Commentary

The App Store's Two And A Half Star Syndrome

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Is it just me or do a lot of the apps in the iTunes App Store, at least utility-oriented apps, end up with ratings of two and a half out five stars? It's almost as if that were the default rating for many. You might argue it's not that surprising ratings for a given title tend to average out somewhere in the middle.

But why should they? Ratings for other media categories within iTunes like movies and music seem to drive more of a consensus around a given film, song or album. You're more likely to see average ratings of four or five stars in those areas than in the App Store.

Perhaps that's because people are more likely to self-select with movies and music, so they have a better idea before they download what they're getting. Maybe they've listened to a song clip or watched a trailer. The experience of downloading and listening to a song or watching a movie on iTunes itself is likely to be fairly consistent from user to user.

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But with an app, especially beyond the most popular titles, people may not be as sure of the content and quality of what they're getting. That's especially true of utility or productivity apps that someone has to test over a period to see how they perform in the real world. And the performance of apps can still vary widely depending on the technology, the user, location, and its ability to work with third-party systems.

So if an app crashes on one user and works smoothly for another, that could lead to a one-star and a five-star rating for the same title, leading to the average two and a half star rating that's become ubiquitous. In that regard, the App Store ratings are likely to reflect the views of those at the extremes of reaction to an app rather than those in the middle. If an app is buggy, crashes or doesn't work as advertised after even one or two attempts, it might to get slapped with a one-star rating, offsetting higher scores.

The problem is, if every app gets a two and a half stars, the rating system becomes meaningless and doesn't help users separate the bad from the good. More useful are the reviews that sometimes accompany ratings and allow someone to explain how they arrived at their rating. Again, the comments may reflect users more at the extremes, but they at least offer more insight into strengths or weaknesses of an app. And if a number of people report the same problem, it suggests it's not an isolated incident.

That feedback is valuable not just for consumers but for developers in making changes to future versions of an app. Maybe one way Apple could get around the limitations of the star system would be to require people to post reviews with the ratings. Another alternative might be to instead ask whether a user would recommend the app to a friend and show the resulting percentages.

The two and a half stars would theoretically correspond to an even split on recommendations for many apps. But more likely it would at least show whether or not even a narrow majority of users recommended the app -- something like the equivalent of RottenTomatoes' Tomatometer for movie ratings. Or maybe RottenTomatoes can just add apps to its rating categories.

2 comments about "The App Store's Two And A Half Star Syndrome".
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  1. Peter Herring from TTW Systems, September 1, 2010 at 4:15 p.m.

    Actually, I think turning the apps rating system over to RottenTomatoes is a good idea. I'm a marketer, and now I'm the developer of a health-related app that's out on both Android and iPhone. The difficulty I'm having with the rating system is that anyone can come in a give a review that may or may not even be correct, slap you with 1 star and there is really no recourse, either with the Android Market or iTunes. I have had reviews that were simply factually incorrect. I have had the 1 star review from the person who had the app crash on their particular phone (there are well over 30 Android phones now and they all have quirks) - and then we retest and it works fine for us. Often a complaint about an app gets fixed in the next update, but the complaint remains. iTunes theoretically gives you a comment ability, but it reality does nothing. And Google, renowned for their developer support (note, this is a use of irony) does nothing - and has a blog over a year long now of complaints from developers on this very topic. So while I'm all for democracy on the web, it would be good for both Android (Google) and iPhone (Apple) to give developers some means of addressing these ratings. That would be truly balanced.

  2. Mark Walsh from mediapost, September 2, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.

    Peter-
    It's hard to imagine a health-related app being reviewed on RottenTomatoes (as apposed to an entertainment app), but I think you have a point about giving developers an opportunity to post comments or address specific issues in the review section of App Store pages the way you are here. Or maybe a separate section with notes or updates about an app from the developer.

    With Apple now getting into the social networking business, maybe it can extend the conversation to app developers as well as consumers. Of course, that also means opening yourself up more directly to irate users, who may not be comforted to learn that that an app crashes only on their handset model.

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