App Store Problems Vol 2: Discovery

Apples App Store has grown so massive that finding the best apps can be hard. Currently Apple relies on the Top 100 lists, the curated ‘Explore’ section and their ‘Featured’ section. Each section has problems:

  • The Top 100 lists can be easily gamed and artificially prop up the incumbent popular apps.
  • The Explore section allows you to dive into different categories of apps and shows you a curated list of apps for each. This is a good start but it could be much better.
  • The Featured section is good for showing new apps but they quickly fall to the wayside after being featured.

To improve app discovery, and the iOS platform as a whole, I believe Apple needs to do three things:

  1. Build a highly curated list of apps and a system for defining what the special characteristic of each is.
  2. Learn what each individual user likes and dislikes, what they have tried, what they have searched for online, what their friends and people they follow online are using, etc. Basically Apple does what Google does but uses it to benefit the user, not their wallets.
  3. Reward developers for “good” apps and punish those who make “bad” ones. This is a hard line to walk but it could be the key to maintaining a strong App Store. They have to give users what they want but also show apps that they deem good.

Once they have that they need to build two app discovery systems:

  1. Passive Discovery: It shows apps you may like in various places in the App Store.
  2. Active Discovery: A user needs to do “A” and Apple needs to find the best app to accomplish this. Natural language search would be an immense help with this. E.g. “I need an app that can write Swift code.”

How would I do this?

Apple Becomes A Big Data Company (But Doesn’t Sell Your Information)

Apple proudly declared that they aren’t in the business of selling your data, which is great. They should, however, be in the business of using your data. They should use your social media accounts, your device use habits, your browser history and any other piece of data they have access to build a recommendation system that’s tailored to each of its users. It should know which apps I have tried and unless they have had significant updates, not recommend them to me. It should know what type of apps you like and show you the best ones available.

Besides getting to know you, it should scan the web for reviews and after giving more weight to certain sites, add that data into the calculation. It should look at both general social media and its own app download metrics to see when an app has gone viral and make it front and center for the user. I should never have search for that cool, new app everyone is talking about.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Apple looked at your internet history and what you watched/listened to through iTunes. Took the suggestions the people made and show them in a separate category. For example, the CultCast, a podcast, often recommends apps. Why can’t users who have listened to the CultCast, or even just subscribed to it, see a tab called ‘Recommended by the CultCast’.

Keep The Explore Tab But Improve It

The Explore tab is much better than Apples previous efforts at curation but I still think it has a big problem. When I look at productivity apps and see the section for task managers, I am faced with 15 apps with practically the same logo. I have to press on each individual app to see what it’s features are. The curation effort should both show apps and have a short description of the features that set it apart. If two apps do the exact same thing Apple can make the decision on which one has better design and show that one. Showing 5 apps that do the exact same thing is of little use to anyone but the developers with lower quality apps. (In this case lower quality might just mean ugly.)

Make A Secret App List

While the difference between a “good” and a “bad” app can be subjective, I think Apple needs to decide what they think a good app is and start adding them to a secret app list. The public doesn’t know it exists but this is the list they draw all suggestions from. If an app is scammy, poorly designed or in bad taste (fart apps). The App Store houses millions of apps but most of them are garbage. While I would remove huge amounts of apps, this hurts Apple by lowering the total app count and if they take off an app people use, creates bad publicity. That is why the secret app list directory makes sense. They can keep everything on the app store but curate the good ones onto their secret directory that they recommend. As apps are reviewed they are marked “Quality” and put on the directory. If an app starts to decay or becomes outdated it is removed from the list. The apps on this list are always shown on the top of general search results. (“To do”) If you’re searching for a specific app, that should obviously be at the top of the list.

App Review: Either Get Rid Of It Or Become More Stringent

Apples current app review hurts the platform. It lets in garbage apps and bans innovative apps. I think they should get off the fence and take one of two paths:

  1. Abolish App Review - Scan for malware but allow almost anything into the app store. (Porn, scams, etc wouldn’t get through.) It doesn’t have to be Android, there can still be rules, but let users do what they want.
  2. Stricter App Review - Don’t allow any crap into the App Store. Everything is highly polished and will delight the user.

Top 10 Apps By Category

For those who don’t want to spend time searching for the perfect app. Apple should have a chart for every category: Top 5 Best, and Top 5 Interesting. The best are the best apps in the category, the interesting are people pushing the boundaries of what that type of app can do. In order to avoid funnelling all users to an app and letting it become the de facto default, Apple needs to update the charts weekly. If an app fails to upgrade to the new screen size, it’s bumped or lowered down the list and someone else takes their place. It’s important to note that the best does not equal the most popular. This means a completely unheard of developer can launch an app and become the best app in that category. This will be an amazing way to make the App Store a viable business for independent developers.

Virtual Demos

I am very well aware of Apple’s aversion to trials but I still think this is a huge mistake. It would be a huge advantage if a user got to press “try” and have a virtualization of the app pop up. Nothing is downloaded, nothing is risked, but the user can see what the apps features are.

Final Words

The App Store doesn’t need “fixing” if you look at it solely by the numbers. It pays out billions of dollars to app developers, it houses millions of apps and there seems to be a new success story every couple weeks, of an app that came from nowhere to be the biggest thing on the store. However if you follow indie developers you quickly learn how hard it is to support yourself on the App Store unless your app goes viral. (Or you already have a large fanbase/platform.) I want a platform that both harbours the best apps and makes sure people see those apps. That just isn’t the case on iOS sometimes.


Agree? Disagree? Comment Below.

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