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Apple's mobile-app review system needs overhaul

The company's very basic user review system for iPhone and iPod Touch applications is in need of some help. We look at what could be done to fix it. Start with a great iTunes feature.


As an iPhone user, one of the things I've found to be increasingly irksome is the customer review system built into Apple's App Store for the iPhones and iPod Touch.

It's as basic as you get, which follows the design ethos found in the many of Apple's hardware products, such as the no-button Mighty Mouse, disappearing MacBook buttons, and I/O ports on its notebook computers and LCD displays.

While simplicity is one of the qualities that makes Apple's products more approachable for the basic user, it's something that doesn't translate well to a crowd-powered review system.

In its current state, the review system lets you very easily rate a software application from one to five stars, along with the option to write in any thoughts or feelings you have about it. This sounds great, in theory, but a good majority of the reviews found on App Store applications seem to prove otherwise.

More often than not, you'll see one-star reviews in which people are raving about the quality of an application. There are also people who give an application five stars, then go on to spend two paragraphs discussing how often it crashes and larger off-topic issues like international pricing and the handset's lack of a copy-and-paste feature. You also get a lot of comments written in ALL CAPS, with lines of Emoji icons, colored stars, and superfluous exclamation marks.

Some sample reviews taken from Tower Bloxx Deluxe 3D FREE, currently the top free title on the App Store. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

In every sense, it's like the Wild West: untamed and full of interesting characters.

To Apple's credit, on Friday, the company (as promised) removed reviews from customers who had not purchased the application they were reviewing. This may cut down on spam and ill-conceived or written reviews, but it's not a big step in improving how the review system works.

Problematic by design
The problem stems from the fact that Apple has treated software reviews with the same level of simplicity it's approached movie and music reviews. These two mediums are not interactive, nor do they have hangups like development schedules and performance issues.

While you can rate an album or music track based on your enjoyment of it, it's not speaking to a truth about frame rate jitters, buggy code, or a developer who has not put out a necessary update in six months--all things you may find in iPhone applications and that can be good to know before plunking down money on a purchase.

One reason there's a lack of these types of clarifications in user reviews is that Apple has fragmented its reviews system based on platform. Mobile users don't get the same quality of review browsing as those using iTunes do. For instance, when viewing user reviews in iTunes, you get the option to flag a bad review and say whether it was helpful. You can also sort by best and worst reviews, along with the most helpful and recent.

On the iPhone, users have none of these options. In fact, there's currently only one way to view reviews--in chronological order. For a device that's slowly gaining independence from having to sync up with a computer (as seen in recent improvements to podcast downloading on the device), this is troubling.

A better system
There are a three things Apple could do, explicitly to software application reviews, that would beef up the system and make reviews really matter to the potential customers who read them. All three can be found on Amazon.com, which has done a really fantastic job of creating a single ratings system that works on multiple genres of products:

1. App Store-iTunes parity
A step in the right direction would be to bring both review systems up to speed with one another. Offer the capability to sort and flag straight from the device. This could be done with sorting buttons at the top of the review section, just like what was done to sort application categories by date and popularity in the latest App Store update.

Amazon's rating system gives you a breakdown of how many votes each star rating received. CNET Networks

Also, let me see a better breakdown of the ratings, like Amazon, Newegg, and others do by showing you how many types of user votes each combined rating is comprised of. Seeing the average rating, which comes out of all the user reviews combined, is helpful. But if I could see that the app has a few hundred four- and five-star ratings, more than the lower numbers, that really says something--especially if I can drill down and read only the reviews with a specific star rating.

2. Developer response
I'd love to see something similar to what Amazon.com allows, in which you can respond to certain reviews with an agreement or rebuttal, something that would let both users and developers approach a concern or praise with feedback of their own.

Using this system, a developer could post direct responses to criticisms instead of the one-star review sitting there, tarnishing an application's score, long after the user had left his or her review. More importantly, the developer would not have to wait on Apple to deal with a review, presuming that it had been flagged by users (who were using iTunes to flag it) before taking action.

3. User credibility
Amazon has something called Real Name. It's a system that lets users back up their reviews by putting their legal name on it. While Apple might frown on the security risks of such a system, it's done great things for Amazon, and has given people who leave detailed and thoughtful reviews a way for others to follow what they're reviewing.

Apply the same thing to the App Store, and you could end up selling more applications from people who are buying things based not on media coverage, or popularity, but purely on the opinions of users whose opinions they respect.

So which one of these things is Apple most likely to add? My guess is the first; a slow trickle-down from iTunes, allowing users to flag bad reviews from the App Store.

Other features from iTunes have slowly crept into the App Store, and in the latest update, Apple seems to have realized that people want more ways to dig through the ever-growing list of applications. I'm just hoping the company will put that same effort into helping us wade through user reviews.