Under the Radar

236: Be A Little Annoying


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So for today's episode, what I wanted to talk through is, in a weird way, it's almost like just a little reality check for fellow indies out there,

00:00:19   I think especially in the Apple and indie scene.

00:00:22   And it's coming out of a discussion from this week's ATP, where John Sircusa, in his lovable, wonderful way, was completely eviscerating video playback

00:00:32   from almost every one of the major streaming TV people.

00:00:37   He has a blog post about this, but he also just sort of went through, and he has these, you know, the table stakes for what a good video player in Netflix or Disney Plus or Apple TV

00:00:46   or whatever those kind of video players should be.

00:00:49   And in his discussion, he ended on sort of in a direction that was something that I feel like I hear a lot in our community,

00:00:58   and I've felt very strongly about years ago, and have increasingly found myself moving away from.

00:01:04   And that's sort of this general high-level idea that if you design something with design as the focus,

00:01:12   that's your guiding principle, that you're building the beautiful thing, that you'll be able to be successful.

00:01:19   And the opposite of that, in many ways, is the often disparaged kind of metrics-based, engagement-oriented type of business,

00:01:29   that you hear the stories of Netflix redesigning their player screen in some ways to make it less efficient, less easy to use, because it increases engagement.

00:01:38   If they take the things you've recently watched area and move it slightly below the fold so that you have to scroll down to see it,

00:01:45   and you have to see the other shows that are available in the player, that increases engagement.

00:01:51   And that's sort of, often I would say, in what John's saying, that's a negative.

00:01:56   What they should be focused on is making something that is smooth and efficient and puts the customer first and is optimized in that way.

00:02:06   And I totally get what John is heading towards. And it's like, I don't disagree with him insofar as that that is a wonderful, idealized, beautiful picture.

00:02:16   But I think what I've seen in my own experience, in my own sort of journey as a developer, is that focusing too much on that

00:02:27   often leads to businesses and apps and opportunities that aren't sustainable, that aren't viable in the long run.

00:02:37   And I worry a little bit that there's a number of developers who've not been able to make a sustainable, you know,

00:02:47   the economics of their job haven't worked out because they've been too focused on making something that is beautiful and perfect,

00:02:55   rather than being sort of viable and sustainable. And sort of making all of this preamble come out of podcasts.

00:03:04   There was also a great little section where, on Dithering, where John Gruper and Ben Thompson were talking about how Microsoft was buying Blizzard Activision.

00:03:15   Ben referred to Microsoft several times as like they were killers, in the sense that they were just really precise, like economically driven,

00:03:27   able to really execute well, you know, businessmen. And in this case, it was because the way that they've structured their business with,

00:03:35   you know, Xbox Live or Xbox Cloud or whatever, where they can have a subscription service and they can just,

00:03:43   it doesn't really matter where you play as long as you play and then they'll make their money. It's like they went sort of the other extreme,

00:03:49   and they sort of focus on that. And it's not really about the design. It's not really about the platform.

00:03:55   They're not building this artisanally crafted gaming experience. You can play it in a web browser if you want.

00:03:59   Like they just want to make their money. And there's a tension between those two things.

00:04:03   And it's not that you need to go all the way to one or the other. But it was just something that John said that really just kind of stuck with me,

00:04:09   that younger me really thought that that was what it mattered, that building beautiful things really was the thing.

00:04:16   Like if you imagine it's like if the end goal was winning an Apple Design Award, like that's the apex of this.

00:04:22   And I feel like the number of Apple Design Awards that didn't result in sustainable businesses is probably unfortunately high.

00:04:31   And the number of indie developers who went down that road and didn't win an Apple Design Award, didn't get the prestige or the accolade of that,

00:04:37   but instead just ended up with something that was beautiful and was enjoyed by a handful or a small group of people,

00:04:45   but didn't end up actually turning into something that they could have focused on if they instead had a little bit more of the analytics driven,

00:04:54   making sure this is good engagement, making sure that it's actually hitting market and having a sustainable thing.

00:05:00   And John says it himself, it's like what he wants in some ways is the app player that just shows him exactly what it wants

00:05:07   and then you get to the end of the show and that's it. It isn't like trying to lead you on.

00:05:11   It isn't trying to keep you going on it. And in some ways that could be a slimy thing, it could be a shady thing.

00:05:17   It's like you could do it in a respectful way, but having that be a primary focus is I think valuable in its own right as well.

00:05:24   Yeah, I think indie developers like us, many of us came up in the business reading things like Daring Fireball

00:05:33   and being part of that indie Mac community mindset, admiring companies like Panic that make really great high polished software

00:05:44   and really value the user experience and the whole Delicious Monster generation. A lot of us came up during that time where nice UIs,

00:05:56   nice design and user focused priorities as opposed to business need focused priorities were considered the pinnacle of everything.

00:06:06   I think what a lot of us missed and still continue to miss is that making things really nice for the user like that,

00:06:15   I've talked before about how this is almost like an indulgence for the developers or the designers responsible.

00:06:22   It's great when you can make things really nice for the users and if you can do that while also satisfying the business and marketing needs,

00:06:32   then great. But that's not always the case and merely making something really nice is not sufficient for success.

00:06:42   Sometimes you can be successful with something that is really nice, but making something really nice does not automatically bring you success.

00:06:53   I have so many times we've all seen really great apps that were made with incredible care, truly handcrafted details,

00:07:05   custom animations, beautiful design, perfect interactions, super high respect for the user.

00:07:13   We've seen these apps come and go because they didn't have strong enough businesses behind them. They made something really super nice that a few of us really loved,

00:07:25   but that wasn't enough to spread to the wider market or that was a really nice implementation of something that just not enough people really needed to be solved.

00:07:34   So often we've seen these things go under and it's really sad when that happens. We see this in the real world.

00:07:43   Sometimes you have a really great restaurant that the food is amazing, but because they're just not very good business people or maybe the market fit just isn't very good,

00:07:53   that even if they make really amazing food, they can still go out of business and that happens all the time.

00:07:57   The same thing is true with apps. We can spend a lot of time on something, but just because you spend a lot of time making a really great version of something doesn't mean enough people want that thing.

00:08:09   Putting in a hard amount of work. You can pat yourself on the back, "I worked really hard on this," but that doesn't matter to the customer or to the market how hard you worked on it.

00:08:23   A lot of the things that we think matter or that we hope matter, like how nice of user experience something is, matters a lot less to the market in reality than we wish it did.

00:08:35   So again, if you can achieve both, if you can make something that fits the market really well, that is also nicely designed and respectful of users and provides great features, then that's great.

00:08:48   That's a great place to be, but it should be prioritized accordingly with its actual impact to your actual business and ability to do this thing in a sustainable way, as opposed to being the primary thing.

00:09:03   That's where so many of us get it wrong. So many of us will spend months or tons of money or resources or time polishing some part of our apps or businesses that would just make it nice.

00:09:18   And a lot of times that just cannot be justified by the business. And in many ways, a lot of us have worked day jobs for companies that had better priorities for their businesses, and we rebel against that.

00:09:33   We're like, "Oh man, I can't believe the company is not letting me take another two weeks to polish up this experience to make this really nice.

00:09:41   Instead, they're making me leave this crappy thing in place and move on to something else because they can't justify spending all that time on that."

00:09:49   And we think, "We're going to do it right in our side projects or whatever. We're going to make this a labor of love and polish the crap out of this thing."

00:09:58   And then our side projects don't go anywhere. And then they fail because, "Oh, it turns out for that to succeed, we need to treat it more like the business that it was."

00:10:10   This doesn't apply to everyone's definition of success. If you're trying to make something that's a beautiful experience or really nice in some way that is not highly valued by the market, that's only a failure if you don't need the market to value it.

00:10:25   If you're doing it truly as a labor of love on the side, if you don't need to make money from it, then that's a different story.

00:10:31   But most of us need to make money from our apps to keep justifying pouring effort into them. And so, if that's your goal or your need, then you have to treat apps more like the businesses that they are.

00:10:45   And sometimes that requires making unfortunate decisions like, "You know what? I can't actually afford to spend another two months polishing this design."

00:10:54   Or, "I can't actually afford to rewrite this entire thing in the newest framework or API because I like that from the code perspective and maybe it'll be cleaner and nicer."

00:11:04   Sometimes the market just does not value that kind of stuff. And it's better to recognize the reality of that early on and embrace it in ways for what it is good for.

00:11:15   Because there are some upsides to that kind of thinking. But rather than being disappointed that the market, which largely does not value quality, didn't value your quality.

00:11:27   Yeah. And I think the thing about it that I would think is why this really stuck with me when I was hearing John talk about this was the sense that what I want, or what I think would be best in the abstract for the ecosystem in which I make my living, is for there to be a higher proportion of people who care about design who are successful in this ecosystem, in this world in which I work.

00:11:56   In which we work. And in order for that to be the case, I think more of them have to be, it's like more and more developers who care about design have to be able to sustainably make a living from it.

00:12:08   Because labors of love are great in terms of, it's like making people who make art or paint pictures or do things like that. Like there's an element of it that it is purely an expression of something inside of you.

00:12:21   If it can be financially viable, great. If not, whatever. But in order for that to really have a sustaining presence in the App Store, it needs to be a sustaining thing. And so I think it becomes incumbent on developers to try and have these two perspectives and hold them in an appropriate amount of tension, rather than getting too sort of focused in one side or the other.

00:12:44   Because what you end up with is an App Store that is full of people who are only interested in engagement, in metrics, in squeezing every penny out of their users, etc. who don't care about design, and you end up with a platform that isn't as nice, it isn't as good.

00:12:59   And I'm not advocating that that is a good thing, but I'm trying to sort of moreover point out that if you don't have both of those things, you'll never be able to get into that place where there's a higher proportion.

00:13:10   A lot of ways I think about Apple with this, and I feel like early in my career, I would see Apple as only the design focused, like, "Ooh, they're the one who just makes the shiny finished product." That was the thing that was like, "Ooh, I want to be Apple-like."

00:13:27   Whereas the reality of it's like a lot of Apple's success is because they are just absolutely shrewd cutting business people who are very good at extracting money out of people, who are very good at designing things in such a way that they're good enough, and good enough is great.

00:13:48   What they do build is solid and good for the most part, but they don't get too mired down in the weeds, and very often I feel like what they've done, which is genius, and something that I try and see in my own work a bit more, is if they hit a hard problem, sometimes they'll just ignore it and say, "Oh, we'll just leave it as a third-party opportunity."

00:14:08   It's like all of this stuff with the Photos app, where the Photos app completely ignores the fact that you might be in a family, that you might want to have a shared photo library or things.

00:14:20   As an example, these are really difficult problems that would have really challenging solutions technically and visually and design-wise, and very often they're just like, "Oh, we just don't do that," and we just move on. Whereas I feel like they'd be so easy to get sucked into that as this really interesting, nuanced design problem.

00:14:38   It's like trying to solve things for the edge case rather than solving it for the mass case. If you solve for the mass case, which is very often Apple's solution, you end up successful. If you then also charge for it, you're not afraid to charge a high amount for it, and you value your work in that way, that you're not bashful about monetizing it to a large degree.

00:15:02   We are brought to you this episode by Ahrefs. Do you want more Google traffic? Maybe you're struggling to rank, not sure what to do about it, and the idea of hiring an SEO agency might be outside of your budget. Your solution is Ahrefs Webmaster Tools, and it's free.

00:15:18   This is not a 14-day free trial or anything like that. It's just free, period. And it's super powerful. This is a super powerful tool that will do a full website audit for you and keep working for you. Ahrefs will scan your site and prioritize precisely what you need to fix to improve your search results.

00:15:36   So you can see which keywords your pages are ranking for, understand how Google sees your content, and discover how making changes can blow up your traffic, which could do a lot for your business. It's time you started getting Google to work for your business.

00:15:48   Go to Ahrefs.com/webmastertools to get the free tool now. And this is spelled A-H-R-E-F-S.com. Ahrefs.com/webmastertools. Our thanks to Ahrefs for their support of Under the Radar and all of Relay FM.

00:16:06   And I think to get slightly practical for a second, too, something that I was thinking about, like where is a turning point in my app career that I think sort of this applies to? And I feel like it's the way that I approached advertising in my apps.

00:16:20   And you and I have ended up going a different direction with this, Marco, your own ads. But I feel like I went down originally when I was building products that were free. I didn't have any ads. I just didn't like the thought of them. They're ugly.

00:16:36   They're putting content that isn't my content inside of my beautiful app. Why would I do that? Then I tried to do a homegrown ad solution for a while for one of my old apps that didn't work very well. It was a nightmare.

00:16:51   And then at some point, I just was like, you know, I'm just going to put AdMob ads in, which ultimately became Google ads. And I did that, and suddenly my business became viable in a way that was a tremendous struggle before.

00:17:07   And I don't think that was a bad choice. I think it was a good choice. I think that making the business sustainable in a way that, you know, the rest of the app I could spend have now have tons more time to allow me to focus on polishing and getting better and have a sustainable income from.

00:17:23   And I'm aligning my design goals with my business goals because if I make a better app that people want to come into more and more, they'll see more ads, so I'll make more money. Like all of those incentives aligned, and it just was me moving away from the fact that, oh, ads are bad.

00:17:39   They're not pretty. And sometimes if you open my app, you're going to see, you know, it's like ads that aren't beautiful, that are just for the local car dealership or whatever it is that is functional and sort of there because it's relevant potentially to that person, but isn't beautiful and are handcrafted.

00:17:57   But that's how I make that substantial, if not majority of my income at this point. And it was a choice that I struggled with and agonized over for a long time and way more than I should have.

00:18:10   I think, in retrospect, I wish I'd embraced ads with two hands much earlier, and I think my business would have been better as a result, and I would have been able to spend more time sooner, you know, focusing on making my apps and the other parts of my apps better.

00:18:27   Yeah, because I think the culture that we came up in, as we were talking about earlier, of the old Mac indie software scene, that worked because at the time, Macs were still pretty specialized things that the majority of the world wasn't using yet.

00:18:46   I mean, they still aren't technically, but you know, they were much smaller than they were today, and indie Mac software could sell for like $50 or more. And trying to apply that same business model and expectations to today's market of iPhone software is completely different markets with completely different rules.

00:19:10   And now, what is expected, what is commonplace, has changed. You know, what is commonplace now is free apps up front that make money either with ads or with some kind of in-app purchase scheme.

00:19:22   That's what the market is for iPhone software today. It does not work the same way as old Mac software did. And even Mac software barely works the way Mac software did now.

00:19:34   And you know, we talked a while back, we talked about those "rate my app" dialogues that everyone throws up, and I mentioned how I've been making this promise in Overcast's settings screen since 1.0 that said, "Overcast will never interrupt you for ratings."

00:19:49   And I was talking then how I should probably take that out. Well, I did. And I now have this, I was thinking, I want to start prompting for ratings because again, I get killed in my ratings numbers just because I was never doing this, and people's expectations over time shifted.

00:20:07   And now, no one cares about those boxes anymore, and so I actually have this, this amazing property on my user models now in the upcoming version of my app that is a bool titled "Can prompt for review without breaking old promise."

00:20:22   That's perfect.

00:20:23   And I check the user creation date, and the last version I shipped to the App Store removed that promise that I would never interrupt you for ratings. And so if your user account was created after the release of that version, in the future, whenever I ship the next update, I will start prompting you for reviews at some point.

00:20:42   Because I realize, like, yeah, business changes. There used to be a time where apps checking their servers for updates was considered a violation of trust. It was called "phoning home," and it was very unacceptable to do, especially without asking.

00:20:59   Now, apps communicating with their own servers for pretty much any reason is totally fine. No one cares. It's expected. It's commonplace. Even apps communicating back to their own servers for analytics is considered so commonplace and boring that no one even thinks you have to ask for that anymore.

00:21:17   So people's expectations and standards shift over time, and ads are a great example of this. Apps that have ads in them, that would have been considered really trashy back in the old Mac indie software days.

00:21:33   And I don't know of any apps that did that were well regarded. But now, apps that have ads in them, that's so incredibly common and expected, nobody cares. It's no longer the mark of a bad, low-quality app.

00:21:48   Now, there are different kinds of ads. There are crappy ads, and that can certainly make your app look crappier. But the concept in general of having ads in your app is no longer considered this low-class thing that makes your app impossible to ever be considered a nice app.

00:22:05   Those expectations are gone now. And if you have an app that can only be used by paying money, you're going to have a substantially smaller customer base, and you're going to have a much harder time sustaining your business over time.

00:22:22   And that's just the reality of today's market. And I think it's valuable to never consider any of these things so precious that you can never change direction on them.

00:22:35   Keep in mind that customer expectations will change over time. They always have, they always will. What is acceptable has changed over time. What you need to do to sustain a business has changed over time.

00:22:47   And leave yourself room for that. Like, you know, saying in my settings cell that I would never interrupt you for ratings was a mistake. Using the word "never" was not wise, because things change over time.

00:22:59   That was, I wrote that probably eight years ago. And that's not how things are today anymore. And so, now I have this ridiculous exception that I'm trying to accommodate my "never" to the people I showed it to, but not future people who I never promised that to.

00:23:16   And, you know, there's other things that I'm probably going to change in the future too. Like, you know, in the past, I've been very critical of using push notifications as engagement vehicles to, like, get people back in your app.

00:23:28   But the reality is, people expect that. And it's fine. And so maybe I'll start doing that in the future. Like, right now, I don't think I would do that, but maybe I would. I don't know.

00:23:38   And I'm not going to say never. Because I've learned that's unwise. And that's not how to run a modern business in a wise way.

00:23:48   Yeah. And I think, too, it's just this fundamental thing that you have to understand. Like, if your goal is to run a business that is going to provide a sustainable, long-term income, there are certain, like, business fundamentals that have to be sort of addressed or understood or have a plan for.

00:24:10   That I think I very often, in the old, like, in the early parts of my career, I would just look back and my business plan was, make something nice, put it out in the world, world will like it.

00:24:23   Like, that was all I had. It was just, if I build it, they will come, kind of an approach. And increasingly, it's more the sense of, it's like, how am I going to get new customers? Which, like, the fancy, like, salesy word is, like, what is my sales funnel?

00:24:40   But it's like, where are people coming from? How are they going to find out about my app? Once I get them in my app, how am I going to make money from them? And how am I going to sustain that income from them over time? Like, if I can't answer those questions of, like, where are my customers coming from? And how am I getting money from them?

00:24:56   I don't actually have a business. I have, like, a wish. I have a hope. And that's just a different mindset that it's easy to ignore, that you have to be able to answer those two questions before you have a viable business. And if you don't, and if you just want to make something pretty, great.

00:25:12   But it's a different thing. And it's not something that, like, it just frustrates me because I feel like I wish, I'm sad for all the indie app developers who sort of weren't able to make it their full time career. Like, that is a loss, I think, for the world.

00:25:32   Because there wasn't enough sort of flexibility in the things that they could be flexible in. And, you know, there are some developers who I think have made some incredible indie apps over the years that I truly admire. And I was always sad when they sort of transitioned into, you know, like, now I work for big XYZ Corp.

00:25:49   Because I couldn't make it as an indie. And it's like so often it's because they made amazing things, but weren't able to answer the business questions. That they were making something amazing and just sort of hoping for the best. And that's just, that's sad. And that's disappointing.

00:26:03   And I feel like it's a solvable problem to some degree. That focusing more on these things and having a lot more flexibility about these things and not saying that, oh, you know, that's, yeah, don't look down on an opportunity to make money if it's not immoral. Like, in that way.

00:26:19   It's just a question of taste. It's just a question of, you know, where you fall on, is it interrupted? Is it user hostile or things like that? Like, don't be hostile, but maybe be a little annoying. Like, that's fine.

00:26:34   You know, it's like user annoying development. I don't know, like, I feel like so often that's fine. And that's actually better if you're able to annoy people in such, you know, it's like asking anytime you ask someone for money, it's probably a little annoying, you know, and being okay with that. Because if you don't ask, then they won't give you any money. It's like ask, you know, this is I was remember a couple few episodes ago, I was talking about in pedometer++, where I had the means to, you know, remove the ads from the from from the app. And it was like buried deep in the bottom of the settings thing that you could give me money.

00:27:03   And take the ads away. And I changed it to put that button right on the home screen next to the ad. And suddenly all these people were taking advantage of it. It's like, yeah, I probably should have just done that all along, rather than feeling like, oh, I'm just it's like a little shameful asking for money over here. I'm going to do it over in the corner. And just sort of like, you know, it's like if you're gonna have a tip jar, like put it front and center on the on the counter next to where people are buying their stuff.

00:27:29   Like don't hide, you know, have have a tip jar over in the corner on the way to the bathroom and just like, hope people are going to see it. It's like, no, just put it somewhere and have a plan for that.

00:27:38   Yeah. And, and if if you can do a successful business that that gets that, you know, that sustains itself with any of these mechanisms of possibly, you know, possibly being a little bit in people's faces, or a little bit annoying, whatever. If you can do that, while also satisfying your business goals, and also making something really nice, then that's great.

00:28:01   Like, and but keep in mind who you're doing that for, like, the market it like, take a look at what succeeds in the App Store, go to the top charts. How many like nice handcrafted apps do you see? It's not going to be a large number.

00:28:15   I think you're lucky if you find any most days. But what succeeds is different from what is nice. And if you can achieve both as an indie developer, then that's great. Do that for yourself for your own satisfaction. That that's that's why we make nice things. We make them for ourselves, not for the market.

00:28:34   If we can make something successful in the market nice, then that's, that's, that's purely a bonus on top of that. And that's for our own satisfaction, our own professional, you know, desires or whatever. But the business side of it has to come first. Otherwise, you will not be able to, to keep making the thing that you want to make.

00:28:55   And I hope that more of us can. And I think it's, it's just that that's the part of this part of this that I feel like it may sound come across as me being a bit pessimistic or negative, but it's like, I think it's such an opportunity for so many people who are talented designers and developers to take an ad, like, just dial up the business acumen, sort of slightly aggressiveness part of their part of what they're making.

00:29:18   And then suddenly they can do it sustainably, and suddenly it can be a living and suddenly they're unleashed from, you know, nine to five work and able to do this in a sustainable way. And that is such a wonderful, exciting thing for, for the community, for the App Store, for just the universe in general, that I think that's the exciting part to me. And so that's, that's, if you take anything from this, that's the message I'm hoping for. It's like, be hopeful, be open and flexible about business. And the reward is being able to make the things you love in a sustainable way in day to day.

00:29:47   And all you have to do is swallow the uncomfortable reality that your old boss might have been right. Yeah. Thanks for listening, everybody. And we'll talk to you in two weeks. Bye.

00:29:57   Bye.

00:29:58   [BLANK_AUDIO]