Why the Mac App Store needs a waiting period before new reviews go live

Years ago, six, in fact, I wrote a detailed analysis of how Apple could improve the Mac App Store experience between users and developers.  You can read it all at http://www.splasmata.com/?p=1612.  One of the finer points in that analysis, and, perhaps, so diplomatically put that it didn’t hit home, was a simple, one-size-fits-all app rating and review system can’t work.  If you didn’t read reviews, and especially if your livelihood didn’t rely on them so you didn’t keep track of what happens when reviews come out in public, you might think folks will write a review to praise or criticize, then move along, continuing with an app or ditching it, and no one’s hurt.  Are you nodding in agreement?  Stop because nope.

So let’s put it this way:  some reviews are based in reality, some aren’t.  Some folks think about the consequences, some don’t.

Here’s the thing:  people write reviews for a number of reasons, from a variety of experience and technical expertise levels, in a multitude of physical, spiritual, emotional, and chemical states.  You can’t anticipate all of that.  Even folks who know how everything fits together to make an application work get things wrong when they’re dragging ass on three hours of sleep.  Like me.  On top of that, people aren’t always aware of the path a review will take through every other user’s eyeballs and into their consciousness, and few realize what a single negative review can do to a tiny company’s income.  And the icing on it all is computers are complicated to the point you don’t always get a clear picture of cause and effect.  That’s how popup ads telling you your Mac is hosed if you don’t install Ultra Mac Platinum Cleaner Pro Deluxe right this minute hit the mark.  So let’s put it this way:  some reviews are based in reality, some aren’t.  Some folks think about the consequences, some don’t.  

I’m reminded of the old adage of the three tests.  Before you say or do something, is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?  If it’s not true, don’t.  If it’s true but not necessary, don’t.  If it’s true and necessary, make it as kind as possible.  There’s a time and place to ignore this advice…but what about ratings and reviews?  Do we have to tell the truth in our reviews?  Should we only write them when necessary?  Are we obligated to write them as kindly as possible?

In a cosmic sense?  Nope.

Between you and me?  Pretty please?

We’re sure ratings and reviews are necessary.  They pretty much make it practical to find a product that competently performs a required task without requiring you to become an expert on every product in a given market.  A considerably poorer expert, too, I’d say, as in most cases, there’s no try before you buy in this world of ours.  Case in point:  the Mac App Store.  But trials are another suggestion I and a bunch of other folks
made six years ago.  Let’s get back to our topic:  the rating and review system on the Mac App Store.

Here’s a real world example of how a review system, in the hands of someone who’s identified an issue but doesn’t have enough information, becomes a terrible missile, unintentionally armed and fired, harming instead of helping.


Anyone with some marketing experience or a little common sense in the room?  You wanna come up and write on the chalkboard, so everyone can see, how this review is not doing anyone any favors?

First, the review’s title is written with passionate use of exclamation marks, so you know this is very important!  Second, it’s not just a 1 star review, it leads with “one star!“, so you know this is both very important and very bad!  Third, it continues with the word “warning“, which is never good and usually very bad.  Fourth, it gives readers – our users, I’ll add – the panicked news that the software is compromised by a parasite of some kind!

That’s all before you get to the actual star rating.  A single star tells some people the review is likely extreme, and therefore questionable.  They might skip it.  For other folks, though, 1 star says, “move on quickly, this product probably isn’t worth your time.

It’s a minor miracle if anyone gets past everything in that first line without bailing, but say they do.  They’ll find the review itself is a well-written explanation of the review title.  No exclamation marks, just the facts the way the person saw them.  And no matter what the situation, who they are, what their expertise level is, or whatever, the user has a right to write a review exactly like this.  That is not and never will be in question.

So what’s the question again?  We’re getting there.  Before we do, let’s pass this review through those three tests to see how it doesn’t work in anyone’s best interest.

To start, the entire reason for the review is false.  Our application has nothing to do with Advanced Mac Cleaner.  Nothing.  And it never will.  Maybe the user saw Advanced Mac Cleaner while using our application and associated the two.  Who knows?  It’s simply not true.  The user would know that if they asked us before posting the review.  But they didn’t, so we received the pointy end of their missile without any warning or opportunity to provide the truth.

You know, there’s a really important point here and we’re going to come back to it:  in this user’s defense, how could they know what they were writing wasn’t true?  It looked true to them.  Can’t get any truer than that, unless someone helps you out with truthier truth.  So let’s say they got past truth and moved on to necessity.  How’s this kind of review necessary?  Well, wouldn’t anyone with some conscience and empathy want to warn other folks away from a potential calamity?  I would.  That about covers necessity.

And what about kindness?  Again, I feel the need to, kindly, defend our users here.  Most of them aren’t technical.  They’re good at what they do and we’re good at what we do.  They wouldn’t expect us to get what they do right all the time, and we’d never expect them to get what we do right all the time.  At a guess, most have never visited the About page on our website, so they don’t realize we’re a tiny, three-person company.  They don’t know we’re Mac-only, so the Mac App Store is our largest distribution channel.  They don’t have the stats over the last six or seven years to show that a single negative review in front of thousands of users on the Mac App Store will cost us hundreds or thousands of dollars, putting our payroll in peril.  The web has transmogrified from a crazy universe of slightly hard to remember addresses and organized bookmarks to a few search engines and a plethora of single-serving apps, the Mac App Store among them, so many don’t know how to get in touch with us directly, don’t notice the support link on the Mac App Store.  For them, our Mac App Store product page is all there is, and posting a review there is all they can do.  It’s not a kind act, to say the least, but it’s just about impossible for a user to realize they’re acting unkindly.  They just don’t know any better.

Starting to feel like there are a lot of variables out there, isn’t it?  Long sigh.  There are.  And that’s part of the point.

Hold a developer’s feet to the fire if they’ve really messed up.  Heck of a shame if you’re barking up the wrong tree, though.

So, what’s the real question?

Folks are entitled to write what they will.  Apple lets them.  But those same people depend on accurate, factual ratings and reviews on the Mac App store to give them a clear picture of what a product can do and how a company stands behind it.  Likewise, developers depend on the Mac App Store as their largest distribution channel and need accurate, factual reviews to attract the audience they’re looking for.  If Apple wants happy users and happy developers, then, they need to figure out how to keep it real, so to speak.  In an ideal world, they’d even hold folks to all three tests:  truth, necessity, and kindness.  Let’s not go bananas, though, so we’ll stick to truth, for now.

There’s a disconnect between the user’s perception of the facts and the facts themselves, so in some, perhaps not many, but in some cases the test of truth is failed almost out of the gate.  So the real question is, how can Apple build into the Mac App Store a way to handle the user’s perception of the truth versus the truth itself?  How can Apple let users express themselves and provide value to other users while making sure reviews are based in fact before they’re released to the public and allowed to damage the developer?  And, lest I be perceived as biased, you bet I believe developers should be held accountable in the court of public opinion.  Hold a developer’s feet to the fire if they’ve really messed up.  Heck of a shame if you’re barking up the wrong tree, though.  Like, kids not getting Christmas or families not making mortgage payments kinda heck of a shame.  And that kinda shame is, very bluntly, bull.  Very personally, twins are coming into my life in January and daddy wants them taken care of.  Allan has a mortgage and kinda likes that house.  Randy’s practically a full-time dad, feeding eager minds with homeschooling every day.  We don’t charge an arm and a leg for our product because we want to be fair.  We’re just looking to keep it fair all around.

Now, what’re we to do?

If Apple wants to help prevent a single user’s perception of the truth from devaluing the review system, hurting other users and developers at the same time, how about allowing developers a chance to look over new reviews before they go live?  We called this a quarantine in my original post six years ago.  You read that right.  I suggested this six years ago.  Sent my suggestions to Apple and everything.  Six long years.  No movement.  But here’s how it works:  the reviews come in, the developer has 24 or 48 hours to respond to the reviewer through an anonymous communication system on the Mac App Store, and the reviewer must at least acknowledge the developer response before the review can go live.  How the developer and reviewer handle the dialogue in the meantime is completely up to them.  At the end of the quarantine period, the user may have done nothing, or changed their review, or even removed it.  If they received service and changed the review or removed it, they’re happy.  If they haven’t removed the review, it goes live and they’re happy.  There’s a much better chance the reviews that stay are accurate.  Users win all around.  The developer may grumble a bit if their effort failed to convey to the user the review is unmerited, either with facts or real service, but they always have the option of asking Apple to remove the review if it’s truly false.  Nothing is lost over the current system.  Much is gained.  Everyone’s happy.

So there you have it.  We’re raising the idea of a quarantine once more, in the hope that users will see our perspective and, if we’re lucky, someone at Apple will take notice.  Thanks for reading!

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