Developer Complaints — some perspective

Let me put a little perspective into the discussions about what developers want out of their platform. Much of this is aimed at Apple, because IOS is the dominant revenue platform, but it’s true of all platforms to some degree or another; each has its strengths and weaknesses and possibilities… 

Ex-Apple Employee Reveals The Biggest Complaints Developers Have About Working With Apple – Business Insider:

If you want to know how iOS developers really feel about working with Apple, just ask Mike Lee. Lee has had plenty of interactions with developers

[….]

Apple has not done enough to crack down on knock-off apps.

This one keeps coming up. I talked about this a few months ago the last time it came up. The bottom line is that at best, this is difficult to do. In practice, if Apple DID become more active about this, it’d simply open itself up to a different set of complaints, and some nasty legal liabilities. It’s a no-win situation for Apple. And back when I was working with webOS developers, some of the apps they bitched about not deserving to be in the catalog also were some of the better sellers among the general public. quality and crap are in the eye of the beholder.

A big complaint that developers have is they are cut off from their customers,” Lee said. “If I have a customer who is unhappy with my app for any reason, the customer should be able to write me telling me they have a problem.

Guilty as charged. Which ties into another version of this being discussed (again) right now, that developers should have some way to respond to reviews. And get reviews removed removed from the app catalog. 

But think about it from the customer point of view — they have a say here, too. Many don’t want to be contacted. They especially don’t want to be marketed to. 

The core problem here is twofold: customers who write critical reviews, and customers who try to use the review feedback as a support channel. 

the first problem? Frankly, customers have a right to their opinion, even if that opinion is stupid or wrong. Developers don’t have to like it (and don’t. trust me), but just because a developer doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it should be removed. That’s why my review policies were built around whether or not a review was appropriate, not whether it was positive or negative. Frankly, some developers I worked with wanted any review that wasn’t a glowing 5 star removed. Part of my job was to protect the integrity of the reviews seen on the phone from developers who wanted it managed purely as a marketing vehicle for them. 

What SHOULD matter in terms of discoverability and ranking is the consensus opinion, and a catalog should know how to figure that out and promote it. the webOS catalog frankly sucked at that. Apple’s is better. Amazon’s got a good handle on this, and I don’t know why any site building a catalog doesn’t just start with what they do as a baseline requirement. 

The whole “customer using reviews as a support channel” is a different beast. The webOS catalog was terrible at helping a customer figure out how to get support, so they took the easy way out, and stuffed it all into reviews. The answer isn’t to let developers reply to reviews. I also don’t think the answer is handing customer data over to developers — you open up a situation where developers start pressuring or badgering users over negative reviews, and frankly, I don’t want to be in the middle of those arguments trying to mediate (have you folks seen how toxic things can get over on eBay where negative feedback or the threat of it turns into outright extortion at times, and is horribly painful in general?)

What the catalogs need to do, IMHO, is twofold. First, I think the catalog needs to help educate users how to get support and make it easy for them to find the support channel. Many end users will do what’s easy and convenient, not what’s appropriate, and if posting a review is easy and finding a “get help” channel isn’t, they’ll simply dump things into the review. So thought on the user interface and documentation needs to go into how to route things into the right place. 

I also tried — and failed — to create a way for developers to add a note to their catalog entry, something kind of like what Apple does with the per-release release notes on updates. Not give them the ability to respond to reviews, but to create a paragraph or two they can use for warnings or explanations or documenting their support channel, or whatever they felt made sense. Give them a way to communicate back to users on their way to the review area, but not get into direct replies on a review by review basis. 

What I also tried to convince people we needed (and honestly, I was about as successful as an Erdu speaker at a Cherokee bar-mitzvah) was that the whole review area needed to be a social system, where reviews got reviewed and users effectivess was ranked and their impact on the community depended to a good degree on how their peers ranked their contributions. As a first approximation, send Amazon and Stack Exchange off for a long weekend, and you start to see what I’d like to see in these systems. I also tried to convince people that the support channels should be THROUGH the app catalog, making that connection as easy as possible for the end user. That would allow us (as owners of the catalog itself) to manage the conversation between developer and end user without disclosing contact info to the developer explicitly, but by doing so, give the end user the option of sending that info over or using our brokered conversation system — and if we did that, the user would have a “do not let that person contact me again” button in case of problems with the developer. Creating this kind of intermediary communication setup would solve a good chunk of the issues around support problems that end up in the review area. Not all; some users are just plain old stupid or mean. But in aggregate/consensus, those users get filtered out. 

And if somebody doesn’t like my app, I should be able to give them their money back.”

Really, REALLY bad idea. Really. Trust me. you want to open the system up for abuse, start allowing refunds into the system.

The most common complaint I’ve heard is that there’s no pro-level support for developers inside Apple,” Lee said. “There’s nobody you can call to answer your questions or help you when you’re stuck in App Review or some such.” However, Lee says Apple does have a Partnership Management program, which is intended to provide this kind of service. The problem, he said, is that this program is a “pure meritocracy.” He added, “You don’t call them, they call you.” Nobody really understands how the app approval and rejection process works.

How much do you want to pay for it? that kind of support is expensive. That said, Apple does a poor job of that, and this was one of the things we targeted with webOS as a way to differentiate ourselves to developers. And our webOS developers appreciated the ease of access and hands-on we tried to give them. It helped draw developers onto the platform we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and it made a difference.

It’s also one that would be a real bear to scale. But as a platform attempting to boot itself, it was a competitive advantage to “not be Apple” here. Google does this a lot better right now, and is one of the ways I think Google can pull developers away from IOS over time, or make itself more viable for developers where the revenue trails what Apple brings. 

I could go into a long rant about how Apple is messing this up, but maybe some other time. The TL;DR version is this: you create goodwill during good times by being good to your partners, and then when you hit the rough spots, the partners will be more willing to help you through them. You instead take those good times and act like the 800 pound gorilla and boss everyone around, when you hit that rough spot, everyone stands back and applauds. And IOS developers, by and large, are looking for excuses to applaud. Apple will some day regret treating their developers the way they do, but by the time this comes home to roost, it’ll be way too late to fix the problem. 

Apple’s entire app process is just too opaque.

Yup. It’s one way alternative platforms can compete against Apple for developers: openness and transparency. Changing Apple to be more open and transparent towards its developers isn’t an easy thing, but if I were involved in WWDR, I’d certainly be arguing that it was necessary to figure it out. But traditionally, this hasn’t been part of Apple’s core values, which drove down direction from Steve Jobs. It may be under Tim Cook this will change over time (I hope so), but right now, it’s right up there with “apple going social” in terms of likelihood of happening. 

(hat tip: brent)