The Worst App Store Ever

We develop apps exclusively for the Microsoft Store. Two million users have downloaded our free apps so far in 2017. I’m proud to say all of our apps are rated 4 stars or better.

I started writing about our experience as Store developers, and every time I’ve done so, a large part of the resulting comments take this form:

Not shown: accusations that we’re Microsoft employees, or, worse yet, independent consultants.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t taken aback. We make a decent living from our Store apps, our users seem pretty satisfied with them (and, we presume, the Store experience — they’re using it, after all), and the Store has made massive improvements in the last year in terms of quality and selection.

You wouldn’t know it from the comments we get though. Apparently, we’re developing apps for the worst app store ever.

We used to make Win32 apps, and we know both as users and developers you can’t do everything in a Store app that you can in a traditionally-installed app. But there are lots of apps (like most of ours) that don’t sacrifice much in the way of functionality by constraining themselves to the Store’s sandbox. And with Project Centennial, you can often get the same Win32 apps you used to get, minus the crappy installers with opt-out toolbars.

But that’s just, like, our opinion, man. We wanted to know what Store users actually think of the Store — real, current users, not biased app developers (like us) or users who got burned in 2015 or 2016 and never came back (like the thoughtful pundits shown above, presumably). Do our users use the Store begrudgingly, or cheerfully? Do they care about how they get their software? Are they aware they’re using it at all?

Asking and receiving

We used the ad inventory in our apps to present our users with the opportunity to take a short survey on what they thought of the Store. We offered no incentive for completing the survey.

We collected responses from 508 users from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand from the survey, shown below.

The numerical rating allowed us to compute the Store’s Net Promotor Score® (NPS) as according to our users.

The NPS is a standard metric that calculates the difference between the percentage of Promoters (users who rate 9 or 10) from the percentage of Detractors (users who rate 6 or below).

Scores can range from -1.00 (100% Detractors) to 1.00 (100% Promoters). Anything better that 0 is considered evidence that the product is sustainable and will grow, with 0.30 being “good” and 0.50 being “excellent”, although the best way to consider an NPS is to look at a competitor’s, or your industry’s average.

The results

According to our users, the Microsoft Store’s NPS is 0.05.

The Store has — very slightly — more promoters (9s and 10s) than detractors (6 or less). That’s not bad at all. It means that the Store is poised for growth, nourished by the Promoters singing its praises more than Detractors condemn it.

So it’s apparently not the tire-fire-in-a-dumpster-fire you might have been lead to believe it is. But it still has lots of room to improve.

We also categorized users’ freeform responses. These mentioned app selection, the usability of the Store itself, app quality, pricing, errors with the Store, complaints about Windows 10 in general, and app discoverability issues.

Note that a response may fit in to more than one category. The 218 responses that did not answer this question and the 155 responses that were either unclear or were not easily categorized are omitted.

We can see from this that the Microsoft Store is winning users over with good usability, but needs to offer more and higher-quality apps. Free apps that are “too greedy” with their monetization were specifically called out in most of the negative remarks about pricing. And despite the compliments to usability, errors with the Store and Windows 10 and discoverability problems were common complaints.

Windows, know your place

Some users see app stores as the exclusive domain of Google and Apple.

“I don’t want apps! What are you, Apple?”
“It’s stupid. We should get programs like we did in Windows 7.”

These users are not excited about the concept of a desktop app store. The Store was foisted upon them by the operating system, and is seen as a threat to the way they’re familiar with installing software.

Microsoft is aware of this, and you can see them trying to change users’ minds about how they get apps on their Windows 10 devices, like by pushing quality and discoverability improvements in the Store. (Future users of Windows 10 Cloud, or locked down Windows 10 installations in enterprise or education deployments, will also be — forcibly — acclimated to the Store.)

Where comparisons are drawn between the Microsoft Store and other app stores, iOS and Android come out on top.

“I can’t get some apps like I get with my Android.”
“A lack of applications compared to Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store.”
“It needs more apps; many things are only available on Android or iOS.”
“I hate that it has the least amount of apps compared to any app store.”

As app developers keep stepping up their game, the line between Store apps and Win32 apps with traditional installers will blur, and users will be less surprised by the Store experience. Microsoft, for their part, will continue to take every possible opportunity to drive its users to the Store, to fight the havoc that over-privileged Win32 installers wreak on unsuspecting users.

What developers should do

Don’t take it for granted that your users are familiar with the Store, even if that’s how they found your app. Your app could very well be the first Store app the user has ever downloaded.

If you’re monetizing through ads or in-app purchases, you might be breaking your users’ preconceived expectations of desktop software; explain to them what you’re doing, and why.

Too much of a good thing

Users love the selection of the Store, hinting at the closing of the much-discussed “app gap”:

“I like all of the popular apps being available like Instagram, unlike on the Mac App Store.”
“There’s an app for almost anything”

They know that there are good apps in the Store, but they struggle to find them, since they’re often buried behind less-deserving apps:

“I greatly dislike the apps that are low in rating and useless being in the forefront of the search. Not always the case, but most time it happens.”
“Not enough vetting of apps; just need to see the best one, not 15 apps for the same thing.”

Some app searchers are understandably mystified by the app search results they get back:

“What I hate about it is when I ask for a specific game or app, it gives me all kinds of other things.”
“Too much digging around to find the right apps.”

Every app store has discoverability problems. But when the tech press is talking about ‘discoverability’ with iOS or Android apps, what they mean is that it’s hard for indie developers to achieve critical mass because of all the established apps taking up the shelf space on the top charts.

In the Microsoft Store, our users say, the problem is that the Store can actively promote inferior apps — apps that are incompatible, have low ratings, or are clearly spam or trick-to-click — ahead of better options.

The Store’s algorithm is lurching forwards, even though there’s the occasional hiccup like mobile-only results showing up in the desktop Store, or desktop-only apps showing up in the Xbox Store. Aside from working on the Store algorithms, Microsoft will keep helping discoverability by surfacing curated collections of vetted apps.

What developers should do

Don’t rely on app store optimization (ASO) or wait for the Store to rank your app in a way you think is fair. Expect lots of competition, both fair and unfair. Invest in good metadata — especially your icon — so that you can still attract downloads even if you’re a few positions behind lower-quality apps.

Users browsing the Store aren’t stupid, and they’ll go a few extra positions down the results list to find an app that looks like it was made with care.

Users like the quantity of free apps…

“Love all the free apps.”
“Most of the good apps are free.”

Lightweight, free apps seem to be the key to bootstrapping user interest in a new app store, especially on a platform that offers lots of other avenues for app installation like Windows 10 does.

There’s something of a land grab going on among Store developers right now, to the benefit of users. Many of the best apps in the Store are ad supported while developers figure out the best way to build the audiences that are needed to support the marketing of paid apps.

Microsoft’s excellent trial model for Store apps also helps drive the perceived price of apps down. Trials aren’t just time-limited; many developers offer unlimited length trials of their apps that are feature-limited instead, which means users satisfied with less features can get apps for free and use them perpetually.

What developers should do

Keep in mind that you’re playing in an app store where most of your competition — both honest and not — will be listing their app as either ‘Free’ or ‘Free Trial’. If your app is paid without a trial option, you need to have external traffic for it (or a hookup with a regular feature from the Store’s editorial team), because your type-in download traffic is going to be lackluster.

But some developers are too greedy.

“Most of the so-called ‘free apps’ end up costing money to get full use.”
“I love the selection, but hate the pushiness of the developers asking for money”

Since Apple started the pricing race to the bottom with the launch of its iOS App Store, users who previously paid $40 for boxed software at Fry’s are now loathe to part with even $0.99 in an app store. This has driven developers to try ever-more-creative ways of making money.

In Apple’s iOS ecosystem, the sheer number of developers and users resulted in a plethora of free options with generous in-app functionality as developers competed for mindshare. As the Microsoft Store grows, we’ll see similar pressure for developers to be generous with the functionality of their free apps, and greedy developers will either clean up their act or die off.

But for now, some “free” apps in the Store are way too aggressive with monetization. In a more mature Store, these apps would be hard to find due to their poor ratings, but algorithm bugs occasionally promote these apps to the top for important search results.

These apps play naughty games with users. Some don’t allow the app to run more than once until the user either buys an IAP or reviews the app. Others show ads over top of app functionality buttons, earning money for mis-clicks. Luckily this level of blatant disrespect for the user isn’t common, and apps that do this don’t tend to last long before the Store’s review team boots them off.

What developers should do

User sentiment is a leading indicator of what the Store’s review team will think of your app. The Store’s quality bar is constantly rising; if you’re pissing off your users with overly-aggressive monetization or ratings collection, you’re on borrowed time. Invest in the ecosystem, provide value to your users, and ask for the purchase in a way that’s transparent and defensible.

Call to developers

Some of the issues our users complained about can only be addressed by Microsoft. But some of them can be addressed by us, the Store developer community, by investing more in our apps, providing more value to our users, and building long-term relationships with them instead of doing hit-and-runs on new installs. Building trust in Store apps benefits everyone, and will create a virtuous cycle that justifies better and better apps.

Now that we’ve heard from our users, we want to hear from other Microsoft Store developers. What do you like about the Store? What drives you nuts? If you’re a developer, take our 2-question survey. We’ll publish the results in our next piece:

Edit: Survey closed, thanks for all your responses! Here are the results:

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