App Store Discoverability

While I have some angst about what the app store model means in terms of platform control and openness, it’s clear that Apple’s App Store implementation was a quantum leap improvement in terms of user experience, allowing end-users to finally easily install useful apps on their fancy “smart” phone. Solving that “install” problem has resulted a panoply of apps, which has in turn spawned the new (well, the standard infoglut/attention-scarcity) problem of “discoverability.” This problem is particularly acute for finding the good stuff from the crap (quality), or finding the thing that will make your life better that you didn’t even know existed (serendipity).

This is a problem that affects Apple more-so than it’s competition at the moment primarily because of it’s scale (almost a magnitude greater # of apps than Android’s Market), but one that any successful app store will need to address. I believe that it does affect Apple a bit more because of the lack of a trial or easy refund path, which basically makes the cost of trying out an unknown paid app, well, the cost of the app. Android’s Market, in contrast, has a trial period, which somewhat lowers the bar there (although that’s offset by the insane lack of “Update All” functionality and cumbersome uninstall procedure). In terms of browsing, however, both the Android Market and Palm App Catalog basically otherwise ape Apple’s browse functionality: lists of apps with filtering by category and ordering by recency and global popularity.

This is somewhat surprising to me because it seems that there are tons of pretty trivial ways to make apps more discoverable. This week saw the launch of First & 20 – which is on the right track – but this type of functionality should really be built into the marketplace, and should allow you to see the most popular apps that your friends are using (no offense, but I kinda don’t give a shit about what Dan Lyons has on his home screen). This of course, could be built as a third party app – just recently, I was discussing something similar with a friend about automatically slicing and parsing Home Screen screenshots to programmatically determine popularity (err, someone with some spare time go do that, OK)?

Now granted, social has never been something that Apple has been any good at (or even understood, really), but hey Palm, isn’t Facebook sync BUILT INTO YOUR PHONE ALREADY? (yes yes, having a working store and err, enough apps for discoverability to be a problem probably takes priority). (Note: even if you don’t have a social network, you could do something clever w/ opt-ins based on analysis of your active address book or something like that – it doesn’t have to be invasive, just a one time click to opt into the system either as an individual or even as an anonymous/aggregate fashion.)

The attention network aspect is just one potential solution (albeit, the one that to my mind gives the most bang for the buck). Along the social lines, there are two other paths to explore – the activity stream – having a view to see what your friends have just installed, starred, reviewed, etc. and on the other end, aggregate stats of usage – you’d probably get a pretty good ideas of which apps were worthwhile if you could see what apps were most used during the day (either in opens or in minutes). This could also be applied to other aggregates, like the global population, or to clusters (recommendations: people who used the apps you use also use these apps).

The last low hanging fruit (off the top of my head – I’m sure there’s more but I’m headed to bed now) is in how badly reviews and ratings are collected. Apple beats the competition here by both allowing the easiest removal of apps (by comparison, app removal is pretty painful in both Android and WebOS) which has a rating (but no review) roadblock. While better than nothing, the uninstall review roadblock is still fatally flawed. Because the ratings are only collected on uninstall, and reviews multiple clicks away (also after a search step, since there’s no list of installed apps), you inevitably end up with both skewed ratings (of primarily the people who by definition didn’t like it enough to leave it installed) and skewed reviews (those that loved or hated it enough to go through the huge pain of writing a review).

You could try to mitigate these issues by including options to rate/review whenever you’re updating, or even with an opt-in that might bug you say on the 10th time you opened an app. Hybrid solutions with the previously mentioned approaches could involve having active recommendation/rating requests through your network (to my friends that have installed this app, do you like it?) or, probably more simply by getting rid of manual ratings and switching to showing the aggregate metrics that actually matter: retention rate, opens and minutes used (per day, totals, graphs) as “ratings”. These have the bonus of also being enormously useful to developers and being completely passive to end-users, which is good both for the data quality and for the user experience. (The self instrumentation potential is also interesting.)

None of these ideas are rocket science, but I haven’t really seen much written along these lines, which is just been a bit surreal to me because it seems like no one has been really acknowledging how sub-optimal the current app discovery experience is. (I can’t be the only one that feels this way, can I? Does everyone just discover news apps through NYTimes ads and Lifehacker posts? We’re thankfully past the “have to show all my friends this (not really) awesome new app” phase, right?)