Launching an app for the iPhone is a lot different than launching an app on the web. The biggest difference is probably the two weeks you have to wait before any change can be made to your app, whereas on the web, as soon as a user notices a bug you can fix it. This fact has a lot of implications for how you manage and launch a product.
Implication #1: Get it Right The First Time
You need to launch your app feature-complete and bug-free, and be darn sure it’s solid. For Gaia GPS, we worked on the app for many months, pushed it to the app store, and then discovered an insidious bug 10 days into the review process that was big enough that we decided to pull the app. The bug was that the we were dropping GPS points when you had a poor signal (which would come up if you were driving through a tunnel, or if you had the app in your pocket and you were walking such that your body obscured the satellite signal). It took us a while to notice this bug because you needed to put the iPhone in your pocket, travel the correct direction to obscure the signal, and then notice that your distance reading for the track was a little off.
This decision might have cost us money, but probably not – I imagine we would have gotten a bad review or two as a result, which would have accounted for 10 days worth of sales over the long haul. On the web of course, we would have just fixed it when it came up.
When we launched our first app (TrailBehind), we made the mistake of treating it like a web app. We launched as soon as we thought we had a reasonable app, and we got hammered by bad reviews almost immediately, for things we had on our list to do. It wasn’t buggy, but it was incomplete and we knew it, and sales suffered.
Implication #2: Get to Work on the 1.1 Release Right Away
When you push an app to the App Store, it is not yet time to celebrate. In the intervening two weeks, it’s time to get to work on the 1.1 release. By the time Apple has released your app, you need to have the next release ready to push to the store, the minute you get the acceptance email. The next release for Gaia GPS is running through the review process now.
The two weeks of Apple Review are a good time to even more thoroughly test your app. Hopefully, you won’t find a show-stopper that causes you to pull it, but you will notice minor bugs and inconsistencies. For the 1.1 release, I don’t think you should be making much in the way of new features – besides maybe finishing something up you didn’t have time to before launch. Instead, you should be cleaning things up, refactoring a bit, and giving the app a thorough review. Hopefully, you also have a group of ad hoc Beta Testers, who are giving you feedback on your app. If so, then you definitely want to make it a priority to fix their bugs and implement their features.
Implication #3: Get in Touch with Your Customers
Finally, it’s important to communicate extensively with your customers. With a two week minimum turn-around before you an actually address a bug in the app, you need to listen to people who report bugs, assure them they will be fixed, and fix them. For really irate users and big bugs, you should be willing to push an ad hoc build to select users before the next release.
For Gaia GPS, we have five main screen on the app, the fifth of which is a Feedback screen. That’s right – we have four screens chock-filled with cool geo-features, followed by a screen just as prominent that is a Feedback form. In future releases of the app, we will make the feedback screen less prominent and replace it with some other features, but for our first few launches, we wanted to ensure our customers can get in touch with us without any confusion. And whatever comes in through the feedback form is gospel as far as we are concerned. That form is the sole driver of our engineering work until all user requests have been addressed.
Whenever you develop a software project, it’s incredibly important to get feedback from end users, but on the iPhone, it’s even more important. If you do not give your users a forum to vent their frustration and to tell you what’s wrong with your app, they will do it in a review on the App Store instead, and bad reviews will destroy sales. Also, people will be a lot less forgiving on the iPhone than on the web – on the web, people expect bad software for nothing. On the iPhone, even if someone pays just .99 for an app, they expect to get their money’s worth, and so they should.