Should You Buy That App? Five Tips For Decoding an iTunes App Listing

Our feature this week is from Julie McCool, creator of the popular Snow Globe Maker apps, which encourage creativity and fun while giving users a unique way to keep in touch.  McCool is also the founder of Hawk Ridge Consulting (, which offers custom iPhone apps and iPhone app services including app design, development, testing, and marketing. She shares with us a detailed perspective for deciphering the iTunes App Store.

If you’re buying iPhone apps based on a quick look at their iTunes reviews, you’re missing a lot of the story. Here are 5 ways to evaluate whether that app is worth buying, from an app developer who sees the iTunes listing from the other side.

  1. Check the screenshots because pictures often tell more than words. App vendors can only display 5 images with the app listing, and it’s prime real estate. If a vendor only includes one screen shot, or devotes two spots to pictures of the icon and splash screen, the app is either very simple or could be hiding a problem UI. Look for clear images of the app in action, or of output you would expect to create with the app.
  2. Check the date. Apple displays the date the app was released or last updated under the app icon. If the app was released or last updated in 2008, it isn’t taking advantage of iPhone updates and isn’t responding to new competition. Maybe the app is so perfect it hasn’t needed an update in over a year, or maybe the developer has moved on to other things.
  3. Read the description. Click “More…” to read the app description beyond the two lines Apple displays. Most vendors include a list of key features in the App description so you’ll know more about what you’re paying for.
  4. Try the links. App vendors can provide two links: one for the vendor website and one for the app support page. Many vendors use the same landing page for both, which is fine as long as it’s clear how to get support for the app. A surprising number of apps link to pages that are dead (suggesting the vendor isn’t supporting the app), or redirect you to a page that provides no help. The bottom line is, you want to be able to get help if you have an issue. Vendor web sites often include demo videos which are a great way to evaluate an app before you buy.
  5. Read the What’s New list. If the app has been updated, you’ll see a summary of what’s in the new version just above the screenshots. Few products do everything you want them to on day one. Most dedicated app vendors will have a series of features they want to release, and they’ll bring them out over time. They also might need to improve app stability or usability. If an app is over 6 months old, check to see if it has been updated with new features and fixes.

Okay, now check the ratings, but keep in mind that iTunes star ratings and written reviews are basically anonymous. Positive ratings can be misleading and some companies even sell 5-star reviewsto desperate app vendors. Negative reviews can be vague or inaccurate, and there is no way for an app vendor to respond in iTunes or contact the customer to make things right. Take time to read some of the written reviews and look for detailed feedback. Treat a string of short “best app ever” comments with a little suspicion. Ratings can provide valuable information, but don’t let them be the only factor you consider.

A final tip–remember that most apps are only a dollar or two, so if you make a bad choice it has about the same financial impact as a house coffee at Starbucks. If you have any feedback or suggestions about the apps you purchase, take a moment to email the developer. Most developers are very interested in hearing what their customers think directly, and you may even earn a promo code for a future app.

9 Replies to “Should You Buy That App? Five Tips For Decoding an iTunes App Listing”

  1. This is very helpful! #4 is super advice, I will add this to my app shopping routine!

    Here are some other things I do:

    Check out the Developer:
    The other thing I do, is look at the developers other apps. I often find they might have one demo app for free or other app titles that interest me. I check the ratings and comments on those too. While apps vary, the quality level from a developer for different apps is often the same.

    For example, PicPocket Books content varies widely, some books have more sound effects than others, etc… but their quality is consistently high. So I know I am getting a good app, and I know for certain the support is excellent. I learned this from trying some for free through #appfriday and seeing their regularly updated website and activity on twitter. Makes a big difference in my buying choices.

    Lite and Free Versions:
    If there is a lite or free version, test that first, be sure you like it and it works for your purposes before buying the full version. I have found this super helpful, especially for alphabet and number apps for my kids, some met our needs more than others, but I only knew that by testing each one first.

    Here is a good example of why to try the lite version first:
    Another developer I found, I really like their ABC and 123 and Math apps, but their phonics app is not right for us at all. the sounds are very hard to distinguish, which is a shame because the apps are really well made and all the other features I like! Thankfully they have ‘lite’ versions of all their apps to test first, so I only bought 2 of the 4 I tested.

    Be Wary of In App Purchases
    Another thing that for me is critical, I try not to buy apps with in app purchases. Some apps say they are free or only $0.99 but really to get it work you need to purchase in app purchases which can add up. This is especially an issue for me on apps my kids might use.

    iAd Supported Apps:
    The same goes for apps supported by iads, fine for my apps, but I am wary of this on my kids apps and would prefer to pay 0.99 for the app than potentially have them accidentally clicking on the advert.

    All of this is one reason I really like @MomsWithApps – for introducing good reliable developers and great apps for my family!!

  2. Great tips and tricks for the consumer. It is so easy to get lost in the iTunes app store these days.

    Your input on checking the dates, releases, websites, and reviews are spot-on.

    Related to checking their website is also check out their Social Network… if the developer is actively building a community of users and updating the apps to meet specific requirements then they probably have a a good Facebook or Twitter page depending upon how long they have been in development. It takes time to build up a following around quality apps.

    I agree with you on the reviews… 1 liners are always suspect… A distribution is also realistic. You can’t please everyone. Some will love your app and some will hate it. It all depends upon the content and user. For example we bravely went into “word problems” which is hated by many – i.e.: a child. But if you are truly interested in improving your word problem skills – i.e.: a “parent/teacher” – then you will love it.

    Thank you Julie!

  3. Great article! I’ve been developing for the App Store for nearly two years now. I find that it’s new apps where you have to be careful of fictitious reviews (just because eventually the genuine reviews will overwhelm them – eventually). If you see some or all of the following, I’d begin to wonder:

    lots of very positive reviews close to launch date
    same reviewers have also reviewed the developer’s other apps in a similar vein (click on the reviewer’s name in iTunes to see their other reviews)
    +ve reviews have been marked as helpful by several people
    -ve reviews have been marked an unhelpful by several people
    there’s nearly as many reviews as there are ratings

    Obviously, a developer many have a strong fan base and so they could be genuine. However, my experience is that for many types of app it’s not difficult to create a lite version. If a developer has not developed a lite version, but competitors have, then this developer may not be confident you’ll buy their app if you try it first. If an app’s reviews look a bit suspicious and there’s not a lite version, I’d be inclined to steer clear.

    One last thing, on iTunes, you can change to the UK store by touching the US flag icon at the bottom of the page. Typically developers only bother creating dodgy reviews on the US store.

  4. This is a great list of things to check out!

    I recently spent several days looking at ratings/reviews for most of the childrens’ story apps and found that many seemed to be rated much higher than I felt the quality of the app deserved. They were rated by parents/grandparents who used the benchmark, “If my kid sits quietly with the app and plays it a second time, it must be good.” They were sincere reviews, but maybe not from a very discerning audience.

  5. I totally agree that the list is very good.

    In addition a quick search on google or youtube for the name of the app may reveal more positive or negative feedback about the app.

    One can also try adding word “review” or similar in the end of the search string.

    Hope you can find the best apps for you and your children this way!

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