Smartphone users, keep complaining

Want great software for your mobile phone? Keep up the complaints. That was the message at a Tuesday session aimed at developers at the BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco.

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BlackBerry Storm 2
Don't like something about an app? Don't just sit there--pitch a fit. CNET

Want great software for your mobile phone? Keep up the complaints. That was the message at a Tuesday session of the BlackBerry Developer Conference here in San Francisco aimed at developers. But it's a dictum that applies to all smartphone owners.

In the symbiotic relationship between the application developer and the user, a well-placed critique is key to a good programmer improving their mobile application. The motto of the squeakiest wheel getting the most grease may seem obvious, but the importance of user feedback becomes even clearer when articulated in dollar signs and numbers.

A single-star rating for an application on a review site or storefront can severely limit its chances of getting downloaded, and therefore of making money.

"This is the curse of the one-star," said session speaker Stephen King (not that Stephen King), CEO of app testing company Mob4Hire.

His company's research suggests that the bulk of users feel comfortable downloading new mobile software that gets four stars or above. With 69 percent of people discovering apps based on rankings, reviews, and friend recommendations, and the mobile app industry growing 26 percent year over year, according to Juniper Research, there's real money to be made or lost. Addressing peoples' complaints isn't just a best business practice; it may directly affect the bottom line.

The bare financial truth of customer satisfaction isn't to say that real users' opinions are unimportant. To highlight this, King showed pictures of the barrage of errors he received after initially downloading Google Talk on his BlackBerry. Performance bugs frustrate everyone. Yet, developers should tackle customer critiques the same way they would their business model, by intelligently designing a feedback loop that makes the most impact to the most people.

Focus groups, user forums, and in-app surveys are just some ways to get quality responses, and for disgruntled (or overjoyed) users to be heard. Offering free updates and monetary rewards are other tactics for encouraging engagement. You may already be providing feedback if developers use analytics embedded in their apps, or AB testing, where a small sample of application users see one of multiple versions of an app so the developer can determine which one had higher levels of engagement.

King dove into details about best practices for holding town hall meetings, covering everything from multicolored Post-It notes and computations to measuring customer satisfaction on a scale of one to ten. King showed a quadrant graph that balances the importance of a feature request or problem with its ease of implementation. His marching orders for application-authors: Start first with solving the easy, important stuff and move on from there, keeping the impact of each proposed change in mind, rather than its cool factor. Ask users for ideas on how to correct the failings.

At the end of the day, while user feedback is important, developers shouldn't rely on paying customers to design their application architecture, especially if mistakes are prone to frustrate the user. King was careful to note that creating a thoughtful application first is the way to go.

"There's so much marketing [for apps] that's just pure hype and crap," King reiterated to a room full of BlackBerry developers. "You can't sell software unless it's good." And sometimes, you can't get better software without making a stink.