The Starbucks App Rating Fiasco

What explains the 2 out of 5 stars user rating of the beautiful new Starbucks iPhone app? As app developers and marketers, we can take away a few key lessons from Starbucks’ misstep.

I was very surprised to see poor user ratings for the latest version of Starbucks’ iPhone app, for a few reasons. First, I’m a frequent user of the app (and a heavy coffee drinker) and found the new app quite good. Second, mobile is a big part of Starbucks’ strategy. Currently, about 11% of all transactions are made through mobile devices, which translates to 5 million transactions a week (source: Engadget).

Here’s a quick primer for non-users of the Starbucks app. The app allows customers to make payments, collect reward points, redeem rewards, find stores, get free music/app downloads, and purchase gift cards. The new version introduces Shake-to-Pay (shake your phone and the payment screen appears) and a neat way to tip your barista right from the app. The new app sports a modern design and removes some features that were included in the old version.

Within a few weeks, the new app garnered scathing reviews and a paltry rating of 1.5 out of 5 stars, based on over 700 user ratings. All versions of the app combined have an average rating of 3 stars out of 5.

Ratings from a few months ago for the latest version and the average rating for all versions. (Source: iTunes)

Needless to say, customers have been fairly vocal about their anger and frustration with the new app; most reviewers gave a 1-star rating.

Beautiful Design, Cool Features and Rave Blog Reviews

The backlash was quite unexpected, given the great reviews from tech blogs prior to launch. Several tech blogs touted the new app for its beautiful new design and cool features. The design gives the app a premium flavor, which Starbucks’ brand tries to maintain as competition from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts is heating up.

Home screen of the new app. Source: iTunes

The old version of the app provided a menu of features that catered to all types of users, while the new version focuses on aesthetics and trims down the list of features, albeit adding some new features requested by customers at

Home screen of the old version of app

What Went Wrong?

Analysis of more than 200 user reviews shows that most issues fall into the following categories:

  • Popular features are missing: The new version cuts nutrition information, the drink menu, and the ability to create and save custom drinks. Apparently, hard-core users loved and frequently used these features; for some, nutrition information was a key tool when deciding what drinks to order.
  • Login issues: Some users can’t log in after upgrading, although they can log in on the website. Sometimes the app loses login information when the Internet connection changes from 3G/4G to wireless (most stores have free wireless). Some users complain about being logged out from one phone if the account information is used to log in from another phone (some couples share one account).
  • Account/card sync issues: After reloading the card through app, the new balance is not available immediately on the phone.
  • New tipping feature: When you make a payment using the new app, you always get the option to tip the barista. While it’s great for baristas, many users are turned off by this new feature because they feel it is inappropriate to constantly ask for tips.
  • Menu/navigation changes: The new app shows your account balance prominently on the home screen, while the options to pay and to check card balance are not easily available.
  • Other design issues: Some users dislike the new black and white theme and font colors. For some, buttons are difficult to read without adjusting screen brightness.

What Can We Learn?

The Starbucks app is a key component of the company’s digital marketing strategy, which means Starbucks provides significant organizational support and funding for their app efforts. Yet, their team made crucial mistakes that could have been avoided. While it is tempting to attribute lower ratings and customer backlash to typical glitches during a major app/system upgrade cycle, I think the issues go deeper.

Tracking App Usage by Key Segments

It is highly unlikely that Starbucks’ team did not collect and analyze metrics on app usage. Then, how did they end up pissing off so many long-standing customers by removing popular features such as myDrinks? It is possible that the team

  • did not track usage details by feature;
  • did not adequately segment users and track app usage by segment; or
  • chose to ignore a key user segment.

With readily available and easy-to-use tools such as Google Analytics, Flurry, and Distimo, companies small and big have all the more reason to track and analyze app usage. Making decisions with the right data should be a key priority for app developers and marketers.

Improved Design Should Increase User Productivity

Two of the common goals of user interface redesign are increasing user productivity and improving usability (easy to learn and easy to use). Comments from several users reveal the latest version of Starbucks’ app has violated some of the basic UX design principles such as the Visibility principle, which requires that “the design should make all needed options and materials for a given task visible without distracting the user with extraneous or redundant information.” While the new app looks pretty, users find it hard to perform basic functions such as payment. In some instances, huge lines were formed in store and in drive-throughs as a result of users struggling to log in, reload their card, or make payments.

We do not have details about the rationale behind these design choices and about how much testing the Starbucks team performed, but it is clear that the design has left many customers unhappy — and customer satisfaction should be a priority, especially in situations where they are trying to hand money over to the company.

Do not Ignore Your Most Loyal Customers

Typically, a mobile app is part of an overall customer experience, which it should enhance it by making certain tasks easier. In the case of Starbucks, users made the app part of their coffee ritual by using it not only as a payment and rewards tool, but also for getting coffee/nutrition information and creating custom drinks.

In an effort to simplify the app and to focus on essential perfomance (such as payment and rewards), Starbucks took away key features used by serious coffee drinkers.

Don’t be Afraid to Create Multiple Apps

A good way to simplify the app experience is to create multiple apps, each with a certain focus area. In the case of Starbucks, a pure coffee-app, in addition to the current transactions app, would have addressed the needs of coffee lovers and served as a coffee education app for attracting new customers.

Although there is some additional overhead in developing and maintaining multiple apps, the incremental benefits — such as ease of use, less clutter, better tracking, and the ability to revise the app faster — are well worth the extra effort.

Better Looks != Better Rating

In today’s social world, app rating and reviews are very important and a big factor in adoption. I have analyzed several apps high and low ratings in the app store to understand drivers behind ratings. It seems obvious that users are more likely to give a 1 star rating to an app that does not perform basic functions well than they are to give a 5 star rating to extremely visually pleasing app that performs basic functions okay.

This means your first priority should be to ensure your app performs its basic functions extremely well. Surprise your users. Beautiful design is icing on the cake (which many people do appreciate anyway).

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Madhu Augustine’s story.