Archive for March 2009
Sales of Australian weather apps have been quiet recently (more details to come in a future post), and right now Oz Weather is at #17 overall ranking of Australian paid apps. This is a very respectable position by almost any standard, although much less impressive than it has been historically.
I am attributing this mainly to the fact that the weather is now inter-seasonal and hence rather bland, especially when compared to the exceptional heatwave and tragic bush-fires in Victoria two months ago, during which sales peaked quite dramatically. In a previous article I revealed the relationship between interest in weather and Oz Weather sales levels, and this apparently continues to hold true, as weather query rates have been below 1 per app per day recently, indicating an historically low interest level in the weather from app users.
However, Oz Weather development continues never-the-less! Version 1.4 has just been approved by Apple. This approval took 4 working days (6 days elapsed), which seems to be about par for the course.
The main new feature is a much-improved city selection dialog. Although it has been possible since v1.0 to use GPS location via the “Locate Me” crosshairs button on the add city screen, it seems that many users never even noticed it was there, and thus were scrolling through the list of 274 cities in alphabetical order in the hope of finding somewhere nearby by finding familiar place names.
The new screen design has the following improvements
- Divides cities into separate lists for each state
- Makes the “Near Me” button much bigger and easier to find
- Also allows users to view a list of locations near to any specified location
The other changes are a little more subtle. For example I have added grip bars to the current weather views, thus making it more obvious that you can scroll sideways to find observations for other nearby locations within your vicinity. I’ve almost lost count of the number of emails I’ve received from users requesting additional observation locations, and who seemed to be very pleasantly surprised when I told them they could already just scroll sideways to get exactly those locations.
And the least visible change has been a very satisfying one for me, as I believe that I may finally have conquered an obscure problem that could cause a crash. It was a fairly rare crash, but not rare enough to prevent some understandably annoyed users from leaving some bad reviews. Sadly there is no mechanism in place allowing developers to respond to people who report their problem via a review. But here is a suggestion for Apple. When someone submits a review with, say, 2 stars or less, then prompt the user with a message like the following.
If you have experienced problems with this app, then please contact the developers via their supplied contact email address for support. Developers are unable to contact you or respond to you regarding any problem that you report only via a review.
Apple already does prompt users with messages when they leave reviews – why not just add an extra one like this? It could greatly help users and developers alike.
Apple has recently made major improvements to the user review system for apps, making it generally much fairer and more useful to customers.
Reviews are now labeled with the date on which they were written, the version of app being reviewed, and there is a graphical view of the distribution of ratings, making it much easier to see the overall response of users to the app.
But there are still some ways in which the system can be abused or gamed, as I have only just discovered myself, after noticing that despite Oz Weather’s typically high user review scores, the 3 reviews shown to all users on their first view of the app information (in the Australian app store) happened to be 1 and 2 star reviews, with correspondingly negative sentiments.
The reason that these unrepresentative reviews are being shown persistently is because Apple considers them to be the “most helpful” ones according to the algorithm that they apply to their peer review system ie. where users rate other users’ reviews.
But closer examination showed that those particular reviews had received feedback from just one other user ie. they were marked with the statement “1 out of 1 customers found this review helpful“. And looking down the list of 31 reviews of the current version it was apparent that the low ranking reviews had all been found “helpful” by 1 out of 1 users, whereas all the high ranking reviews (many more of them of course!) had all been found helpful by 0 out of 1 users (ie. found “unhelpful”).
Given this pattern, what’s to bet that all this was the work of just one person?
Most disappointingly, a review I left myself was similarly marked as unhelpful, thus making it virtually invisible to most users. I had left this for the purpose of trying to help those users who had app problems but not realised they could just email me for support. And in it, I clearly identified myself as the developer. (As I had to leave a star ranking, it had to be 5 stars – what would user’s have thought of the app if it’s own maker had ranked it less?!)
This problem with user reviews of reviews has been there since day one of the app store, but due to the fact that numbers of users, their reviews, and their reviews of other reviews was always growing, it wasn’t a big issue for long. Once enough users had been acquired, the chance that a single user’s feedback could affect things this dramatically became negligible.
But with Apple’s new review system in place, whenever any app update is issued, the reviews for the current version only start at a count of zero, and the prospect of this distortion and/or possibility of gaming the review system by just one (or very few people working together) arises again, at least until the number of user reviews has grown enough to drown it out again. Given that many app developers do release updates relatively frequently, this makes it into a real issue – one that happens to have been made much worse as a consequence of the new review system.
So how could this be solved? Well Apple has already solved a similar issue in relation to the average star rating ie. they no longer give a star rating at all until a sufficient number of reviews have been received. So perhaps the solution is simply to ignore the helpful/unhelpful ratings until a sufficient number have accrued – at least several, preferably more.
Another approach would be to limit the number of helpful/unhelpful ratings that any one user can give – thus preventing them from sullying the entire complement of existing reviews in one go, as appears to have happened to Oz Weather in this case.
Yet another would be to look for patterns of user response eg. if a user consistently rated all low star reviews as helpful, and high star reviews as unhelpful (or vice versa), then their ratings are simply ignored. Of course this might require some advanced algorithms to make it work, which may be unrealistic for now, but it doesn’t hurt to think about them!
Because a solution to this issue is not going to be implemented or appear overnight (despite Apple’s many other talents!), I would like to appeal to any existing Oz Weather users to go into the Oz Weather app store entry in iTunes (you can use this link) and use the helpful/unhelpful feature to rate some of the existing other reviews. I would ask you to do this with integrity and honesty ie. please don’t just do it for the sake of panning the bad reviews or glorifying the good ones – rather do what feels right and appropriate to make the review rating more realistically representative of your own opinion of the app.
By the way, those bad reviews on the front page are no-doubt quite honest. The app can (rarely) start crashing, and the only solution is to delete then re-install the app, and I do believe that it is very important to listen to complaints, and think carefully about what you could do to avoid similar complaints in future.
To this end, I have recently rooted out the likely cause of any crashing, and also put in a crash recovery mechanism just for those 1 in 10,000 type scenarios. Hopefully this will mean that eventually there will be no 1 star reviews at all – and then it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to game the helpfulness of reviews either! What? Me? An idealist? Well maybe.
My new app has just arrived in the iTunes store! It is called Solace & Courage and appears in the Lifestyle section of the app store. View or Buy it in iTunes here.
It provides advice, comfort and inspiration for all types of life situations, via carefully prepared text and photos.
You may be thinking that this is rather different to Oz Weather – and it is! However, if there were to be a connection it might be that Oz Weather deals with atmospheric weather, whereas Solace & Courage deals with psychological weather. Is that too contrived? In any case, psychology and spirituality have been a special interest for me almost as long as the weather has – and creating an iPhone app along these lines seemed like an ideal outlet for this.
The app may best be used as follows:
- Helpful advice for times of stress
- Encouragement for any time
- Use for centering or meditation
- Use as a thought of the day to ponder
The categories of text it contains:
- Choose For Me (a random selection)
- Receive Encouragement
- For Disappointment
- For Sadness / Depression
- For Anxiety / Fear
- For Irritation / Anger
- About Solace (explanation and instructions)
You may either choose text by category, or allow a random selection especially for you. Optionally you can have the app open immediately to a random selection, as a “thought of day”, and the text may be either autoscrolled or allow you to scroll manually.
The app contains a collection of original passages of text composed especially for this application, inspired by Eckhart Tolle, Torkom Saraydarian, J.Krishnamurti and other teachers of the Ageless Wisdom. There is no religious content, but it is intended to be spiritually refreshing and stimulating. The text is non-trivial – it encourages you to explore deeply, inspires you to overcome your limitations, and provides comfort and self-empowerment in times of need.
The background pictures of nature are beautiful, peaceful and inspiring, complementing the tone and mood of the text. Users are encouraged to take the time to absorb the meaning of the text and apply it to their own lives.
The app has deliberately slow and elegant transitions from item to item – to encourage the user to become more still and focused, and thus become more receptive to the deeper meaning of the words.
The Development Side of the Story
I only had the idea for this app about a month ago, and worked on it in bits and pieces between my other projects. Despite the relative simplicity of the app’s structure, I spent around four to five days effort in creating, experimenting with and tweaking the interface. I felt that it was important that the interface created the right mood for the user. I composed the text myself, writing only when I felt adequately inspired.
The background photos were licensed from BigStockPhotos.com – about 60 photos for AUD$133 (US$86), although I eventually discarded about 10 of them for not having quite the right level of appeal.
The app submission process was smooth – it took about 4 1/2 working days from submission to approval by Apple.
Of course it is far too early to tell how well this app will go in the very competitive app store environment, but I’m not holding my breath. I may be lucky just to make back the photo licensing fees!
I suppose another trait that this app has in common with Oz Weather is that it is has serious intentions. So many of the apps currently available are very light, frivolous and faddish, though to a large degree this is due to the way the app store is structured. It favours the cheapest apps (by putting the highest volume of sales to the top of its rankings rather than highest revenue), and the one-off payment system means that developers have no incentive to develop apps that will be used on an ongoing basis.
Of course iPhone OS 3.0 will change this to some degree, making it possible for developers to charge for premium or onging content. But we still have a few months to go with the existing model before those new possiblities will actually eventuate!
Some time ago, Tom Adams (CTO, MoGeneration) asked me whether there was any link between Oz Weather sales and the unusually stormy weather we’d been having in Queensland. And at that time I couldn’t think of any obvious way to find out.
However, a few days ago inspiration finally struck. It occurred to me that one of the server stats I’d been recording was producing a pretty good indication of how unusual or interesting the weather was on any given day. That statistic is the number of weather queries per installed app.
Typically this seems to be 1.0 to 1.5 weather queries per day per app, but this peaked at about 4.3 weather queries per app during the recent Victorian extreme heatwave and bushfires. In fact there were more than 100,000 queries on that day alone, from an installed base of about 24,000 units. So the next step was to visualise the data graphically to see if there was any relationship in general over time, as shown below.
There does indeed appear to be a relationship here! The blue curve is a logarithmic best fit, although a linear fit would probably have been as good.
The conclusion I am drawing from this is that there is “base” level of sales of around 150 to 200 per day, and that rate increases by 100 or more sales per day as the weather becomes more extreme, interesting or newsworthy.
You might question whether I’ve got the relationship the wrong way around here ie. whether in fact the new daily sales are causing the higher query rate than usual as people first tried out the app. No doubt this is indeed a factor. However, given that new daily sales are typically only about 1% of total apps already in use, it seems very unlikely that this could actually account for the large changes observed.
In terms of app rankings, it interesting to note that Oz Weather finally jumped into #1 position in the paid app rankings on a day when there were 4.1 weather queries per app. It remained there for 12 days, while the rate of weather queries averaged 2.5 per app (ranging from 1.5 to 4.3). It finally fell back to #2 position again on the day that the weather query rate had dropped back to 1.3 per app, and since then it has dropped further to #6 position, with an average weather query rate of just 1.2 queries per app over the last 20 days.