With thousands of new apps being published in Google Play every week, it's important to look for any available way to get the most visibility and the highest ratings possible. One way of improving your app's visibility in the ecosystem is by deploying well-targeted mobile advertising campaigns and cross-app promotions. Another time-tested method of fueling the impression-install-ranking cycle is simply: improve the product!
A better app can go a very long way: a higher quality app will translate to higher user ratings, generally better rankings, more downloads, and higher retention (longer install periods). High-quality apps also have a much higher likelihood of getting some unanticipated positive publicity such as being featured in Google Play or getting social media buzz.
The upside to having a higher-quality app is obvious. However, it's not always clear how to make an app "better". The path to improving app quality isn't always well-lit. The term "quality" — along with "polish" and "fit and finish" — aren't always well-defined. Here we'll light the path by looking at some of the key factors in app quality and ways of improving your app along these dimensions.
Listen to Your Users
Most ways of measuring the "success" of an app are dependent on user behavior. User-related metrics such as number of downloads, daily active installs, retention rates, and so on highlight the importance of users. If you aren't doing so already, it's a good idea to start thinking of your app's quality as it relates to your users.
The most obvious way to listen to users is by reading and addressing comments on your app in Google Play. Although the comments aren't always productive or constructive, some will provide valuable insight on aspects of your app that you may not have consciously considered before. It's important to remember that users have the opportunity to change their ratings and comments about an app as much as they'd like.
One way to reach users and help them address their concerns is to set up your own support and discussion destination(s). There are some great support tools out there that can put you in touch with your users directly such as Google Groups, Zoho Discussions, getsatisfaction.com and uservoice.com. Once you get set up with such a tool, make sure to fill in the support link in your Google Play product details page — users do click through to these.
Another way to better listen to your users is by having a public beta or trusted tester program. It's crucial to have some amount of real user testing before releasing something in Google Play. Fortunately, you can distribute your apps to users outside of Google Play via a website; this website can require a login or be publicly accessible — it's entirely up to you. Take advantage of this opportunity by offering your next planned update to some early adopters, before submitting to Google Play. You'll be surprised by how many little, yet impactful, improvements can come out of crowd-sourced, real-user testing.
Improve Stability and Eliminate Bugs
The effect of overall app stability of ratings and user satisfaction is very well-known and there are many tools and techniques for testing and profiling your app on different devices and user scenarios.
One noteworthy and yet relatively underused tool for catching stability issues such as crashes is the UI/Application Exerciser Monkey (Monkey). Monkey will send random UI events to your app's activities, allowing you to trigger user flows that can uncover stability problems.
Also, with the Google error-reporting features built into most Android devices, users now have a way to report application crashes to developers. The error reports show up in aggregate in the Google Play Developer Console. Make sure to read these reports often and act on them appropriately.
Last, keep an external bug and feature request tracker and let users know how to find it. This will enable them to engage with the app at a closer level, by following features and bugs that affect them. User frustration with app problems can be effectively managed with diligent issue tracking and communication. Some of the community support tools listed above offer issue tracking features, and if your project is open source, most popular repository hosting sites such as Google Code and GitHub will offer this as well.
Improve UI Responsiveness
One sure-fire way to lose your users is to give them a slow, unresponsive UI. Research has shown that speed matters... for any interface, be it desktop, web, or mobile. In fact, the importance of speed is amplified on mobile devices since users often need their information on the go and in a hurry.
You can improve your apps's UI responsiveness by moving long-running operations off the main thread to worker threads. Android offers built-in debugging facilities such as StrictMode for analyzing your app's performance and activities on the main thread. You can see more recommendations in Writing Zippy Android Apps, a developer session from Google I/O 2010,
A great way to improve UI performance is to minimize the complexity of your layouts. If you open up hierarchyviewer and see that your layouts are more than 5 levels deep, it may be time to simplify your layout. Consider refactoring those deeply nested LinearLayouts into RelativeLayout. The impact of View objects is cumulative — each one costs about 1 to 2 KB of memory, so large view hierarchies can be a recipe for disaster, causing frequent VM garbage collection passes which block the main (UI) thread. You can learn more in World of ListView, another session at Google I/O.
Lastly, pointed out in the blog post Traceview War Story, tools like traceview and ddms can be your best friends in improving your app by profiling method calls and monitoring VM memory allocations, respectively.
In usability and in app design too, you should listen carefully to your users. Ask a handful of real Android device users (friends, family, etc.) to try out your app and observe them as they interact with it. Look for cases where they get confused, are unsure of how to proceed, or are surprised by certain behaviors. Minimize these cases by rethinking some of the interactions in your app, perhaps working in some of the user interface patterns the Android UI team discussed at Google I/O.
In the same vein, two problems that can plague some Android user interfaces are small tap targets and excessively small font sizes. These are generally easy to fix and can make a big impact on usability and user satisfaction. As a general rule, optimize for ease of use and legibility, while minimizing, or at least carefully balancing, information density.
As you are designing or evaluating your app's UI, make sure to read and become familiar with the Android Design guidelines. Included are many examples of UI patterns, styles, and building blocks, as well as tools for the design process.
Another way to incrementally improve usability, based on real-world data, is to implement Analytics throughout your app to log usage of particular sections. Consider demoting infrequently used sections to the overflow menu in the Action bar, or removing them altogether. For often-used sections and UI elements, make sure they're immediately obvious and easily accessible in your app's UI so that users can get to them quickly.
Lastly, usability is an extensive and well-documented subject, with close ties to interface design, cognitive science, and other disciplines.
Professional Appearance and Aesthetics
There's no substitute for a real user interface designer — ideally one who's well-versed in mobile and Android, and ideally handy with both interaction and visual design. One popular venue to post openings for designers is jobs.smashingmagazine.com, and leveraging social connections on Twitter and LinkedIn can surface great talent.
If you don't have the luxury of working with a UI designer, there are some ways in which you can improve your app's appearance yourself. First, get familiar with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Fireworks, or some other raster image editing tool. Mastering the art of the pixel in these apps takes time, but honing this skill can help build polish across your interface designs. Also, master the resources framework by studying the framework UI assets and layouts and reading through the new resources documentation. Techniques such as 9-patches and resource directory qualifiers are somewhat unique to Android, and are crucial in building flexible yet aesthetic UIs.
Before you get too far in designing your app and writing the code, make sure to visit the Android Design site and learn about the vision, the building blocks, and the tools of designing beautiful and inspiring user interfaces.
Deliver the Right Set of Features
Having the right set of features in your app is important. It's often easy to fall into the trap of feature-creep, building as much functionality into your app as possible. Providing instant gratification by immediately showing the most important or relevant information is crucial on mobile devices. Providing too much information can be as frustrating (or even more so) than not providing enough of it.
Again, listen to your users by collecting and responding to feature requests. Be careful, though, to take feature requests with a grain of salt. Requests can be very useful in aggregate, to get a sense of what kinds of functionality you should be working on, but not every feature request needs to be implemented.
Integrate with the System and Third-Party apps
A great way to deliver a delightful user experience is to integrate tightly with the operating system. Features like Home screen widgets, rich notifications, global search integration, and
Quick Contacts are fairly low-hanging fruit in this regard.
For some app categories, basic features like home screen widgets are par for the course. Not including them is a sure-fire way to tarnish an otherwise positive user experience. Some apps can achieve even tighter OS integration with Android's contacts, accounts, and sync APIs.
Third-party integrations can provide even more user delight and give the user a feeling of device cohesiveness. It's also a really nice way of adding functionality to your app without writing any extra code (by leveraging other apps' functionalities). For example, if you're creating a camera app, you can allow users to edit their photos in Photoshop Express before saving them to their collection, if they have that third-party application installed. More information on this subject is available in the class, Interacting with Other Apps.
Pay Attention to Details
One particular detail to pay close attention to is your app's icon quality and consistency. Make sure your app icons (especially your launcher icon) are crisp and pixel-perfect at all resolutions, and follow the icon guidelines as much as possible. If you're having trouble or don't have the resources to design the icons yourself, consider using the new Android Asset Studio tool to generate a set.