How I Evaluate and Decide to Purchase New iOS Apps

My mind was wandering the other day and I began trying to figure out why some of my favorite iOS apps aren’t in the top rated sections of the App Stores.

First a note: All of this is based off of my own perceptions and experiences — coupled with my observations of other users. There is no science here.

As I see it there are three main ways that people come across new iOS apps:

  • Outside source (web site, friends, advertising) directing them to an app (likely recommending it).
  • Browsing the app store (top charts, categories, genius suggestions) looking for new apps.
  • Searching for a specific app, or type of app to fill some void.

With outside sources you are coming to the app with intent to get that app (most of the time). Those that are willing to pay will likely buy that app as soon as they are sure that it is the one recommended to them by whomever sent them to the app. This is the easiest sale for an iOS app: the user who comes directly to the app.

Browsing users are quite different. These users are likely skimming through long lists of apps looking for two things: something to pop out at them, and names/brands they recognize. With browsing users a developer only gets four ways to sell the app to a potential customer:

  • Icon
  • Name
  • Rating
  • Price

Take one look through the top charts at the apps that you have never tried and you will get an idea for just how limiting those four factors are. These are the four ways that a developer can get a user to click on the app for more information and details.

Searching shoppers are coming with intent to fill a need that they currently have and need filled now. They use the following to help decide which app is right for them:

  • Name
  • Icon
  • Price
  • Rating
  • Screenshots
  • Description

One thing you will note is that I have intentionally left out reviews. Personally I don’t think they are very worthwhile and of the people that do look at them — typically those are people that are looking for a reason not to buy your app. 1

All is not equal though with these buying decisions. For the last two types of buyers I think you can prioritize the importance of each decision criteria, but first we need to better understand the price factor.

Pricing

It doesn’t matter if your app is $0.99 or $99, if someone doesn’t want to pay for the app, they are not going to pay for the app, no matter the price.

You cannot change this.

If someone is willing to pay for an app you have three categories they fall in: ninety-nine-centers, willing buyers, and me.

Ninety-nine-centers

They finally realized how much ads suck, but are still only willing to pay $0.99 — because after all it is just an iOS app.

Willing Buyers

These are people that are pretty willing to fork over the cost of a double tall Starbucks latte to get a decent app. They are likely to be fine paying up to $2.99 for an app, with $4.99 being the upper limits of comfort and impulse buys for them.

Me

This is the group of nerds that prefers to pay and is willing to pay more than $19.99 for an excellent app. These are your ideal customers — they are anyones ideal customers.

Priorities

As I mentioned above each buyer is more likely to pay attention to the following when making a buying decision via browsing:

  • Icon
  • Name
  • Rating
  • Price

Now that list is probably ordered incorrectly as far as what matters the most, it should read like this:

  • Icon
  • Price
  • Name
  • Rating

The icon is what will catch the browsing users eye and cause them to stop. The price comes second because that only matters to users who don’t like to pay, from there the other items are of little consequence.

With buyers who are searching for apps things happen a little differently:

  • Name
  • Icon
  • Price
  • Description
  • Screenshots
  • Rating

Let’s break down the psychology of these priorities a little bit.

Name

The name is going to tell the person if they have found what they are actually looking for via search. ‘Dropbox’ is a fine search, but will result in a lot of options to choose from because of all the Dropbox enable text editors out there.

However names start to become irrelevant when you are searching for something not brand specific like: ‘notes’.

Icon

This is your opportunity to make a good first impression, giving the user an idea of the level of design your app has. If I am searching for a weather app, there are going to be a ton of results and the names will be pretty meaningless. Thus I am more likely to check out the app icon that I like best first.

This is important because if the app I try first meets all my needs I will have little reason to come back and look at the other apps.

Price

Simple: am I willing to pay X to fill need Y? Not much you can do here, as discussed above.

Description

Most of the time when I am searching for an app to fill a need, I am looking for a specific feature. Can I quickly see if that feature is listed in the description?

I tend to prefer straight bullet points here, unless it is an app that I am not likely to see the value in with out the developer telling it to me. For example: Instagram, Instapaper, Dialvetica, Capture.

Screenshots

These are actually tied with the description in priority in my book, but I put the after descriptions because I know a bunch of people that never look at them.

These are especially important for visual apps like weather apps. People are looking to see if this is an app they want to use and if it looks straightforward.

Rating

Smart iOS buyers know that reviewers and ratings are horse shit.

However I know a lot of people that won’t even download an app that has less than three stars. Where this starts to matter for someone like me is when there are multiple apps that are very similar and all cost money. Ratings (not reviews) then come into play for which app I try first (and if I like the first app I try I am likely not to come back an try others).

Again this is guess work by me, but this is how I and others that I have talked to think about iOS purchasing. That leaves one big thing: reviews.

Reviews

A smart buyer knows that reviews are not trustworthy and thus ignores them. What about the rest of the market?

From what I have read on the web and in talking to others: the negative reviews seem to matter, but only to a small degree.

Someone who wants to buy your app, will buy your app regardless of the reviews. The people who are on the fence about your app, or your apps pricing, are the ones that you are at risk of losing with poor reviews.

That is: if I only am comfortable paying $0.99 for your app, but it is priced at $1.99 I will be looking for a reason not to buy your app. “Oh John left a terrible review, says app is worthless — yeah not buying that now.” As if I ever was going to buy it.

This is also likely the same person, that if they do buy your app, puts you at risk of getting a review from them that says: “One star, over priced. Everything else is amazing though.”

Lessons

I am not a developer and though the above seems very logical it doesn’t explain the popularity of some apps:

What I have learned is that there are two categories of apps that seemingly defy all logic: free apps and games.

As evidenced in the above screenshot a free app that many don’t think is very good is still rated #6 in the top free apps — #6. Yet, it’s free and the app title seem pretty exciting: free TV, on my iPhone? Why not. Well because it sucks. 2

Games are an entirely different beast, one that I just can’t even pretend to understand.

Long and Short of It

Make a nice icon, price it at $2.99 with a detailed description. Wait for reviews that say it is too much money, but gain smart loyal users.

Either that or give it away free.

  1. Free apps don’t count here, why you wouldn’t just “buy” it and try it for yourself I don’t know.
  2. That’s my official review of the app.
Originally posted for members on: July 27, 2011
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