App Update Lessons: The Most Impactful (And Detrimental)
Like any product, apps and software need to be refined to succeed. Digital products have the advantage of updating post-release, which means they can respond to user habits, needs and behavioural changes. At KOMODO, our refinement process evolves your product to suit user needs and find commercial success - including when it comes to an app update. Updates are generally either to add something useful or to adapt to a change. You might be wondering how developers plan updates. Are they just responding to a new OS change, or do they ask users what new things they need? For our team, it always boils down to user research. We need to understand what our users need and then build experiences that serve them. Unfortunately, some businesses get this wrong. Whether it’s through rushing an update based on false information or just faulty implementation in apps with bad UX. The impact of a bad update can be catastrophic. Let’s look at the home of the best (and worst) app updates made by mainstream businesses to see what lessons we can learn…
Impactful: Sticking to the core requirement
Instagram wasn’t always Instagram. The company’s first app - Burbnb - used location-aware photo sharing. It was supposed to encourage users to check in to physical locations and share pictures of their activities in them. It received $500,000 in early funding but failed to find success with users. The team performed user research and even brought in a new programmer, Mike Krieger, to look into the analytics of how Burbnb users interacted. They found that the platform was too complicated and distracting – it was only the photo-sharing feature that users loved. After also looking into their market competitors such as Facebook, the Burbnb team realised something: That users wanted a simple photo-sharing app. One that made it easy to post and interact with photos via smartphone. Shortly afterwards, Instagram’s first version was born as a stripped-back MVP built on their earlier Burbnb app. Update lesson: Instagram has had its fair share of controversy over the years, but its first ‘update’ from Burbnb to Instagram was an inarguable success. By identifying what features users actually wanted and then designing the experience around that, the Instagram we know and use today was born.
Detrimental: Disney+ shows us why device compatibility counts
We’re starting with a common issue many different brands are guilty of – not adequately testing updates on users’ devices. This most recent example comes from Disney+. They released an update for Android TV and Google TV in July 2022 that caused problems for users by breaking their Dolby Atmos. We expect to see this issue fixed quickly – it may even be done before this article is published, but it’s a great reminder that software developers often overlook the micro-detail of their changes. Update lesson: test any planned update extensively with a focus on the things users need most. In Disney+’s case, Dolby Atmos compatibility is part of their customer’s expected user experience. Users with Smart TVs expect to enjoy Disney+’s content in the ‘best’ way, so an update that breaks their sound system is frustrating.
Impactful: Apple does some technical tidying
iOS 15 was not as widely acclaimed as other OS updates, but it was an enormously user-friendly move. While iOS 15 lacked flashy new features common in other releases, it brought in a range of technical fixes and quality-of-life updates that users had been waiting for. Crucially, the update was not forced on users. Older devices running iOS 14 won’t have to upgrade to receive security updates. So, consumers can stay on the version they like most. iOS 15’s main changes were to upgrade or tweak existing apps and software. The main focus was on ease of interaction for the end-user. Update lesson: don’t blindly force any updates on users that change the actual experience of your product. While some changes might be necessary, you should still invite users to give feedback or opt for using a prior build if it worked for them.
Detrimental: Apple ignores real users in favour of the best practice
Apple Podcasts was the king of podcasting apps until very recently. Following an update in November 2021, users took to Social Media to voice complaints about sweeping changes to the navigational experience of the app. This update changed the way users could add Podcasts to their library. Frustratingly, it also wiped out any history of episodes they were not subscribed to. This was all aimed at making the browsing experience more accessible, but ultimately managed to alienate users who had already spent time manually curating their list of future listens and lead to a popular mainstream article entitled ‘The Apple podcast app is a disaster’. 2021 was also the same year in which Spotify surpassed Apple Podcasts in terms of total podcast listeners. Coincidence? We don’t think so. Update lesson: what a development team ‘thinks’ is a good user experience is not always the same as what real users want. In this case, Apple pushed ahead with what seemed like objectively good decisions for browsing Podcast libraries. However, its user base had already grown accustomed to the old way and didn’t want to change.
Impactful: Persevering with premise following a disastrous launch
We’re going to talk about video games for the final two parts of this article. However, the lessons here are highly relevant to app design. Hello Games, a small games development team based in the UK, released No Man’s Sky in 2016. The game was heavily pushed by Sony’s marketing team, with coverage overhyping the game and its features. Users expected far more than they got on release, with the game missing many promised features... Most notably in its lack of multiplayer functionality. Following a commercially successful release, there was a period of intense negative feedback, with users and critics alike slamming into the game and its development team. Within two weeks, sales dropped by 81%, and it had over 70,000 ‘Overwhelmingly negative’ reviews on Steam. Despite receiving bomb threats to their studio, Hello Games decided to not abandon their original plans. They began updating the game and have continued to support it ever since, releasing core content updates for free that have continued into 2022. Despite its initial backlash, the game now has a loyal fanbase and positive ratings across all user-facing review aggregators. Update lesson: This one has two lessons. The first is that the original release of No Man’s Sky was practically an MVP. Essentially giving players the ‘bones’ of the experience that they wanted. The issue with the game was that user expectations were built on false promises and marketing. Don’t promise features if they won’t be in the product when it launches. The second lesson is about preserving your core ideas and using updates to meet user needs. No Man’s Sky lacked the features it had promised at launch, but each new update brought it closer to initial user expectations. Once they hit these targets, the company kept updating. This took the product far beyond its original vision and delivered features users had only ever dreamed about.
Detrimental: Successful video game tries to copy a competitor
Star Wars Galaxies and the story of its biggest update should be taught to all developers. The MMORPG was a complicated, open-ended game driven by player choice. Despite its success between 2003 and 2005, the management team felt it didn’t appeal to the right audience or make enough money. In 2005, the game’s developer, Sony Online Entertainment, decided to try and simplify the game to be more like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. So, In November 2005, the New Game Enhancements (NGE) update was released within two weeks of the announcement - stripping much of the complexity from the game despite adding lots of new content that the developers deemed good. In less than a year after the update, the game’s paid subscriber count fell from 250,000 to 100,000. The game’s community manager posted negative comments about the tone-deaf nature of the update and was subsequently fired. By 2011, Star Wars Galaxies had declined in popularity to such an extent that it was permanently shut down. Update lesson: this is a great example of why stakeholder whim can never be the main reason for any update or feature. Star Wars Galaxies appealed to users for its complexity and sandbox nature – but the stakeholders in charge saw these same systems as too difficult for players to understand, so they simplified them with the NGE update. The developers did not understand their users and their needs and change came too quickly. No user testing was performed and no retroactive adjustments were made. They launched NGE, saw the negative backlash, but insisted it would work. It did not.
This list could go on forever, especially if you look at the worst app updates of all time. Companies continue to make technical errors time and time again, releasing updates that break experiences and cause bugs. While some of these may be near impossible to catch, the most important thing is to fix them quickly! Fixing, updating and improving are all core parts of our refinement process. Whether you’ve got an existing product or you’re launching something new, we’ll continue to update and upgrade your app or digital product in light of user feedback, ensuring it remains relevant, stays secure and finds commercial success.
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