Under the Radar

275: What's New In This Version


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development. I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is usually not longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:09   So we are working our butts off all summer long, trying to get as much new stuff into our apps as possible for iOS 17 and the associated other OSes.

00:00:22   You know, sometimes it's worth thinking about, like, what is it, when we're doing all this work into updating our existing apps, adding new features, modernizing other things, changing other things, little abilities here and there, you know, little just features that, you know, people might not even see.

00:00:38   How do you teach people about these new features? How do you show them where they are? How do you make your audience, your customers aware of all this hard work we're doing? And maybe on some level, do they even care? And do we need to make them aware?

00:00:52   Yeah. And I think, too, it's that sense of, like, you can build the best feature you want, but if no one knows that it exists, it's as though it doesn't exist. Like, fundamentally, there's an education and communication problem that is probably equally as important as the actual implementation of the feature in and of itself, because if no one knows it's there, why did you even build it?

00:01:15   Or if you're not getting the benefit and the impact of building this new feature, of adopting this new API, of whatever that looks like.

00:01:24   And I think sometimes it's easy to just sort of assume that, oh, I'm sure people will find it. And it's like, well, that may or may not be the case. That may or may not be something. And then both that's within the app.

00:01:34   And then also just externally, like, how do you communicate and share with the world that you have this new feature, that if it's something that you'd like people to be excited about or see what you're doing and think is cool, like, they have to know about it.

00:01:46   And if they don't know about it, how could they then use it? So it seemed a good topic around now.

00:01:51   And talking about sort of as you're getting to mid-August is probably around the time that I would imagine if you're doing iOS 17 or watchOS 10 updates that you probably now have a sense of what those updates are going to look like.

00:02:04   Hopefully you have a sense of what's going to make release, what's going to be there. And so now you can start working on kind of communication planning around that.

00:02:12   Because fair enough, back at the beginning of June, at least for me, I didn't know what I was going to be shipping. Like a lot of this is this, you know, I have an exploratory process where I'm going through and trying different things and seeing what actually is going to be viable or actually going to be interesting.

00:02:26   But now at this point, I pretty much have that dialed in.

00:02:29   I need to transition both to sort of locking that down so it'll be stable and good, you know, technically for when it actually launches, but now I also need to transition to the marketing side of that and the communication and help and customer support and all of the other things that you might need to do now that you know what those features are to communicate their existence to everyone who would benefit from knowing that they do exist.

00:02:53   Yeah, I mean on some level, this is kind of part of a continuing marketing plan. Like, you know, if you think, and I know this sounds really not like me, but if you think about like a holistic marketing plan right from the start, you know, this is kind of, you know, when I made Overcast 11 years ago, or 10, whatever, nine, whatever it was, about a decade ago.

00:03:15   The very first thing I did, besides my little prototype of Voice Boost and Smart Speed, which weren't even called that yet, where the very first thing I did was I looked around the landscape of other podcast apps and I made a big note document of like, all right, here's how Overcast will compete with Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Instacast, Downcast, like all these, you know, the big apps of the day, Pocketcast, like, you know, these are like the big podcast apps of the day.

00:03:43   And here's areas that I'll compete, you know, strongly against them. Here's areas where I'll be weak against them. And then using that kind of thinking, and it took screenshots of all of them and screenshots of what I was proposing to do. And I said, all right, what is my app going to be? And what features is it going to have? And what's it going to really focus on?

00:04:02   And what it really takes when you're trying to communicate to customers, to an audience, to whatever, editing is super important. And so what I had to do is I had to figure out what are like the headlining things that are really going to make my app stand out? Or what's the headlining feature?

00:04:19   What is like, you can't pick everything. It's like how our friend Merlin Mann, you know, often has friction with people over the concept of priorities. Like, you can't really have 19 high priority items. And similarly, you can't really expect your customers to read like, a wall of features that's like, Oh, here's the 19 major things my app does. Like, that's, that's optimistic. And I think most people don't have that kind of attention span.

00:04:45   And the same thing applies to both, you know, when you when you launch a new app, and you're trying to communicate what it is, the same thing applies to what's new in an update. If you're trying to communicate to your user, like, Hey, here's version, you know, my big new iOS 17 update, here's, here's the new features.

00:05:03   You pretty much have to have like two or three things on that list. It can't be a big list. And even then it's hard for everyone to to learn about it, you know, you have to really narrow it down. Because people have very short attention spans, they will not read a wall of text, they don't have time, they don't care.

00:05:19   You know, so, and if you if you do like, some kind of, you know, first run experience where you're like pointing out stuff, all everybody wants to do is go next, next, next, next, next close and then go back and get back to doing what they wanted to do in the app. So you know, that's no good.

00:05:33   And so it's a hard problem. And in some ways, you know, a lot of times people, when you're when you're asking yourself or others, how do I get people to see all my features? A lot of times, like you're already past the problem point. A lot of times the problem is you crammed too many features in here and you're and you you haven't narrowed it down.

00:05:53   And then there's other challenges too. Like one of the big challenges I have with overcast is smart speed is invisible. It does not you cannot see it working. Like if you turn it on, and this was one of the major selling points of overcast at launch.

00:06:09   When you if you turn on smart speed, you can't really tell it's on necessarily. That's part of the design. It's just making things better for you in the background. You know, and there's a lot of features that we do in our apps that are like that. There's a lot of features where it's like, well, I put a lot of work into this thing.

00:06:28   It's a really cool thing. It could even be a major selling feature, but people won't see it or they won't necessarily appreciate it for the amount of work it was or for what it took or how cool it is.

00:06:41   And so all these provide really hard challenges like how do you promote this? How do you how do you get people to even know it's there? And then secondly, how do you get people to value it?

00:06:52   And those are both very difficult questions. And I think what it starts out with fundamentally is narrow down what you want to tell people about. Have a very short, well edited list of things they will care about.

00:07:07   That's another major part. You could rewrite the whole back end using Swift async. Guess what? Your customers won't care at all. That doesn't affect them at all. And you can say, oh, it makes the app faster, more stable. You can try to explain why that will help them. They will not care.

00:07:25   That is not a feature. That is a you thing, not a them thing. So you got to figure out what small number of features that my customers will both see and care about am I going to try to communicate to them about or try to reveal in the interface somehow.

00:07:42   And that takes a lot of frank, hard editing on your end before you even get to the part of, okay, now how do I tell people about it?

00:07:53   Yeah. And I think the most important thing that you're driving at there is to understand that not all features are equal in terms of their ability to build excitement or be interesting as a new thing, as something that is going to maybe get attention, maybe grab someone's eye.

00:08:14   Sometimes they're not the most technically interesting features that are going to do that. They may just be there's this thing you're doing that's kind of flashy. It tends to be things that are very visual, things that are kind of obvious.

00:08:27   And if you look at them, they make sense sort of immediately. And the more subtle features can still be very valuable. They're not saying like never build those because very often they form a foundation around the bottom of your app that is what makes it sort of usable and desirable for the long term use.

00:08:48   But when you're thinking about your marketing plan to communicating which features you want to communicate and how to communicate them, being aware that ideally you'll have a couple of high impact features, a couple of things that are very visually strong in terms of they're different or new, that you will show up well in a video or a picture or a short description.

00:09:11   And having a couple of those is awesome. If you can think of what those are, I mean, obviously, this is probably in some ways would have been useful to also be thinking of back in June when you're deciding what your features would be to make sure you have some of those that if your feature list are things that aren't particularly dramatic, it's not as interesting.

00:09:30   And even to some degree, like being thoughtful about whether it's a feature that is enabling something new and desired by the user is probably also very important to sort of differentiate around because I'm thinking about watchOS 10 this, you know, sort of this year where a huge aspect if you have a watchOS 10 app is that they have this kind of new visual language that they're, you know, the system is trying to adopt.

00:09:55   While it's probably a very important thing to if you want to have a good watchOS app that your watch app adopts that, you know, visual style now, that feature is not particularly in and of itself that dramatic, because it's just like it's almost like a for free feature.

00:10:13   Like it's not actually enabling anything new. It's not grabbing your attention, like maybe you can take advantage of its visual interest, but just be mindful that it could be a lot of work but end up not actually being that, you know, like some that's going to get someone excited because the app still does the same things that did before it just does it in a different way.

00:10:32   It just looks slightly different. And so if you can, but if you can find something where it's like before you couldn't do this thing, now you can do this new thing. That's going to be a much stronger place to find yourself and then like you need this list and then you need to work out how you're going to actually communicate what this list is to your customers.

00:10:50   Yeah, that's that's a really good point. You know, the distinction between things that your customers will expect. That's, you know, when a new OS comes out, you know, suppose when whatever OS it was that introduced dark mode 1213, you know, whatever that was, the fact that your app a few months later supported dark mode, that is not something your customers.

00:11:13   That's not something worth bragging to your customers about because as soon as the system implements a dark mode and made it available to all apps to do customers instantly took for granted that of course all apps will support this.

00:11:26   So when you adopt a new OS feature that is kind of just like all right now all apps will be able to do X. That's actually usually not a huge marketable feature for you to your customers because your customers will just assume well of course you're going to support that because every app will support this.

00:11:42   So, you know, similarly with iOS 17 like, you know, we have these interactive widgets now and that's great. But if if all you're doing with interactive widgets is adding like a button here or there and doesn't really radically change the way your app works.

00:11:59   People are going to instantly take that for granted like well, yeah, of course, of course you have this button here. Everyone has buttons on their widgets now like so in a way that like that alone that kind of thing of the OS provides new ability X or new feature X or new theme X or whatever.

00:12:15   And my app now supports that that's usually not a like a big sellable feature by itself unless it really brings a ton of value to what the people are trying to do with your app as you were saying Dave like if it radically improves something about how they're using it.

00:12:30   That's a different story. But if if all you're doing is keeping up with the system conventions and the system norms, that's not anything your customers care about. They they require that you do it. They will penalize you if you don't on a lot of levels.

00:12:45   Not everything, but but a lot of levels, but once you once you then do that, you can't you can't expect to be patted on the back for that because they won't care. It's just it's that's just part of being on the platform. The platform moves you move with that your customers expect you to move with it. And then at some point you deliver features that are separate from that or building on that. That's what they'll care about.

00:13:05   Yeah, and I think the reason there is it's understanding that the adoption of the system feature as a bullet point is not compelling. What's compelling is if this new system feature allows the user to do something new that could potentially is compelling that the adding a button that used to like if you used to tap on the widget and it opened the app and then did the function.

00:13:27   And now you don't have to open the app to do the function like it just happens in line. That's nice, but it's much you haven't really allowed them to do anything they couldn't do before. You've just taken out, you know, have sort of a half a step of the process.

00:13:42   And so but if you now they can do something that previously wasn't possible. That's compelling. That's interesting. That's much more able to be marketed about. And so it's just sort of taking the perspective of how does this change the user's experience is much more useful than how we are sort of having a checklist of, you know, features that Apple has allowed.

00:14:02   And now I'm checking them off that that perspective, the sort of more that you're just doing the thing you're supposed to do is not going to be good for marketing for marketing is it's how is this impacting the user?

00:14:12   What is it allowing them to do that they couldn't do before? And once you have that aspect of it, now you have something that is worth communicating about.

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00:15:54   So I think the two aspects that I think makes sense for us to talk through in terms of sort of areas for communication, I think, are communicating with sort of Apple and the press in terms of ways to potentially gain sort of exposure from institutional sources.

00:16:10   And then the second one is to your customers, either potential customers in terms of direct marketing that you're doing of these new features, and then internally to your existing customers to how to sort of show them what to do.

00:16:22   And I think on the first side of things, it's like this is around the time that I recommend once you have your list of cool features is about reaching out to the press, reaching out to Apple.

00:16:31   Like there is a I'll have a link in the show notes. Apple has a sort of a web form that you can fill out with what you're working on, when it's coming out, what the features are.

00:16:40   And they recommend that you do that. You know, it's varied a bit, but at least probably a month, you know, three, four weeks out so that you can get give App Store editorial and notice that this is coming, because if it's something that they're going to be excited about, I'm sure, especially around iOS launches that they're looking for apps that are adopting the new things.

00:16:57   Like this is the time to do that, have ideally a test flight when you're doing this, I think is hugely helpful either both to Apple or to the press. I think it's one thing to describe a feature. It's another thing entirely for the, you know, the person you're reaching out to to be able to experience this new thing right away.

00:17:14   I think also it's great services general tip with this is put together a short demo video of the app, these new features, these new whatever it looks like in practice. I think it's, you know, people's attention span is often short.

00:17:29   And if you can, in say, 30, 60 to 90 seconds, have a quick like, this is kind of what it's like, that's going to, I think, go a huge way in terms of getting someone's attention. And both, you know, especially with this year, like interactive widgets, hard to describe, much easier to show in terms of with the video.

00:17:45   But I think broadly, having something like that is a much easier pitch, much easier for someone rather than reading a big long list to just say like, click on this 30 second video, and you can see what it is. And if that's exciting, if that's tantalizing, awesome. And then they'll go into the actual thing.

00:18:01   And I think along these lines, it's just sort of understand that some of the places that you might be reaching out to, you might not hear back from, and that's totally normal. And that's just the reality of it. But I think it's also understanding that many of the sort of the Apple press sites that cover these things, at this point, they're looking for apps to cover.

00:18:19   It's part of, you know, sort of there's a there's a win win happening here. So also, don't be shy about reaching out, you know, if there's a site that covers apps a lot, they probably want to know about apps, understand that they may not choose your app to talk about, but just not like you're not imposing on them by reaching out by sending them, you know, a test flight link, a video, a video link and a short description and just sort of be respectful of their time in that like don't send them a giant block of text that they have to try and navigate to understand, like make their life easy.

00:18:46   And then hopefully, that will encourage them to, you know, make your make your life better by featuring your product and by talking about what you're doing.

00:18:53   And I think that that's in my experience is often also to the kind of thing where I understand that a lot of times this kind of reaching out is, it's not the first time you reach out to this in my experience that I would have success.

00:19:05   It's the like second or third time that once you sort of demonstrated a track record of, you know, developing interesting things, it's much more easy to get someone's attention if they recognize your name because they know it from somewhere else.

00:19:19   That's much more likely to, you know, sort of get get some attention that if you're completely, you know, cold calling out of the blue, that's, you know, probably less likely to garner some interest.

00:19:30   Yeah, but ultimately, you know, press is good. But ultimately, what will do a lot more than press is how your app shows up in the App Store.

00:19:39   What what people are seeing in the App Store, what if they search for relative terms or related terms, or if they search for your app's name directly, if you're lucky enough to have that kind of buzz, you know, what are they going to see?

00:19:49   You know, what are they going to you know, what kind of, you know, app listing are they going to see? Are they going to see your app listing at all?

00:19:54   Or is it going to be, you know, downranked by a whole bunch of, you know, keyword spammers or competitive things above you? Are you going to be buying search ads?

00:20:01   All of that stuff is relevant here. Because, again, press is good. But the the the flow of what happens with when people read press articles is that, you know, think about your own reading of, you know, Apple and tech press.

00:20:15   When they talk about an app, how often do you instantly go and download it right after reading about an article, an article about it?

00:20:21   I mean, maybe sometimes if it's really good. But what percentage of the articles that you read about apps result in you downloading the app?

00:20:28   It's usually not super high. So that's that's a good start, especially when you're first getting started.

00:20:35   But ultimately, what you really need is you need your app to show up in the App Store for people who are looking for it.

00:20:40   And then when you're doing new features or new updates, most of the people who are going to get that update, most of your existing customer base,

00:20:50   they're not going to see the news article about what you changed. They're not going to see like, Oh, guess what?

00:20:56   Next time I launch overcast, it's going to have interactive widgets. Like they don't know that.

00:20:59   They're just going to launch it one day and it'll have the new thing.

00:21:02   And so that I think that is the the hardest the hardest thing to do with trying to build value in your app over time, trying to retain your existing customers, trying to show them new stuff or new opportunities for them to give you money or something.

00:21:18   The challenge there is like, to people who will who just have your app and here use it every once in a while, who will never go to your App Store page,

00:21:27   who will never go to your website, who don't follow you on social media, who don't read the news about your new releases, who don't certainly don't look at the release notes in the App Store for your updates, because no one looks at those.

00:21:37   How are you going to communicate to them if they just launch your app one day and these new features are there somewhere?

00:21:45   How do you make it visible to them? And doing that in a way that they're not going to just instantly skip right over because they want to get back to using the app and doing it in a way that they also won't hate you, that you're not going to be annoying them,

00:21:59   and yet still doing it in a way that they're not going to just totally never know about these features forever.

00:22:04   Yeah, and I would say the sort of best solution I have for that particular problem for me has been in WidgetSmith, I have one of the tabs at the bottom is just titled "What's New?"

00:22:16   And I have a running list of essentially interactive release notes that I've been building over time and put in there, and I record essentially the app version that you've last looked at, that you've last opened the "What's New?" tab,

00:22:35   and if there's updates since the last time you opened it, it has a little red badge that indicates that there's something new there.

00:22:42   And it's one of these things that I have found way more benefit from than I originally would have guessed when I built this feature, because I think it gets around the sort of, if the first time they launch the app, you do some modal interstitial thing up in their face,

00:22:59   I think the instinct is to, "I didn't open the app to read the interstitial, I opened the app to do something, and so I'm in their way, I'm not..." And it's like, if they hit cancel, can they get back to that? Is it kind of just like, it's this one-shot thing, and if they skip it, well it's just gone forever?

00:23:15   And so it kind of gets rid of that problem by making it persistent, it's in a constant place. I communicate that it's there by putting a badge on it, and I think people hate badges, so it's not like the sense of, "They're never going to go there."

00:23:29   Because I think, and by clearing the badge when you open it, and then the next time there's an update, it's only ever badged when there's major new changes, and I don't do this for every version, if there's a minor bug fix update that I'm doing, I don't badge it and say minor bug fixes, I'm thoughtful and intentional about that in terms of, is this an update that's flaggable or not?

00:23:48   But then inside of that what's new, I've also found it's super valuable to have as little text as possible, that what you instead want to do is to show things with pictures, with animations, or with videos.

00:24:03   Especially videos have been super well received in terms of, I have a new feature, I have a little video that I put together, and these don't need to be super complicated or high production values, I don't really know what I'm doing, but I know enough to record a video in the simulator, record a video for my device, depending on what makes sense.

00:24:21   Yeah, we're just talking screen recordings, right? There's not Adam Lissagore showing off how fancy your app is.

00:24:33   If you have the budget for that, awesome, go for it. But also don't feel like you have to have that budget in order to do this. A screen recording with potentially some voiceover or just some interstitial titles with some text on them, kind of showing what it is, keep them as short as you can, like 30 to 60 seconds is ideal here.

00:24:46   Or less, I'd even say, right?

00:24:48   Yeah, it's like you're just trying to have a quick way to show a feature and then have some text, or, and then also something that I've found super useful is in these show notes, because these release notes are part of the app, you can then link to the relevant part of the app inside of the feature.

00:25:06   And I found great value in that as well, is I can, like for example, I added music widgets to Widgetsmith. I had the ability to add a new music widget from the release notes that's just like, you know, essentially it's like, try me, like you hit the button and it just opens a widget preconfigured as a music widget to the screen where you would choose the album to show in the music widget.

00:25:29   And so I'm trying to minimize all of the friction that I can, rather than it being like, I describe the feature and then say, okay, if you want to try this out, you need to go back to the home screen, you need to hit add new widget, you need to scroll down to where it says music, you need to tap on that.

00:25:44   It's like, that's not helpful.

00:25:45   Yeah, and actually expect them to remember that all in their head. Like, all right, it's like, memorize this, memorize this, like, you know, two factor auth code and this hit OK, then go back to the app.

00:25:54   Yes, exactly. Like, you want to make it as straightforward as possible. And I think this is also an opportunity to what you were saying at the beginning about potentially sort of invisible features. Like, I think of something like voice boost, I think of something like smart speed.

00:26:08   If you have a feature like that, because you're creating a richer experience, you can potentially show it in a way that's going to be much more obvious that like, you could hit, like, you know, play without voice boost, and then play without with voice boost or like, you can do those kind of things in the way that like,

00:26:23   I remember, like, when you first get a phone, if it has, like the different display modes, you know, that iPhones have, like, there's a way to toggle them off and on in the in the middle of learning about the feature, so that you get a sense of what they do.

00:26:37   And I think by making this interactive rather than static, you can do all of those things. And so I highly recommend you, like, if it can't be a tab in your tab bar, because that doesn't fit with your app design, that's fine.

00:26:48   But like, find some way to have a persistent space in the app that you're using for customer communication, and then have a way to kind of respectfully notify customers that it's there, ideally, in a way that's not interstitial in a way that is getting their attention, but doing it in a way that isn't getting in the way.

00:27:06   And it's like, I find this works really well. It seems to also that it, it has a nice sort of value for onboarding users as well, like in terms of not it's very useful for existing customers to let them know. But it also I kind of get the vibe that new customers will, as they're kind of playing around and exploring the app, it's a place that they'll go and they'll look around.

00:27:27   And it's also nice to see that I have a bit of history in there, and they can see, yeah, this is it, this app is maintained, this app has new features, this is a regular kind of actively maintained project.

00:27:37   So all my changelogs are updated as a result, because I want to communicate that to users in the same way.

00:27:44   Do you host the videos in the app? Like, do you just bundle them in with the bundle, or do you stick them on a web server with a CDN?

00:27:50   So yes, I've tried all kinds of different things with that. I've done a few that were sort of like bundled in the app, or that they were like, sort of more like using Swift UI animation to make a video that's not really a video that's actually a live view moving around.

00:28:05   It's more of a cutscene.

00:28:07   I would say that was way more trouble than it was worth. I tried hosting them on YouTube, which works well-ish, but is really awkward for a lot of it. And instead, what I've mostly settled on now is I just host them on like Cloudflare, like, you know, using their file server, sort of CDN stuff.

00:28:26   And it's relatively inexpensive because Cloudflare doesn't really charge based on bandwidth. So it's not like you have that kind of, you know, sort of, suddenly you're, if you put them, if you just put them on S3,

00:28:37   Oh, you'll be killed.

00:28:38   It would be a terrible idea. But if you put it on something like Cloudflare, which is less based on bandwidth, I found it to be fine and, you know, relatively affordable to do.

00:28:47   And then another little, like, just quick pro tip. So it's, I used to think that the like dynamic video encoding thing that, you know, iOS does, where there's a low bit rate, a high bit rate, and it'll dynamically adapt between those.

00:29:01   I thought that would require like a fancy web server that's doing some really complicated thing. It's like, no, no, it's totally fine.

00:29:08   It's just a plain text file that has like links to the, like all the different versions. And it just, you know, iOS is doing all the hard work. And so you can totally host a dynamic bit rate video on just a plain web server that's just serving files.

00:29:22   You don't need to do anything fancy. It could just, I mean, you could just host it by, you know, on like an Nginx static web server and it would work. So that's sort of like the great way to do it.

00:29:31   Then you get the dynamic video. It works well in different devices and it doesn't have to be complicated or difficult, but highly recommended.

00:29:38   Thank you for listening, everybody. And we will talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:42   Bye.

00:29:43   Bye.