Update:
A nice guy named Bill from Apple’s review team called to clarify that incentivizing people to write reviews isn’t compliant with Review Guideline 3.10. This is a bummer, but the concern of mitigating mistrust in reviews is a real one. Incentives were just one small part of this article and there are still plenty of other great ways to encourage people to review mentioned below.
I’ve clarified the points on incentivization and have updated Blackbox.

How I got 10,000 five-star reviews in 4 weeks

Blackbox is a collection of over 50 artful and minimalistic puzzles that are generally solved without touch. It’s a weird game that’s resonated with a lot of people (especially developers) and was featured in Best New Games.

Blackbox was downloaded over 500,000 times in the first six weeks following its February 25th release. Designing and developing Blackbox was a solo project but I owe a great deal of my success to the global community of iOS designers and developers who have opened their books, shared their secrets, and provided encouragement when things got tough. Sharing some of what I have learned feels long overdue.

Blackbox’s Ratings Breakdown

Great ratings have undoubtably had a significant impact on Blackbox’s downloads, from lifting its rank in the charts to encouraging new players to hit “get”. Reading them is also an utter joy and affirming morale boost when I’m feeling down or otherwise overwhelmed.

Global rating breakdown as of April 7th, 2016
Thanks XKCD

For better or worse app ratings are very important. It’s been written about extensively—everything from the right way to ask to how Apple can help. Blackbox isn’t doing much that’s particularly novel, but 10,000+ five star reviews with a consistent five star average in under a month warrants examination.

What we won’t admit is killing us

Even with a loyal core audience that loves what you’ve built (paying or otherwise) they cannot be expected to go out of their way to go rate your app on their own time and volition. It sucks, but that’s why you added iRate to your app. You did dial in the constants and tweak the copy, right?

Consider someone has had your app installed for 10 days, seems to have a free moment, and has gotten what you consider a measured amount of utility or amusement—they’re ready to prompt …but before your UIAlertView has even finished fading-in, their trigger finger is winding up for a second go at the bolded “please stfu button.

Maybe you fare slightly better than that; maybe you’ve asked very nicely and they’re a gracious god who decides to help …but get discouraged and give up when asked for their Apple ID password. This doesn’t work well; we can do better.

Three areas to improve

There are apps I love and use daily but when they ask for a rating I often delay and decline. I thought through why and found three main problems:

  • Being asked out of the blue for help felt impersonal and needy (even when the app is free 😰).
  • I didn’t feel motivated enough to follow through (especially when the store would load slowly or I mistyped my password).
  • I was interrupted or the timing generally felt poor.

Okay so what does Blackbox do?

Progressive disclosure is an idea rooted in reducing cognitive load and confusion by providing only as much information as needed at a given time. This serves a core purpose of creating a more approachable interface that grows with the comfort and skill level of the person using it, but has a beautiful secondary purpose of fueling a curiosity to see what’s in store.

My StackOverflow reputation with my “Next privilege” in sight.

Stack Overflow uses progressive disclosure not only to keep the site approachable but also to meter out trust. I don’t really know what “review queues” are, but I’m looking forward to gaining enough reputation to access them. 😁

Blackbox is a game where progress is entirely driven by curiosity and a desire to fill in little squares (lights). Provide enough incentive and people will do some pretty crazy things to turn an unfilled square filled.

Sam Cornwell on the Scotland/UK border solving a Blackbox challenge :)

When an interface changes, people notice, subconsciously or otherwise. In a stark app like Blackbox any change holds substantial meaning. Features and levels are metered out slowly and the interface deliberately builds around the player as they learn. Players begin to anticipate and look forward to new additions. Even Game Center won’t show up (including its overeager login banner) until it can be assumed that the player is having a good time.

Tapping sends out a ripple that gives glimpses of what’s to come…

For many players the star (faintly seen above: middle-left) is anticipated and desired even when its meaning is suspect. This turns something potentially nagging into something desirable out of a completionist need. It’s a purposeful design element not too different from the Apple Watch’s incomplete fitness circles, which beg for completion. Make something scarce and it will become desired, set something off balance and it will beckon symmetry.

Incomplete circles beg to be completed (source: Apple)

Rather than try to use fairly emotionless metrics like days since install, app opens, or even successful shares to measure engagement, Blackbox takes a more empirical approach. By watching people play I know which challenges are “crowd pleasers” that people love to talk about and smile to themselves upon solving; These are the challenges that trigger revealing the star. Now excited and stoked, players find this little star waiting on the home grid and immediately investigate it…

Imagine how you’d feel if a less-than-close friend asked you out of the blue to help them move. Now imagine if you had first asked your friend what they were up to and they said they were moving and actually could use some help if you were free. This subtle change is the key difference between prompting someone versus waiting for them to “ask”.

(The hint reward will be removed in an upcoming version but not the confetti!)

Complement and thank all you want, it’s hard to encourage someone you just met to help you without offering something in return. For me building rapport begins with letting my voice through and not hiding behind a made-up company nor royal “we”. People seem to be far more forgiving and empathetic when they can connect to a person or team. From there, offering a reward is the final cherry on top of it all.

Wait, you’re rewarding reviews? (Well, not any more.)

(This section used to cover incentivizing reviews. Apple reached out to clarify that rewarding reviews falls under “other inappropriate methods” in 3.10. I’ve updated this section to reflect that…)

3.10 of the App Review Guidelines
Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.

Previously I thought Christian Heidarson clarified this well:

“…to reward the user for leaving a review on the app store does not manipulate the rankings, since the user can leave a poor review without your knowledge (or indeed, return to your app without having left a review at all, without your knowledge).” (source: Quora)

Cult of Mac article — photo source: Weibo

If you read some of Blackbox’s reviews they’re definitely genuine—anything but fake or paid. With rank manipulation happening all the time via incentivized downloads, network cross promotion, voting rings, review exchange networks (oh and this wall of iPhones) it seemed that this more home-baked idea might be allowed, but unfortunately not.

Maybe this stance will change in the future though. Remember when Apple was booting apps that incentivized watching video ads in 2014?

Lessons learned

User prerogative is key

We may have lost the ability to spot predatory animals in our periphery but we’ve all become remarkably adept at hitting tiny close x’s and dismissing UIAlertViews with ease and abandon. These days if you dress something in a native alert view you best assume it will never be read.

Rather than a prompt, opt for an intriguing button, placed where it’ll catch the eye of someone in a mode of exploration—not the middle of editing or playing (Circa nails this). Remember, not everyone needs to be your advocate; fewer, but more exuberant reviews will quickly shadow many half-hearted ones. Fewer people will be nagged who wouldn’t leave reviews to begin with, and those who do will do so gladly.

Have something (more) to give back

It’s one thing to give thanks, it’s another to give a token of thanks. It’s the gesture that counts! Bake in some confetti. Find a fun gif. G̶i̶f̶t̶ ̶a̶ ̶s̶m̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶f̶e̶a̶t̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶i̶f̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶.̶ Make a personal appeal. Go out of your way for others and they’ll be more eager to respond.

Personal appeal

If you’re a small or solo team it might be worth getting out from behind your brand (when things are going well and poorly!). There’s little to lose in doing so and you might be surprised at the extra empathy and understanding it affords you.

Timing, timing, timing

Find a compelling moment to reveal your review option. What do people love about your app? Find a way to measure that moment and hook into it. Are there measured times you shouldn’t show a rating option? Make sure you’re not interrupting anything.

Provide means for feedback

What about unhappy reviews? People flow like water down the path of least resistance and you better provide an easier way to reach out when things start going south (Dan Counsell illustrates a great example of this). If not, prepare to hunt down reviewers on Twitter—not fun or easy.

The Reviews!

Not only are reviews helpful to people considering getting your app, they’re great motivation to get to work every day. I have a lot of fun reposting my favorites on Twitter (including one star reviews).

Thanks LaunchKit and appFigures for the review monitoring tools!


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Want to test your mettle and iOS knowledge? ⬛️📲 Download Blackbox.