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This chapter is from the book

Elements of Review

The kind of item you ship off for review can influence the style of the review that takes place. Because we work a lot with apps, let’s explain that in an app context. Here are some ways we treat various app categories.

Business apps are always a challenge to review. If they’re focused on a specific task and do that well, they’ll receive a good review. Apps that try to do too many things usually end up doing nothing well. There’s an online small-business accounting service, Kashoo (https://www.kashoo.com/), that Steve has been using for some time. The iPad app acts as a mobile frontend for this service. It’s easier to use than the online service itself. In his estimation, that’s worth a good review.

Photo apps tend to be one of two types: those that help you take better photos through a different frontend to the built-in cameras of new iOS devices, and those used to add effects to those flawless photos. There’s one issue with the latter type: There are just too many apps that try to do the same thing. What makes one of these apps stand out? It’s one with lots of effects, the ability to tweak effects, and a clear user interface.

For the frontend type of photo apps, two specific products jump out as perfect examples of what bloggers love to hear about. The first is Camera+, which is a photo-taking and editing app that first gained notoriety when it was kicked out of the Apple App Store. That was newsworthy, but the continuing additions of new and unique features to the app make it something worth writing about again and again.

The second app is Occipital’s 360 Panorama, which was the first panorama app to use the gyroscope and accelerometer built into recent versions of the iPhone and iPad to take seamless, automatic panoramic photos. The distinctive way that the app enables anyone to create and view beautiful panoramas by just waving an iOS device around caught our attention in the crowded field of photography apps.

Another big area for apps is social networking. There are way too many Twitter apps on the App Store in our opinion, especially since recent iOS and OS X releases embrace Twitter and add support for the official app. Yet, there is still a place for Twitter apps that add features that aren’t found in the eponymous app. If you can differentiate your app with a new twist on Twitter API feature, you can grab a good review.

Tweetbot from Tapbots LLC is an ideal case of a Twitter app that goes well beyond the built-in functionality and adds features that make the app well worth more than the $2.99 purchase price. We eagerly anticipate news of updates to this app, and it’s never failed to surprise and delight our blogging team.

We could go on through all the different app genres, but we hope you get the general idea by now: quality and uniqueness matter. That applies no matter what product you’re developing and what blog you’re submitting to. Instead, here’s a summary of some of the things we focus on as we perform a review.

Graphics and Design

When a product provides adequate functionality, beautiful design and colorful graphics can give it a slight edge in a review. Be sure to make your app look good and make text readable and clear. The same qualities apply to hardware. A well-designed unit, with intrinsically beautiful and well-made features, makes us sit up and take notice.

Even a distinctive app icon can make the difference in whether or not your app attracts the attention of a blogger. Several of the TUAW bloggers chose the Tweetbot icon (see Figure 1-2) as a favorite, because it’s eye-catching and represents the robot theme inherent in the Tapbots line of apps.

Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2 Tweetbot’s icon is eye-catching, smart, relevant, and memorable.

Here’s another idea: Use a color other than blue for your app icon. A vast majority of app icons seem to use the same blue background, which makes it difficult for users and bloggers to discern a difference between apps. An icon that is colorful and describes at a glance what your app does can go a surprisingly long way toward snagging a review.

User Interface

An app or device that presents a clean and intuitive user interface wins, in our opinion. It doesn’t matter what the product is designed to do; if the UI makes sense, follows standard UI guidelines, and we can figure out what to do with it in seconds, it’s going to get our attention.

Take the Clear app, for example (see Figure 1-3). It’s a to-do list manager with a superior and colorful multitouch UI, and it has gained lots of fans. That kind of interface differentiation can, and will, catch our eye.

Figure 1-3

Figure 1-3 Clear offers a terrific example of excellent GUI design.

Visual design extends beyond apps, of course. It’s one of the key components for any product on the marketplace. A brilliantly designed poster will sell, as will a well-crafted kitchen gadget. Good design always engages a reviewer.


Does a product provide exceptional value for the money? Steve purchased and used a PDF markup app for his iPad that cost $9.99. One day, Erica told him about another app that was free during the introductory period, had a beautiful and easy-to-understand UI, and had more useful features. If you think we were excited about this app, you’re right.

Value doesn’t mean cheap. The Mac’s dictionary offers this definition, which is perfect: “the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it.” The PDF markup app won’t always be free. But, even at a price equal to its competitors, it would provide more value as it has more utility and an outstanding user interface.

If your product offers excellent value, it will find its audience and appeal to a reviewer.


The dictionary describes utility as a noun, meaning, “the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial.” When discussing the utility of a product, we like to compare it to the adjective “useful, especially through being able to perform several functions.”

Food Network TV host Alton Brown often derides certain kitchen utensils for being “uni-taskers” that take up space and have only one use. He loves kitchen gadgets that can be used for a variety of purposes. We feel the same way about products that let us do several things and get rid of other products.

That’s not to say that a product that performs a single task very well won’t fit the bill when it comes to utility. If it is very useful and does the job it is designed for with flair and finesse, we usually give it a good write-up. Any additional tasks it can perform are often icing on the cake and functions that raise a good product to excellence.


Settings are, admittedly, a software-specific quality, although other products can suffer from an excess of user-tweakable features. Nothing irritates reviewers more than apps with too many settings and no explanation of the benefit of each one. If an app takes too long to set up before it’s useful, we’ll usually quickly remove it from our devices. Apps that have well thought-out settings that can be made or changed in a few moments make us happy.

Apps that lead a user through a quick setup and tour process on the first launch receive a thumbs-up from Steve. If an app is set up properly in the first few seconds of use and the developer then points out functions of interest, the app is more likely to be explored by the user than become a confusing nuisance that takes up home screen real estate.

One other thought about settings: Think about where you put them. Many new and experienced iOS users completely forget to look at the Settings app (see Figure 1-4) when they’re using an app. Place as many of your settings into the body of the app as you can, and avoid hiding them in the Settings app. These days, most developers limit their Settings entries to legal notices.

Figure 1-4

Figure 1-4 Although Apple provides a centralized Settings app, many users are unaware of its existence and how it is used to adjust settings for a number of apps.


Another criterion that bloggers consider while reviewing is whether options (upgrades for apps, accessories for hardware) are available. Developers can provide a “base” app that performs a certain task well, and then make optional features available to customers through “pro” versions of the app or in-app purchases.

We’re okay with being able to try out an app at a minimal cost, then adding functionality by going “pro.” This pricing structure is often known as the “freemium” model, with developers giving away the base app, and then charging for additional or premium features.

In any case, the base app or base product has to stand on its own. Nothing irritates us more than a product that spends its time trying to sell more stuff. If your product looks more like an ad than a solution, you’ve lost our attention.


Looking at the dictionary again, features are defined as “distinctive aspects or attributes of something.” In terms of reviews, features are those items that set apart a product as uniquely different from its competitors.

A feature can be a capability that nobody has achieved before, a beautiful and unique design, or a different way to perform a function. Products with features that are useful, functional, and well-designed make reviewers take notice.

Erica recently reviewed a series of smart dongles that integrated with the iPhone (the Wallet TrackR ). She loved that, in addition to being able to find your keys on demand by sounding an audible alert, the unit would remind you if you walked too far away from them. This passive “you forgot your keys” feature made a huge difference in the way she appreciated and reviewed the product, and it excited readers who plan to use the device to make sure they don’t leave their overcoats behind at restaurants.


Too many products are rushed to market before they’re fully finished, debugged, tested, refined, and polished. If you feel a push to just “put something out there,” rethink your strategy. A rushed product is a bad-review magnet. Your later updates and sales may never recover from an initially flawed launch.

If you find yourself sending letters like the following on a regular basis, you’re missing the point about adding product finish:

Thanks for taking the time to review [app]. We learned a great deal from your critique and integrated many of your suggestions into the application, resulting in a product that provides a more efficient “Getting Things Done” analysis.

[A long list of features that have been changed]

My hope is that you will update your review after giving [app] another try. As a thank you, I’d like to offer a link to share with your visitors that will allow the first 30 visitors to download free versions of [app]: [url].

Sadly, most blogs rarely revisit a review, no matter how kindly you ask us to. If we think your product has promise, we may offer early criticism via a phone call or email and invite you to resubmit once the product is more likely to receive a better review. Take this offer seriously.

I also think that it’s very important that developers make sure that your app is completely polished and ready for release, before actually releasing it. Too many times, I see developers release an app that they are 80% happy with, as they see the potential down the line with updates. Unfortunately, reviewers are only going to look at the current incarnation, not the potential.

—Brian Akaka of Appular, on TUAW Marketing Chat 2010 (http://www.tuaw.com/2010/01/15/tuaw-livechat-promoting-your-app-store-products/)

Steve, as the hardware editor at TUAW, sees another finish problem on a regular basis: the hardware prototype. In this situation, manufacturers eager for a review send a prototype of a product to a blogger.

Although the products are usually close to their final form, there can be the occasional quirk with a prototype that needs to be worked out. Even worse is the case where we ask the manufacturer when the product will become available, and they basically have no money to do a production run; they’re hoping that the publicity they gain from a great review will entice their backers to reach into their wallets for more funding.

Trust us; we’d rather write about a product that is in production. If you’re having issues with getting enough funding to produce a product in sellable quantities, perhaps you need to rethink your plans, find a new backer, or consider crowd-sourced funding through Kickstarter (more about that later).

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