Love and Hate in the iOS 6 App Store

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 25, 2012

From The News Desk

By now you know that Apple has released the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6. Amidst the controversy over imperfect maps (which our editor Adam Penenberg wrote about here), a bit of a problem with the Swiss Federal Railways, and Siri convincing New Yorkers that it's 20 degrees warmer outside than it actually is, one of the biggest changes is the complete overhaul of the App Store.

Everything from the design – which has somehow managed to evade the company's stitched leather fetish – to the way users can search for and share apps has been changed. The App Store used to be a dull, blue-pinstriped showcase that displayed a few app icons and then, through an almost laughably terrible user experience, ushered prospective downloaders straight to the search box. The new App Store has solved some of its predecessor's problems and slipped into something more comfortable, but there are also a few odds and ends that still need to be addressed.

Right off the bat it feels like the new App Store has yet to solve the speed problem. It feels just as slow, or slower than, the old App Store, which is a bit of a letdown. The areas that do feel faster, such as scrolling and moving around the app, are more a result of the re-thought interaction scheme than anything else. We're in the beginning of iOS 6's status as a public operating system, so this isn't a deal-breaker (yet), but it definitely didn't help as a first impression.

The new interactions are much more streamlined, however. So even if it takes as long or a little longer for the app to load information or respond to user input, certain actions, such as updating installed applications or exploring the Featured section, take less time because Apple thought through the user experience. Looking at a specific application's download page, for example, no longer involves being bounced around to a new page and waiting for the App Store to catch up. Instead, all of that information is displayed in a card that fills roughly half the page and can be dismissed with a single tap.

This move from multiple taps or pages to a single user action is persistent throughout the new App Store. Finding games (and, specifically, a specific category of games) involves a lot less jumping around than it did before, as does looking at specific categories of apps, such as Lifestyle, Productivity, or News applications. Updating those apps after they're installed is easier as well, and doesn't require a password. Simply tapping "Update All" in the top corner starts the download process. Easy.

Unfortunately, not everything is so well laid out. The Featured page, though more visually appealing than its predecessor, feels like information overload with its seven rows of content and another row related to account management. Each of those rows is also horizontally scrollable, meaning that there are upwards of eighty applications or groups of applications on available for display. I've never felt closer to "information overload" than I did while browsing through this new Featured section. And the worst part is that at least part of what's displayed isn't the information an app hunter (that's a thing, right?) would be interested in.

Every salesman knows that you talk up what's good about a product before you mention a price. In the App Store's crowded, 700,000-app strong marketplace, apps have two ways of struttin' their stuff: awesome icons and user reviews. Star-based ratings aren't the best way to show quality (as shown in this xkcd comic), but sometimes that's all you've got.

The new App Store hides these star ratings in the Featured page, which is good for large companies that can garner attention with even a shitty app,  but bad for the unknown indie developer that made a badass game. So this Featured page is not just crammed with information, it's crammed with the wrong information. No amount of polish is going to fix the frustration of scrolling through 80 apps and not having any idea what other customers thought of each one without having to load every individual detail page.

What many people, developers and users may be most worried about is the new Search view. This isn't a big issue on the iPad, where four to four-and-a-half results (including the app name, price, rating, and a screenshot) are displayed, but it's a killer on the iPhone, where just one result shows up at a time. One. Uno. If you got sick of scrolling through the Featured page, well, you're going to love the new Search page. SearchMan cofounder Niren Hiro told VentureBeat that this could lead to "gaming" the App Store, saying “If you assume that some of the user behavior we see on the web will transfer to mobile, then when it gets cumbersome for users to browse results, they will enter more descriptive phrases to get relevant results fast."

All told, the new App Store certainly feels like an Apple product. It's clear that the team in charge of the App Store re-thought a lot of its design sensibilities and how to make users happy, but it falls just short of being an excellent tool. The new, visual nature of the store is nice (and, again, surprisingly tasteful and unobtrusive), but it also seems like the company has taken two steps forward and one step back.