to reply to reviews publicly is a good thing, by the way — public disagreements can get awkward, and at least one party won’t come out of it looking good. Email gets past that and puts two humans in touch to talk through a problem.

Hearing from the user directly gives you a chance to understand their problem and often yields actionable feedback, which will be a helpful supplement to crash logs or when you want to find holes in the user experience.

How We Implemented This Idea

After thinking through how to solicit feedback, my company implemented its feedback module in a business news app named The Business Journals4. Here’s how the idea originally worked:

  • Three days after opening the app, the user would see a dialog box asking whether their experience is good or bad.
    • If the feedback is positive, the user is asked to leave a review.
    • If the feedback is negative, the user is asked to get in touch.
  • Users can dismiss the dialog box if they are too busy.

We thought that waiting for three days was a good compromise, giving users a decent amount of time to try out the app and gather their thoughts. The decision to wait a certain number of days, rather than a certain number of launches, was dictated by our users’ habits. Some of them launch the app a few times a day for a few moments and so would have a difficult time getting a feel for the app after just a few launches.

When a user would write to us, our support team would reply to them to help with their problem. Some complained about our update to the design, but most had lost their password or had a legitimate problem that we wouldn’t have been able to identify on our own. Ultimately, these emails were directly responsible for our considerable improvements to the app, helping us to squash bugs and remove obstacles between users and their content. The app went from 1.5 to 4.5 stars.

ideal ratings-5005

In short, the ideal solution is to open a dialog box at the right time with a simple question and answer. Where and how you implement it will depend on the app.

We’re planning to improve ours even more by asking users only after they have shared an article, thus minimizing interruptions further.

Feedback Modules: A Dark Pattern?

Some would call this approach to app ratings a dark pattern because it directs positive feedback one way and negative feedback another. But it has more to do with how it’s implemented. It’s a tool, inherently neither good nor bad.

Sure, it could be used for evil and to silence all dissent. Just don a black helmet and cape, build a Death Star and force choke all bad reviews to death by forwarding them to a never-monitored inbox.

Or you could use the approach for good to gather meaningful feedback from real users, in turn helping them to solve their problems and improving your product.

Not to mention, no matter how many barriers you put up, if your app is doing something evil, users will find a way to share their unhappiness with the world.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, this has shed some light on how to balance your need for feedback with your need for a high rating. It’s not just about how many stars you get, but about how well you communicate with users. Whatever your method, make sure it respects the user’s time and energy. I’ve had great results with this pattern and will continue iterating on it.

I’d love to hear how you make this work for your users and to answer any questions in the comments section.

Further Reading

(da, al, il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://daringfireball.net/linked/2013/12/05/eff-your-review
  2. 2 http://img.pandawhale.com/58321-Louis-CK-nope-gif-uvTq.gif
  3. 3 http://dancounsell.com/articles/prompting-for-app-reviews
  4. 4 https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/business-journals-local-business/id579066124?mt=8
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/ideal-ratings-500-opt.png
  6. 6 http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/04/the-right-way-to-ask-users-for-ios-permissions/

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Joshua Mauldin is a product designer living in Charlotte, NC. He loves GIFs. Also a big nerd. Big, big nerd.

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  1. 1

    This is quite great to know about these small things in websites.. this will help me while creating websites and apps for the feedback.

  2. 2

    It’s been my thought that iOS needs a better way to rate apps. As it is currently setup I have to open the app store and find the app I want to rate (and there are multiple paths to the app, one of which will not present the option of rate the app). If there was a single screen to rate a bunch of apps all at once I’d be more inclined to do it. If there was a reward for rating apps, like getting app recommendations based on my preferences, I’d be even more inclined to rate apps (especially games).

    It’s also worth noting that opinions of apps change from version to version. So if a radical design change is done on the app, it’ll likely be well worth it to re-present the feedback dialog.

  3. 4

    This little big details makes app more productive and successful. Great Article !!!.

  4. 5

    Great article! We recently published a similar article – “Ratings Prompts Don’t Have To Suck” (http://www.apptentive.com/blog/ratings-prompts-dont-have-to-suck-inside-mobile-apps/). There are tons of people out there that are simply limited by the technology they have to do what you’re suggesting. As a result, the often opt for free open sourced tools that piss of their customers. If you’re reading this and are looking for a better way to communicate with your customers, check out Apptentive. I know, it’s a shameless plug…but I’d rather you start communicating with your customers the right way, rather than seeing another poorly timed ratings prompt and bad retention metrics.

    • 6

      Red, I like your company’s idea, it feels respectful and conversational. The right way to handle something always falls somewhere in the middle, doesn’t it?

  5. 7

    I want to make a app iD

  6. 8

    The misdirection of reviews is something that is already popular. Many apps(including Facebook, I think) will ask “Do you like this app?” or “How many stars would you rate this app?”. If you respond negatively then the popup will just go away, but if you respond positively then you will be directed to the App store.

    Even worse are the popups that say “Get 20 coins if you rate use 5 stars!” that are popular in free-to-play games. Of course, what they don’t tell users is that they have no way of determining if a person gave a 5-star review or any review at all. The 20 coins will be triggered when a person clicks the review button that directs the person to the App store. There are many free-to-play games that have hundreds of 5-star reviews in which people will write “I just wrote this review for the coins”.

    • 9

      Ooh, incentivizing reviews with in-app currency does seem bad, despite how much I might like to Scrooge McDuck it and roll in a pile of imaginary coinage. It would be great to have Apple and everyone cut this out on the App Store level.

      The same goes for outright deflecting negative reviews without offering a chance for comment. Talking about it is better for everyone.

  7. 10

    Great article! Will definitely try this approach on the next app!

    Minor correction, on Android you can respond to reviews and I don’t think is that bad. We have done it many times and sometimes we solve the users’s problem and he changes the rating. I think Apple should allow for a response by the developer.

    Just for kicks, some users’s blame us because the download is very slow! #blametheapp

    • 11

      That’s right, you can do that on Google Play. I look at replying to public reviews like I’m having a disagreement with a friend: I’d rather talk it out in private than have someone yell at me in public. It’s great to see that you’ve had success though!

      • 12

        Great read Joshua, I wholeheartedly support well timed review requests. My only quibble is that I think being able to reply to reviews is a positive thing for developers. If it gets to the point where your “friend” is criticising you in public, you should uphold your reputation. You can do this by either writing that you’re going to act on their review (if the criticism was fair) or defending your app (if the criticism wasn’t fair). While I was researching online reviews for my master’s degree, I discovered the impact of a negative review on potential customers could be mitigated by a reasonable response.

  8. 13

    i didn’t know about the distinction between Google Play and the App Store – about being able to respond to users reviews in Play. Good to know.

    Joshua, i think it’s interesting that you chose a 3-day window as a target time within which to request feedback. I’m imagining the ‘con’ being that a user like myself might download an app (so I don’t forget about it) then not return to it for days or weeks. But the fact that you made that decision based on “dictated by our users’ habits” sells me on the idea.

    • 14

      Thanks, Sergi. So much of what we have to do is relative to our folks’ usage patterns—it applies here and in about every other decision we make about the app.

  9. 15

    I personally take the time to write a review for any useful app. In my case I feel that it not only helps the dev with constructive feedback but helps the platform grow. As a Windows Phone user I come across far too many articles they never even mention Windows Phone ;). Great article :)

  10. 16

    I’ll gladly write reviews on the (iOS) App Store when prompted to do so. I do appreciate the dev’s work and if I can help, why not.

    The problem is that from what I have seen so far, Apple is doing arediculously poor with the review function:

    1. The name you enter needs to be unique, which seems totally unneccessary given the fact that they can identify you via your Apple ID anyway. My name is Max, so why would I have to come up with Max_14223 or something?
    2. They don’t tell you in advance that your name needs to be unique or already has been taken.
    3. If your name is already in use, you’ll get an error as soon as you hit submit and then it’s back to the review form, with a blank review textfield.
    It has happened to me more than once that I took minutes to type a detailed review on my small iPhone keyboard, submitted it, and lost all of it because the alias had already been taken.
    Guess what – I don’t do that anymore.

    Apple is often seen as the gold standard in usability, but that’s just sad.

  11. 17

    I’ve had an issue for a long time with regards to app reviews and the one sidedness. People would leave negative reviews for things that could be fixed by opening dialog (lost passwords etc).

    I implemented a similar method into my app where a review widget would appear within the “news feed” of my app. This would allow users to leave a 1-5 star review (like the app store) which I’d save in my backend. On a negative review I’d engage with the user (via private message) to find out the issue. If it was a 3-5 star review I’d prompt them to leave a review in the app store.

    I get very few negative reviews left in the app store now for silly things and overall engagement with the customers has increased which has had a direct effect on reviews in the app store. Seemingly having this additional avenue for support (based on unhappiness) has meant the customers i’ve helped eventually leave positive reviews/ratings.

    This method does work and it’s less intrusive for the customer because i don’t interupt their task and if they want they can scroll straight past the review request.

  12. 18

    Nice, thoughtful article. I like your approach because it allows you to contact people to follow up and understand issues. We have an iOS app that generally receives great ratings (average 4.5 stars to 5 stars, depending on the country), but very rarely we’ll get a one star review with a comment like “can’t download content”. It’s been very frustrating not to be able follow up and try to figure out why a particular user is having difficulty. Even though 99.99% of people are clearly not having this problem, if it’s something related to our app, we’d really like to address it; and if it’s not related to our app we’d like the user to understand that an not post negative reviews in the App Store. I think we’ll look at implementing something similar to what you’ve suggested in our next version of Supiki.

  13. 19

    My concern about the “dark pattern” is not that app developers intend to direct users differently for evil reasons, but how users perceive developers’ intention to be. Reading this I realize I might took developers’ idea wrong when I was asked to contact them after giving a negative rating. I did not respond because I felt they just wanted to avoid accepting negative ratings, which could be a misunderstanding of their intention to collect feedback.

  14. 20

    We used a different approach in regards to the time of popping up the message. Rather than using the time from the first run (the user might or not use the app enough during that interval) we used the number of times the app was used.

    Something like when the user runs the app the 5th time, we show the popup. If she picks “Later” it will show after (every) 10 more app uses.

    If you want to be even more exact, you can use the time the app is being actually used (time as active app).

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