Dec 5, 2023

Creating 5-star digital products: the anatomy of a 5-star app rating

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What do we really mean when we talk about being obsessed with designing and developing 5-star apps? Reviews and ratings are incredibly important in ensuring visibility and discovery and ultimately increasing downloads, but what’s the anatomy of a 5-star rating? There’s no one better placed to answer these questions than our Agency Director, Nick Kuh (who’s been developing apps since the dawn of the App Store)! So we sat down and picked his brains…‍

Hey Nick, what factors influence app store ratings?

There are a few key factors which influence app store ratings, most obviously app functionality and stability: bugs, crashes or slow performance definitely lead to a lack of user trust. Intuitive and user focused navigation and visuals are a huge contributor, as well as the quality of content and features inside. Possibly less obviously, delightful design features, moments of celebration and rewards, onboarding and the way any data or in-app purchases are managed also impact user experience. 

There are lots of different ways that someone uses an app, so there are many motivations for leaving ratings and reviews. Users have a good experience or a bad experience and if they’re motivated to, then they can either give you a rating and leave it at that, or they can give you a rating and then add a free text review. 

Negativity bias is rife here. What are the chances of someone who has had a pretty good experience going: “I like this app so much I'm going to go out of my way to search back in the app store, find it again and review it”? Sure, for someone who's a super fan, maybe, but the chances of someone doing that who doesn't like your app are much, much higher. 

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

Why is it so important to aim for a 5-star rating?

When people are searching for new apps to download, clearly something that's got a ton of five star reviews is going to get a lot more attention than those without, not least because rankings are influenced by ratings and reviews. Apps with higher ratings are far more likely to be featured in top charts and recommended sections, making them much more visible. 

Users are definitely choosing high activity apps over those that have almost no interaction. Ratings give users confidence and in the fiercely competitive landscape of mobile applications, where millions of apps vie for users' attention, achieving high rankings is the key to organically increasing downloads (instead of relying solely on promotional efforts). So navigating the intricacies of app store algorithms and ensuring optimal visibility will position your app well for sustained growth.

Ultimately five stars represents an experience of a product, although it's very difficult to achieve huge ratings super quickly. If you’re solving a genuine pain point and you're doing it in such a way that it just fits into that person's life: their behaviours, their daily routine, then we see that as providing a potential 5-star experience. 

5-star apps can have an exponential impact on your ROI by reducing your customer acquisition cost, ultimately increasing your lifetime value as your churn drops. This is super exciting for your revenues, profits and investor appeal.

What elements of an app do you consider key factors to get right for users?

Firstly, you have to make sure you set out to build a 5-star app which has the greatest possible user experience that you can make, where you’ve really spent your time discovering what the problem is that you’re trying to solve for your users.

If your app is built around your user, employing fierce UX principles and human-centred design, you should enjoy having an intuitive and user-friendly interface. Then if users find the app easy to use, and quick to learn, you’re not falling at the first hurdle. Secondly, you’ll need to focus on the quality and range of (relevant) features that users actually want, use, and which are aligned to their needs. Equally important is device optimisation, as well as regular updates and performance enhancements. 

Aggressive monetisation or data collection strategies are definitely off-putting, and users are increasingly concerned - rightly so - about privacy, permissions and the handling of their data. It’s also worth bearing in mind that users might rate an app based on their expectation levels, which can be hugely influenced by marketing: if an app over promises and under delivers, it’s ripe for negative feedback.

What are some key considerations when creating a 5-star onboarding experience?

It's super common for app companies, founders and startups to over-engineer a product and to try and fit as many features as possible into their launch version. But the makers of an app  know their product inside out, and their experience is not reflective of a new user  trying to find their way through your app. So the importance of understanding that and designing a really delightful, simple to use experience where users don't need to think twice about how to get from your onboarding screens into the product can't be underestimated. What you’ll often find is founders will launch products that have just way too many features which haven't been tested properly with their market.

You can bake mobile analytics into your product to see which features are getting used and more often than not half the people won't even get through the onboarding phase (the first few screens that you see when you're getting some kind of summary of what this product's about). And then you'll find a lot of apps then ask you to sign up, create an account and basically, they're asking for data from you off the bat. If you haven't proven that there's value in what you’ve created for them then no one's going to give you their email and they’re never going to get past the onboarding, so all of the features that a lot of new apps focus on never actually end up getting used at all. 

How important is it to consider initial user retention?

People tend to either love or hate apps or if they're indifferent to it, they'll download it,try it once and say “this isn't for me” and they'll usually chuck it in or they just won't use it again. And actually you'd be amazed at what a low retention rate the average app in the app store has. It's actually considered positive if 25-30% of people who download an app use it on day two. 

Elaborating on the onboarding considerations, we have to be really cautious when trying to show the value of the product. We owe it to users to ask them for as little information as possible and give them a chance to actually use your product first (not just view your marketing screens). So there's this concept of having an anonymous ghost user which basically gives access to try certain elements of a product so users can see the value before they then start giving their data away. There are really great examples with some of the most popular apps on the market: you just won't find them asking for personal details before you actually get a taste of what the product does. 

Photo by Hannah Carr on Unsplash

What sort of tactics could you use to increase user retention longer-term? 

So user retention is sort of a love/hate term. There's a reason why so many people are ‘addicted to their phones’ and user retention tricks like streaks (for example) can be a bit uncomfortable from a development perspective. It's a difficult one because we want high user retention and we want people to really enjoy our products for sure, but there are what are called dark design patterns in use to make people feel that sense of: I can't put this product down. 

Having said that, there definitely are positive features that do drive user engagement. So with Surfers Against Sewage for example, the app is all about letting you know whether your local seas and rivers are safe to go swimming in and through a lovely visual map you can clearly see which spots are safe to swim in right now. But actually the real value in the app is that it lets me know when it's not safe to go swimming and that might be in five days time or a few week's time, and to get set up for those kinds of alerts, users need to have favourited those locations within what we call the ‘watch list’.  That way users receive alerts for those spots even when they’re not using the app. And those push notifications provide value to users and also drive engagement as they encourage the user back into the app to see details of a new sewage spill relevant to them.

How crucial is listening to user feedback about an app?

If you’re thinking about designing and shipping an app and then leaving it to your users to review it whenever they think of doing so…stop!

If somebody doesn't like something it might be super freaking hard to change it. But, user research can be timely and costly so you have to take advantage of the people that do love your product, or those that don’t and leave constructive feedback. Otherwise, you're absolutely missing an opportunity to optimise your offering and grow your user base. 

Could you explain the tactics you’ve previously used for review notifications?

It's quite common practice to utilise prompts within your app to ask your users for ratings. In terms of the practicalities, developers of mobile apps can prompt users to leave reviews at certain times, like when specific events happen during the usage of an app. For example, at ASquared we built an app called Link My Ride for cyclists, where we defined which key events showed great engagement with the product, for example when a user successfully creates a new ride and invites their friends, we would deem that to be a really positive experience. And in our awesome Surfers Against Sewage project, we added review prompts when users were actively engaging with favouriting locations and responding to push notifications. 

If you are able to prompt someone though, ultimately you have no control over whether they're going to write five star review or a one star review (and you can't put text in there like “hey, give us a five-star review”), but it is possible to trigger the kind of notifications you see in apps like Instagram when you've got to a certain point of usage and we can hopefully tell that you're engaged (you’ll probably notice these kinds of notifications following a positive experience you’ve had), then you get this pop-up saying, right it’s time to leave a review in the App Store. 

Let's say you've got a product that has achievements in it, like you just got the streak badge for spending five days interacting with great content in an app. That's exactly the sort of time where you might be prompted to go and rate it. If you define your key metrics for when to prompt your users, it’ll definitely help to drive 5-star ratings. 

How important is responsive customer support in maintaining a high app store rating, and what are some effective methods for doing this?

The last thing any developer wants to see is the one star review added when you could’ve done something to mitigate it. So you very much want to be doing everything you can to catch negative reviews before they happen, and to make it easy for your users to contact you in one form or another when they run into challenges with your product (which obviously happens, there's no such thing as bug free software!). 

So a couple of tips on that…you can use third-party customer support solutions that integrate into your app, which enable users to have direct one-to-one chats with you.

There's a real common problem with this though, typically app designers will embed the ‘contact us’ information in their app’s settings which can only be accessed once the user  has signed up. 

So if someone has a problem with their email address creating an account, they've got no way to reach you because that support is not there, so you want to make sure that support is front and centre. A super sad and common problem that we've witnessed before is being a victim of your own success because you have a massive surge in traffic and people can’t sign up, so they go straight to the app stores. Kicking off with really poor reviews is a really hard place to come back from. 

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam ✪ on Unsplash

What strategies or approaches do you recommend for continuously monitoring user feedback and reviews to improve app ratings and overall user satisfaction over time?

Get into a routine. As developers, you've got access to Google and Apple's portals. There's usually a delay of about a day before a positive or negative review actually hits the public profile of your app and those platforms give us the ability to respond to those reviews, but they don't let you delete them unless you've got proof that someone is trying to do something malicious. 

So you definitely have to keep on top of it and I just recommend dedicating a bit of time each morning to having someone on your team owning that, which we do post-launch when we partner with our clients to provide that ongoing support service.

It's quite difficult if somebody posts a bad review. You don't get their email so you can reply to them in the public domain, but unless they've actually signed up and you can kind of figure out who they are (which is harder than it sounds) that may be the only way you can contact them. We have had success where we've listened to feedback and fixed a whole bunch of things and turned around those one star reviews into five star reviews. You can also make sure users know when updates are coming and that you’ve listened to them and addressed their concerns, which we always try to do.

What’s your top tip in the context of aiming for 5-star reviews?

Keep it simple! Some of the most delightful app experiences have the most amount of complexity under the hood. I am a huge fan of taking already successful products, tweaking the metrics and talking to our users. Don't underestimate the power of little animations and moments of delight and the subtle triggers for someone achieving something rather than a host of huge fancy features.

You don't need a hundred features in your app for success, so don't try and do all of the things at once. Generally, I love apps that do one thing really well. So just make sure you keep focused on what the main pain point of your users is that you’re trying to solve and do everything you can just to keep that focus and not get carried away with unnecessary distractions.

As a digital product agency, first and foremost, ASquared is absolutely focused on creating 5-star experiences. That’s 5-star client experiences and 5-star user experiences through designing and developing 5-star apps. This principle is so embedded into our company fabric that it’s actually within our objectives and key results and it’s an absolute focus throughout the team. Talk to us to create yours.