Apple’s App Store is the go-to marketplace for all iOS device users, including iPhones and iPads. This digital distribution platform, maintained by Apple, allows users to browse and download a wide range of different types of useful (and not so useful) applications. The App Store started in 2008, roughly a year after the first iPhone was sold. The original iPhone was launched with only built-in apps, but based on consumer demand and smart business principles, Apple began letting independent developers build and profit from iOS applications (which they are able to sell through Apple). Although the App Store was a tremendous hit right from launch, profiting from app development is known to be a precarious proposition (as documented in the Fast Company article, Striking It Rich In The App Store: For Developers, It’s More Casino Than Gold Mine). Despite the risks, the App Store launched with roughly 500 apps, and presently is home to over one million. It is estimated to have over 40,000 health and wellness apps in the market, but the usefulness and utility of a majority of these apps is consistently questioned (ex. Time’s article: Bad News About Your Favorite Health Apps: They Don’t Work). The information for this interview took place over a three hour period, with seven employees from the app store speaking specifically about health, wellness, and medical apps. Apple has not endorsed this interview and it is comprised as a composite of various responses from the various individuals.
1. What makes a good wellness or fitness mobile app? When a developer asks you for advice on how to build a great product what do you tell them?
There isn’t one recipe for building a great app. We work with various developers at varying capacities. Ultimately, our job is to ensure that Apple’s marketplace is curated in a way that maximizes the user experience. Obviously, everyone benefits when we can help developers produce their best work, which is true across all of our channels. Apple is known for usability, so in that regard we would like that tradition to carry through to anyone developing on our platform. Therefore, a good wellness or fitness app is one that ensures a great user experience for the intended audience. In addition to that, it must create utility that the end-user otherwise would not have. There also has to be a sensibility about cognitive load and user-centric design. Is the app really solving a problem or creating one? Is the app creating value by innovating or improving upon something else, or is it simply crowding the marketplace? These are questions worth asking. When we reach out and work with developers, it is usually because we’ve identified potential, but we also see opportunities where we can help the app improve. We have different teams that work with developers directly on coding issues, as well as a team that helps identify user interface improvements.
2. How can digital health app developers go about app store optimization (ASO) and does Apple support this type of app promotion?
As a rule, Apple does not help developers with app store optimization. There are services outside of Apple that claim they can assist with this, but it is really about simple fundamentals and multivariate testing their marketing. There aren’t that many variables involved so an app creator can simply play around and see if tweaking any of them creates a lift and/or improvement in sales. This includes trying different app icons, changing the app’s title, making sure the description of the app uses relevant keywords a potential user of the app would search for, and really paying attention to the wording in the first two lines of the description to make sure any relevant information about the app is relayed quickly to catch the consumers attention quickly.
3. I come to the table with allegiances to the Quantified Self (QS) and Health 2.0 communities, yet it seems that much of the popular health and fitness apps today are more content focused, and from where I sit it seems like Apple is not really tapped into these communities (with the exception of Rock Health). Why do you think that is?
Interpreting our lack of visibility in the QS and digital health communities is not necessary a fair judgment, and a little misleading. We are here to support anyone who makes a good app and to develop relationships with key individuals. Outreach into these communities isn’t necessarily a function of the App Store. If you look at it from simply a demand standpoint (meaning we get plenty of health and fitness app submissions per day), clearly we are covered. So there isn’t really a need for us to go out to these communities and drum up business. Furthermore, we like to work with a wide range of developers, span from big corporations to lone developers. There are a lot of groups out there making great apps.
4. What is the biggest challenge facing the Apple App Store today?
Like most innovative organizations, we have a flood of work and limited staff. We get a tremendous amount of product submissions daily, which means that we tend to be in a perpetual state of triage. Our internal systems are custom built so we don’t benefit from system upgrades that someone might see if they were running a third-party SaaS system. We do the best with the resources we have. We genuinely care about the people developing these products. Like any entrepreneur, often these individuals have invested significant time, money, and energy into their product… some have gone as far as to find themselves in sink or swim situations. We try to help the best we can, but we just do not have the current capacity to help everyone.
5. How can mHealth and digital health developers benefit from iOS 8 and Healthbook?
There is no way to answer that. Apple will not discuss future products and releases, so all that can be said is that the blogosphere has been wrong before. People that work for the App Store get very little information about internal workings of the company. This is primarily to protect us, since we are an external facing team. Anything in active development could potentially change, so it could be harmful for us to discuss something not yet released because it is subject to change. Of course, the future is going to be exciting. Take the M7 chip for example, it’s really impressive the way it’s being used by health and wellness developers. We principally focus on what is possible now, and that is what developers should be focused on anyway. The present is as exciting as the future.