How to ruin your app

It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have.
B. Earl Puckett, quoted in Stephen Donadio, The New York Public Library: Book of Twentieth-Century American Quotations, 1992

In many cases you can create something exceedingly new and useful, i.e., a creative work, but still screw it up completely by going that little extra mile … in the wrong direction.

In drawing, for example, pupils often make the mistake of not stopping soon enough. Their works reaches its peak and then they keep buggering on and the quality falls off again.
In Apps it’s often additional features that crowd the interface and are not useful for the majority of customers and actually prevent them from using the app effectively. Or it’s an additional “feature” that isn’t really there to help the user but the company who sells the products.

The worst example of the last kind of screw up I’ve seen was in a really nice and useful Yoga app. I’m not saying which one, because I do not want to reward them for this. In this app you get Alert Views infrequently and unpredictably when you start the app, wanting you to download their iPad version, to become their fan, to download ‘free’ products they also offer.

I can understand the reasoning behind advertisements — if you do not spread the word about your products, it is unlikely that people will buy them. And in the short run these Alert Views will have a positive effect: some people will get these ‘incredible offers’ and follow the company and get vulnerable to more ads, or download another ‘free’ app. I guess that some marketing ‘professionals’ reason with the mere exposure effect — the more I hear about a product, the more I like it, and in this way these Alert View Ads make sense. Oooops, sorry, not that simple. The mere exposure effect works, but only if the first impression was positive. If you start by nagging your customer and he dislikes the interruption, doing it again and again will very quickly make your customer hate your product. Sorry, it’s not that simple, despite what people say who make their money with it.

And doing advertisements this way is nagging and distasteful and in the long run hurtful to the company as well in a lot of ways:

  • While it is not an utility app like Stocks where I need that information now, it still deviates from my path. I start the app to do a Yoga workout, not to get “incredible offers”. The app is effectively undermining its primary objective: helping people to do regular Yoga exercises (if this was the objective and not ‘find an outlet for our advertisements’).
  • I use it in the morning (might apply only for part of the users) and you don’t want to offer me anything in the morning except perhaps coffee, Red Bull or sex. How likely is it that I am willing to buy something when I am hardly awake (granted, for some people the answer might be ‘very likely’, but I simply shut down). A simple “get the local time and if it’s early in the morning don’t give any ads”.
  • It misuses alerts. Alerts usually offer critical information (like appointments, failed mails, etc.) and they draw attention. While this might be good from a marketing point of view, it quickly backfires if the ‘information’ is an ad that has no practical value for you in that situation. And it isn’t the kind of ad (increased personalization wouldn’t help), but that it is an ad. Additionally an alert is often something negative (coming from an app, not an SMS from another person), so your ad has a hard time getting out of this frame.
  • The Alert View is ugly which doesn’t make sense given the otherwise very high production values of the app. They could have made another view controller with some products (users would probably press it once) where they could play out their offer with images and high-class design. Instead there’s only some ugly text. Not the best way to convey an ad.
  • It’s ads in a paid app. If they would have used the iAds design, customers would probably have protested. But they use Alert Views to interrupt with advertisement in an app people paid for and screw them this way.
  • There is no way to disable them (unfortunately, iOS doesn’t allow you to disable Alert Views for specific apps). A simple setting (you can set a few things otherwise, including the language of the sound files) would have been sufficient. But they don’t offer them.
  • To make matters worse, it’s integrated in the app. As far as I can see the app doesn’t communicate to any external server, and given that the ads repeat there is no hope that the ads stop — ever. So I look in the future and ask myself — do I really want to be nagged infrequently and unpredictably in the morning with ads? And the app suddenly loses its value.
  • They are trying to wear you down with the same ads over and over again until — I guess this is their hope — you become their ‘friend’, buy another app, etc. — but why would you want to be ‘friends’ with a company that — basically — uses extortion? In the end it makes me question the company and distance myself from it by quitting using its products.

In short, this company created a really good product with very high production values, great videos, excellent voice commands for you to follow, something that I used every morning for the past 6 months (with a handful of exceptions) — and they completely ruined their masterpiece by using Alert View Ads, or rather any kind of ad. They are beneficial for the company in the short run and I guess they have made a lot of money from these ads, but they destroy their user base. Personally, I wouldn’t buy any of the recommended apps and I will avoid the company in the future. I guess a marketing professional (at least from that company) would argue that the Alert View ads were simply too frequent. If they were more infrequent, I wouldn’t have stopped for a moment and questioned the use(fulness) of the app. Sure, that is one interpretation, but more than once in the lifetime of an app is too frequent (and this included updates, given that they are frequent in iOS).

And, as usual, there is a simple solution to continue with my morning exercise and avoid the ads: Given that I only need the voice commands, I’ll record them via an audio cable, create an mp3 out of it and put it in the iPod app. Same instructions and pacing to follow but without the ads. Morning frustration gone.

So, no matter how successful your company is, no matter how good their products are, if you focus only on your agenda and thereby destroy the product experience for the customer, they will leave.

Why? Because they can.