Fluxa and I attended Apple's iOS5 Tech Tour in Beijing this week. It was a great event and there were a ton of fantastic sessions with Apple Engineers on hand to answer any questions. We learned a lot of interesting information on the technical side, but also got some great tips about what Apple is looking for when they decide which apps to feature.
Getting noticed in the App Store
To say competition in the App Store has become fierce is the understatement of the year. It's downright ferocious, and the quality bar is being raised all the time. Long gone are the days where you can make a simple, unpolished, app and expect to hit the jackpot.
With over 500,000 apps in the App Store and counting, things are getting extremely crowded and it's getting harder and harder to get noticed. Getting featured by Apple is the most important way to get visibility, so getting their attention more often than not means the difference between the success and failure of your app.
So what gets Apple's attention, and what are they most likely to feature?
"Developers ask us the same question all the time: how do I get my app featured? Our answer is always the same. Make a great app. We will find you."
Easier said than done, but luckily, they gave a few tips on how to make a great app that they will notice:
Be state-of-the-art, and move forward
iOS is always moving forward, and fast. Apple wants to feature cutting edge apps that are innovative. If your app shows off the hardware or new iOS features in a unique way and looks great doing it, you have a pretty good chance of being featured. Apple likes featuring apps that focus on new iOS features. "Design for the latest" came up more than once, as did "do not worry about dropping support for older iOS versions and devices."
Apple notices apps that change people's way of working, or that enable users to accomplish tasks in new ways. The example given here was the app Jeppesen Mobile for iPad, which is revolutionizing the aviation industry by enabling pilots to replace that suitcase you see them wheeling around in the airport (with its 15 kg of instrument charts, airport diagrams, and maps), with an iPad.
If you create something that "disrupts the status-quo" and completely changes how people accomplish a traditional task for the better, you're going to get noticed.
Some of the best apps on the App Store don't have a lot of features. It's much better to release something very simple that you do better than anyone else than try to accomplish too much. The example they gave here was the app Flight Card. Instead of allowing you to add multiple trips and destinations, the developer realized that most people are only concerned with one trip at a time: this app replaces a single boarding pass, and looks great doing it.
Have a great presentation
It's critical to define your app's core functionality. Entertainment apps should be highly visual, fun, and immersive. Utility apps need to be useful (e.g. if you're a company releasing a branded app for marketing purposes, if your app is not useful you're actually hurting your brand), efficient (users want to get in and get out of utility apps quickly), and reliable.
"chrome should never outshine content."
In other words, your content should stand out ahead of your UI. If your app uses photos or video, they should be displayed fullscreen wherever possible, and use Apple controls. The example given was with Apple's own Photo.app where the background is plain black and the photos stand out for themselves.
The HIG is a cookbook, not a set of strict rules
Another interesting point was regarding Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, the set of rules for how elements should look and behave on Mac and iOS.
Developers often point out how some of Apple's own apps violate the HIG. Apple's response went something like this (paraphrased):
Although often looked at as a set of strict rules, the HIG should be looked at as more of a recipe book. A recipe tells you how to make a cake. If you follow it exactly, you'll probably make a good cake. However, to make a great cake, you need to modify the recipe with your own style and preferences. It takes a good cook to know when and where to deviate from the recipe, and it's the same with creating a great app.
Is your icon great? Do "The Folder Test"
If you develop iOS apps, you probably know the importance of having a great icon that stands out. Your app icon is often the first impression a user will have of your app, and is often be the determining factor in whether or not they decide to take a closer look. One great little trick that Apple shared was dubbed "the folder test." Take your app icon and move it into a folder on the device. Does the tiny folder icon version stand out? Great. If not, you might want to work on it a bit. If your icon stands out in the tiny resolution folder version, it'll stand out anywhere.
Summary: Is your app "Apple quality?"
Above all else, one thing was stressed: does your app meet the quality standards of what Apple would put their own name on? If yes, you're going to get noticed. If not, it's something you should take a look at. They emphasized that amazing, beautiful, and innovative applications have been created by teams of one, two, or only a few people, and there is no reason why your app shouldn't live up to their own quality standards.
The following are the apps cited as examples of having Apple quality:
In our next post, we'll cover some of the tips Apple suggested to optimize the performance of your apps.