Why do apps, websites and gadget-makers keep asking us to review them?

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We live in the age of the needy notification. Are you enjoying this app? Rate it in the App Store! What do you think of our website? We'd love to hear from you. How was your stay?

There's a seemingly endless stream of requests for our opinions, mostly from the makers of apps and websites, that could easily fill your day if you responded to them all. 

It can be exhausting and off-putting, which raises the question: why is the tech world so darned needy?

Many websites ask for instant reviews from first-time visitors. Credit: Virgin Atlantic

Many websites ask for instant reviews from first-time visitors. Credit: Virgin Atlantic

The instant review

New users are the tech industry's lifeblood. So when you visit a website for the first time, it treats you like royalty by trying to engage you.

"This one drives me up the wall," says Gary Van Broekhoven, Head of customer experience at DMI, which has worked with Virgin, Addison Lee and Fitness First.

"They could do the world a favor by building something their customers really value and, guess what, those customers will go and tell all their friends about it." Trouble is, tech people don't like word of mouth because it can't be quantified.

So instead, it's a simple ratings war. There are 2.2 million apps in Apple's App Store and 2.8 million on Google Play, so getting noticed is a really big problem for apps.

"They ask for a review within the first few seconds to ensure that they take advantage of the window of opportunity before the likely event that the user decides the app is not relevant to them, or simply fails to use it again," says Alex Lee, user experience designer at Impression, which has worked with BP, Telefónica, Experian and Coffee Central.

It's a problem of collective 'cry wolf'. "Standing out above the waves requires waving your arms around a lot, but the problem is that if you're someone who's always waving their arms then people just ignore you," says Adam Alton, Senior Developer at app development company Potato.

"Apps are trying to find [the space] between getting our attention and getting on our nerves, but often, getting it wrong."

Booking.com relies on reviews, but the system inflates scores. Credit: Booking.com

Booking.com relies on reviews, but the system inflates scores. Credit: Booking.com

The recommendation economy

The internet has become a popularity contest. We live in a world where random 'citizen reviewers' pass judgment on everything, and that makes or breaks everything. So there is little choice for the app-maker; you must gain reviews, or the app fails.

"App developers are all heavily incentivized to make things that generate recommendations, and to solicit those recommendations in order to be successful," says Jordan Harper, head of innovation at Iris Worldwide, which works with Domino’s, Adidas and Shell.

"It may seem silly for a site you've never been to before to ask for a thumbs up before you've spent more than a few seconds on there, but it's likely an effective tactic as it costs nothing for someone to give a snap judgement on something, with a significant potential upside for the site/app."

Harper thinks that apps and sites that do this probably do spread more quickly. At a cost. "Perhaps they sacrifice a deeper engagement with the customer as a result – it's difficult to be good friends with someone who constantly needs to be told they're doing well," he says.

A constant need for reviews has created a needy culture among app developers, but don't forget that there is a sound reason for reviews. 

"With so many potential scams, having crowd-sourced reviews collected by a trusted source such as Google is actually a pretty good way to know whether or not you're going to have your card details stolen," says Alton.

However, there are plenty of examples of the whole recommendation economy being disingenuous.

Take Booking.com, which asks its users to review hotels they're stayed in, but makes it impossible to give a hotel a really bad score. If you give a hotel a 'sad face' review in six categories – surely the visual equivalent of a zero – the hotels gets 2.5 stars out of 10. 

Apps that don’t get reviews sink without trace. Credit: WeVideo

Apps that don’t get reviews sink without trace. Credit: WeVideo

The language barrier

Perhaps the most annoying habit of late is the pop-up that asks you to enter your email address to join a mailing list. It's not the request itself, but the language used to get rid of it. 

'Sign-up for our free newsletter!' The choices? 'Yes, please' and 'No, I want to remain uninformed.' That's passive aggressive language and weird. Nice work, website developer.

How about the trusty error page? When was the last time you experienced a page timeout or a page-not-found that wasn't accompanied by the cringe-worthy 'oops, wrong URL!' and a cutesy image, but rather 'error 404’?

Why? The internet is staffed by machines, bots and algorithms. Not humans. That's the obvious truth, but it needs to be hidden from view because people are scared of robots.

"People can become disillusioned if they are reminded that they’re interacting with a machine rather than a person," says Lee. "Using humanistic language in this way aids the user experience as it builds on a trust element, prompting the user to return to a site or app that they feel comfortable with."

Oops! is used by many websites. Credit: Airbnb

Oops! is used by many websites. Credit: Airbnb

The Kickstarter cringe

It's a similar story with Kickstarter, though with music rather than words. Hey what's this new gadget in this short video? It seems fun and friendly! How do I know that? The music in the background is just so cheery and… insipid.

"It shows a lack of creativity, or the reality that they are building things quickly and cheaply, and it can be easier to go with what appears to work," says Van Broekhoven. We get that. These startups are short on staff and time. But a bland video with non-descript music is surely a waste of everyone's time.

Trouble is, established norms now exist. "There are now lots of production companies who specialize in making videos to help your campaign succeed, so there's a 'house style' that works," says Harper.

He likens it to why so many prices end in 99p/$0.99 and why skincare adverts always have people in white coats in laboratories. It's human psychology.

"Music has many powerful psychological attributes, and tapping into a positive vibe is an easy way to ensure the mood is heightened and keeps the user on page," says Lee, though he admits that using ‘happy’ music may have a similar effect on some users as dark or heavy metal music has on others.

Might apps and websites one day access our Spotify accounts? Credit: Spotify

Might apps and websites one day access our Spotify accounts? Credit: Spotify

Is it time for a change?

While modern sites are often rather bland and corporate, things could be about to change to make us enjoy our web experience in a way that will make us want to leave a positive review:

"I think we are set for a big step-change, not so much in tech language, but tech experiences," says Van Broekhoven, who is looking forward to an era where there's a more humanising way of experiencing the digital arena... although it'll need a bit of buy-in from users. 

"[Imagine] devices that adapt to us, understand our preferences and change over time," he says.

"With the level of detail that apps and websites can gather from users today, the user journey will become increasingly tailored towards the individual users’ tastes, interests and whether or not they are tech savvy," says Lee.

For example, if a website or app wants to play some music and the users’ Spotify details can be gathered, it could just delve into your playlists. 

Sure, that's a more personal experience that would get over some of the issues with blandness, but do you really want an app/insurance company/Chinese gadget startup playing your favorite song at you constantly?

As for the bland language, that's here to stay. And then some. "If the last couple of years has taught us anything, it's that tech language needs to be be more sympathetic to non-experts and better at explaining itself without confusing people," says Harper. 

"Otherwise there'll be more tech CEOs in court answering difficult questions from the U.S. Senate."

So perhaps the one lesson in all this is that app and web developers copy each other's bad habits, and rarely do anything unique or interesting. 

Another is a basic lesson for the entire tech industry; just because you can, it doesn't mean you should (to anyone wanting to access our Spotify playlist to sell us gadgets, this means you).

But most of the annoying things about apps and websites are because all humans are obsessed by what other humans think of them. All the internet does is reflect that. In short, it's not them. It's us.