Commentary

After All These Years, Why Do The App Stores Still Suck?

crackappstoreappHow is it that a monstrously successful and eminently popular app ecosystem took the world by storm in the last four years but still can't get its own house in order? Notably, the storefronts driving app discovery are little better now than when they started -- first with the Apple App Store and then with Android/Google's Play and Amazon's Appstore.

After all this time and billions of downloads, most of us still rely on app bestseller lists, haphazard friend recommendations or press mentions to find apps we like. The digital tools for merchandising, personalization and discovery are woefully inadequate for catalogs that openly boast about having hundreds of millions of entries.

I have been whining about this all by my lonesome now for years. It is good to have some company. Pfeiffer Consulting in the UK just issued a critical (in both senses of the word) review of the three major app venues and seemed astonished at how little progress has been made here. In scoring the big three, it concludes: “none of the current instances come even close to providing the features a mature app store could provide.” Yeah, what they said. See? I knew I was right about this.

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They evaluated the stores or search, of course. But they also scored for how well stores segmented their offerings and guided the user toward the apps that were appropriate for their current platform or targeted specific use cases and needs. Pfeiffer also looks at how much friction is put into the process by missing features and UI.

While Google (33 out of 100) led Apple (25/100) and Amazon (14), even the supposed search king lacked obvious tools like natural-language search or advanced filtering. Ideally, Pfeiffer contends, a strong app search tool should have not only natural-language search but Boolean and advanced  filters, spelling correction and sort options.

When it comes to assisted discovery, Apple (44 out of 100) far outstrips Amazon (8.4) and Google Play (2.25) simply because it has so many (3,500) separate groupings and categories of apps. Still, Pfeiffer contends we need app stores with more multi-level categorization, groupings that better match use cases and professions, and groups that reflect trends in actual use and user needs.

In terms of overall app maturity, none of the app stores even approached what should be possible and expected by this point. In overall score, the Apple App Store was judged 53.1 compared to Google Play at 40.9 and Amazon Appstore at 34.1. While Apple continues to excel in app discoverability, design and reducing user friction, the field is relatively stagnant.

I like the way Pfeiffer has done this critical work and framed it with the idea of expected maturity. They offer an excellent reference design ideal that app stores really should be aspiring to. If you think about the importance of these platforms to the future of digital media and business models, it is staggering just how un-evolved they are.

The real crime here is that the main storefronts through which we all encounter this ecosystem are not doing the work justice. It is failing to surface the content that is best for the current user. Instead, it applies to a personalized medium the sensibilities of mass media -- bestseller lists and trends. The very platform that is helping to revolutionize media -- apps -- seems ill equipped to demonstrate through example the medium's core strengths -- personalization, engagement, flexibility, discovery. In other words, some of the worst apps of the app revolution are the app stores themselves.

The full Pfeiffer report is worth reading, not only for its thoughtful critical perspective on the app stores but the insights it brings to bear on apps generally. 

There are so many little things these stores can, and should, be doing better on their platforms to make an app discovery experience that is reflective of the quality of the app ecosystem itself. How is it that three of the most successful digital companies are not focusing their innovation on the one space that is so clearly closest to their customers' hearts and minds?

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