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How negative reviews kill mobile apps

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Erik Sherman, Journalist, Independent

Negative reviews can kill your app—and they're easy to garner. According to a survey from Dimensional Research, users are unforgiving of failure in three key areas:

  • Speed—61 percent expect apps to start within 4 seconds
  • Responsiveness—49 percent expect apps to respond to inputs within 2 seconds
  • Stability—53 percent will uninstall an app that crashes, freezes, or has errors
Gartner Magic Quadrant for Software Test Automation

Escape negative reviews

Bad experiences turn into negative reviews, which heavily influence consumer action. The survey revealed that 34 percent of users consider star ratings and user reviews the biggest factor in their decision to purchase apps.

While you can't entirely avoid negative reviews, you can minimize problems and increase your chances of receiving good user feedback. Here are some strategies that can help.

Cover the loading

Waiting starts at the loading screen. One trick to keep users happy comes from the gaming world. "We load as much as we can at the beginning quietly and then display it to the user," says Jad Meouchy, CEO of user experience survey app company Osurv. An animated screen is used to conceal network delays, because to the user, the app is doing something. Entertain users for a few moments, and they'll forget they're waiting.

Another consideration is to ensure you have sufficient servers for each geographic region you're serving. Apps should also alert the user if the network is slow. "Any feedback you can provide to the user will help," Meouchy says. "If it's loading slowly and you don't say anything, they'll assume it's the app, even if it's the cell service."

A variation of this approach is to load data from the cloud over a longer period of time, but allow users to do something useful. Ashu Desai, co-founder of developer training organization Make School, points to email programs as good examples. "As I'm downloading new messages, I'm still able to read old messages and respond to old messages," he says. The faster your app becomes functional, the less likely users are to leave negative reviews.

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Concentrate on design

Responsiveness is often a matter of smart design. Start by minimizing features. "For most apps, 80 percent of the app is one function," Desai says. "If you're a developer, you think your product is really cool and you think all the features are really cool. Most people don't care about most of the features." So don't put them in if they're not going to be used. Concentrate on the core that people want.

Leading companies such as Facebook and Foursquare have already taken the hint and are breaking what were once single apps into multiple ones. Each piece works faster and offers a simpler interface via features such as single-function buttons.

Craig Lurey, CTO and co-founder of Keeper Security, which makes a password safe and digital vault, says his company has four full-time artists working on design. Any new software starts with functional descriptions and visual mock-ups that are put through the wringer for weeks. "Spend a lot of time on the user interface ... and focus on keeping it clear and simple," Lurey says.

Keep the plumbing clean

Great design won't save you from negative reviews if the app is buggy. Writing clean code is harder than ever, thanks to the proliferation of hardware and operating systems. Android is a notoriously difficult target because every vendor makes changes to the OS, and there's no standard for hardware design. But even the Apple ecosystem is increasingly fragmented.

"I test everything on older devices," Meouchy says. "I will use three or four-year-old hardware. If you want to get to the majority, you have to build for the specs of yesterday. It's a different approach when you're talking about gaming because it's usually on the cutting edge of phones, but as with everything else with apps, you have to look a few years back. You have to be efficient with [design and coding] and take a conservative approach."

And then there's the trend to connect phones to everything, from watches to cars. "All of a sudden, if you're the director of QA, your test matrix just got an order of magnitude more complex," says Matt Johnston, chief marketing and strategy officer for app quality testing vendor Applause.

Even if you keep hundreds of devices on hand for testing, as Keeper Security does, it's impossible to cover every potential interaction of software version, set of apps, OS variation, and hardware. "Especially on Android, you don't know what applications will conflict with yours," Lurey says.

The answer is to constantly monitor bug reports and offer frequent updates. "We publish at least once every third day and constantly fix issues reported by users," Lurey says. "You have to be willing to be on top of that continuously." Application performance monitoring is also key: If you constantly monitor the user experience, you can fix performance problems before the negative reviews pile up.

Get the basics right

The best approach is to debug early and often. The sooner you find a bug, the sooner you can deal with it and avoid potential interactions with other parts of the program that will come later.

It helps to take an older approach to programming, according to Meouchy, who has a background in computer engineering. "I understand what memory is, how to physically access it and manage it," he says. "If you still don't understand how that machine works, you're not going to get a good performance out of it. The people who are getting good fluid experiences, they understand the hardware." Even when programming in a language like Java, it's important to keep in mind issues like memory usage.

Not everything will go right, but if you put in the time, design intelligently, and listen to crash reports, you can minimize the number of problems that will reach your customers. Smart design can never eliminate negative reviews, but it will minimize the damage from disgruntled customers.

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