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Faceplanting: an app launch horror story with a twist

by Michael D'Ulisse
August 2, 201134 comments

Hi, I’m Michael. I’ve been successfully launching apps with next to no marketing on my own for three years with my own company More Blu Sky, using only my design skills and a knack for iTunes SEO. So when I was invited to join tap tap tap to produce an in-house project I was excited to team up and apply my expertise to tap tap tap’s traditionally explosive launches.

Fast forward one year later and we finally launched Faces. Everyone was excited and after a little hiccup…the app was out and we were off!

I was pumped, and we were ready for the app to leap out of the gate. For some background: The Heist sold 89,689 units on its first full day of sales. Camera+ 2.0 sold 47,989 units on its first full day when it was relaunched. The partnership with Tapbots for Calcbot produced a first full day sale number of 11,979 units sold.

Faces?

(Note: If you’re the type that covers your eyes during scary parts in movies avert your gaze now, this is where it gets gory.)

750 units sold

Now to some, that’s a pretty decent first day launch. My own apps average about 300-400 units sold on their first full day of sales. But when you put those numbers next to what tap tap tap normally does, you can’t help but wonder what went wrong. It was my job to find out, and there were clear culprits.

Botched Timing

Faces launched on July 20th, 2011 to the MacHeist fan base. We suspect MacHeist members remember this day better as Lion day.

Once I realized what we were up against I began developing a pit in my stomach… this was not going to be good.

And then there was the matter of the icon.

Icon: To Hell and Back

The App Store is a window shopper’s world, and generally your customer makes his or her decision in about 2 seconds. 1 second to sweep the price, app icon and name. Another second to scan the screenshots, then tap buy or skip. This is a brutal world where books are judged by their covers, and in this environment having a nice app icon isn’t a luxury, it’s a critical part of the sales pitch. App icons need to not only look great and convey what your app does, but also stand out in a crowd of other icons trying to do the exact same thing.

A few years ago I happened upon a blog post by Arnold Kim where he went into detail about how an app icon was similar to a tiny banner ad. This heavily influenced my approach to icon design in my own apps as well as my other app related endeavors, and my efforts to hit that balance of good looks, informative and visual POP from a sea of other icons. It’s fair to call this an obsession of mine.

Faces was conceived as a sort of companion app to Voices, so for an initial direction John decided that the icon should look similar to the Voices icon. My opinion differed on this. I felt like the launch of Voices 2 was less than stellar and I didn’t want the app or the icon to even remotely connect our new app, Faces, to Voices.

We started off with three icon concepts. “3 Faces”, which evoked Voices, “Goofy Stache”, and finally the “Trunk ‘o Props” icon. Our artist for this project was David Lanham, so we knew that no matter which concept we choose, that the execution would be top notch.

As is always the case when it comes to something as subjective as design. Everyone had their own opinions on what concepts they liked the best and what should be changed or tweaked. This lead to some pretty heated arguments and ended with the ban hammer coming down on the big face icon and the trunk icon.

Leaving “3 Faces”, which we further developed and polished into a few variants, finally settling into John’s favorite, “2 Faces”:

This eventually lead to Scott, and myself breaking off to work on our own concept, the thumbs icon (Later Phill joined us in polishing this design). As it turns out design by committee produces disastrous results. Dozens of variations later we ended up with a bunch of icons nobody was super happy with.

At this point we were over 150 emails into the icon argument and the team was ready to move on with what felt less like an agreement and more like a cease-fire. We went with “2 Faces” and as it happens with most compromises everyone left the table thinking it looked like crap.

Death By a Thousand Cuts

To sum it up, there were a number of glaring misfires in our Faces launch. The app icon was a mess, we didn’t like the screenshots or tagline, and launching the same day of Lion was a colossal mistake.

It was now my responsibility to turn a botched launch into something… less botched. So we started focusing on the things we could change and fix. If this was death by a thousand cuts, it was time to apply a thousand bandages.

The first thing I was going to tackle was the icon. I went back to the original concepts and picked the “Goofy Stache” icon concept and asked David to tweak it a little. I had always felt like this icon would scream for attention and I was glad to see it get its chance to shine. On a side note, the app’s orignal icon was done by Wolfgang when the app was called “Photo Fun!” and was the inspiration for this icon, so we kind of came full circle.

The next thing we did was change the name from “Faces ~ fun with photos!” to “Faces ~ Photo Fun!”. What’s ironic about this is that the app’s original name was “Photo Fun!” before we changed it to “Faces”. This provide the same message of having fun with photos but kept the “sub name” from getting cut off when viewed on iTunes or the mobile App Store.

We then changed the color of the screen where you pick props. This was originally red, but was changed to purple to keep the multicolor props from clashing with the background. The reason for this change was a color theory issue. Red is a color that invokes excitement and promotes conversation, we hope that it promotes conversation about Faces. It was a better choice marketing wise because this screen needs to be shown as a marketing shot on our iTunes page.

Faces has a ton of props in it and we were failing to communicate this strength. So we made that much clearer, and also cleaned up our ‘model shots’ of excess props to reduce clutter.

We had the update ready to go. But meanwhile Faces was dropping completely out of the charts into oblivion, hidden somewhere deep in a shelf behind other apps in the very back of the store. When you are out of all charts in App Store world you are essentially not even on the App Store’s shelves for browsing… you are in the back room and only viewable by calling it up by order. We hit rock bottom quickly on July 26th with just 21 global sales for Faces. Things looked bleak.

The Twist

I’ve talked about a couple quirks about living in the App Store world. At this point Faces was completely screwed, and there was no hope in sight. Then,  intervened with a divine miracle. This is known as an “App Store featuring”, and it’s kind of like Apple placing your brand of chewing gum right next to the cashiers for lots of eyeballs and a bunch of impulse buys.

Sometimes when an app is featured it jumps up the charts at an amazing pace. Sometimes it just gets a slight bump in sales. We initially got the slight bump…

But on day 3 of featuring, our submitted app update hit the store with the new icon and various changes. Suddenly the slight bump had turned into a medium sized rocket, and within 24 hours jumped from 24 in entertainment and 180 in the whole app store, to 8 in entertainment and 59 in the entire app store.

I can sleep a little better at night knowing we’ve managed to salvage a disaster of a launch into something resembling a success for most indie developers… but of course the bar at tap tap tap is set by the numbers I listed near the beginning of the post. We’ll have to continue tinkering away and ride this out for a few more weeks before we can decide if Faces was a successful comeback or a very expensive learning exercise for tap tap tap. But we’re not giving up.

Stay tuned…

Now that you have seen the process that we went through, which icon do you like the most any why? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

http://makefac.es


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Who linked to this

34 comments

  1. Link
    11:13am, August 2, 2011

    I think the core problem with the launch of Faces was the value of the app. Imagine a venn diagram. In one circle you have MacHeist users. In the other circle, users who like to take pictures and put silly things on their faces. I believe the overlap in this dialog is *really* small. That doesn’t mean other customers won’t buy Faces, but tap tap tap’s huge advantage is it’s relationship to MacHeist.

    Food for thought. It’s nice to see this kind of candid analysis from an excellent app developer.

  2. Drew
    11:20am, August 2, 2011

    Totally agree with Link. When I saw Faces advertised on MacHeist, etc. I thought “wah?”. Didn’t seem like a characteristic TapTapTap app; more of an emoji/’idiot’ test/talking santa sort of thing.

    That being said, I did buy it and I am impressed.

  3. Skoua
    11:26am, August 2, 2011

    Your posts are getting more and more interesting. :)

    I liked the first icon better than the new one which I find a bit creepy but as you said it’s subjective.

    I’d like to ask you one question: how many people and time does it take you usually to build an app like Camera+ or The Heist (guess The Heist took longer but anyway…)?

    Thanks.

  4. Sascha
    11:31am, August 2, 2011

    Perhaps you should also take into consideration that not as many people interested in this app as in the other apps.

    But anyway – very interesting to read.

  5. Thecho
    11:42am, August 2, 2011

    I agree with Sascha.

    The only other thing I would add is that my kids love this app, but because it isn’t a universal app for use on the ipad (which seems to be their device of choice), it doesn’t seem to get used as often as I thought it would.

  6. Peter C
    12:17pm, August 2, 2011

    did you do any marketing or is the uptick in downloads entirely from your improvements?

  7. Jamaal
    12:44pm, August 2, 2011

    Haven’t tried the app yet – probably wont either but, I loved the article! Good read! Thanks for the insights

  8. Daniel Waldron
    12:57pm, August 2, 2011

    It’s not the icon, the launch date, or any of the marketing. IMO what hurt the sales of this app is the concept behind the app. It’s not a widely appealing app to the masses, probably just more geared towards a few kids that want to mess around for a bit before deleting it off of their device.

  9. alex kent
    1:25pm, August 2, 2011

    interesting article, i hadn’t thought so much about the promotional value of the app icon before. thanks!

    one thing, had you thought of using a photograph for the ‘model shot’ that might actually have been taken with an iPhone?
    i don’t mean this a complaint, but i’m often put off by demo images which are obviously not possible with the app / device / tool being shown. (i know, it is possible someone has a professionally shot studio portrait which they’ve copied onto their phone and want to mess with, but it’s not the main ‘usage scenario’).

  10. Phillip Ryu
    1:26pm, August 2, 2011

    @Sascha and others, agreed this app was not targeted well to our base, taking Lion launch out of the equation.

    @Peter no extra marketing the second week, the focus was on getting the update out before the featuring week ended.

  11. Eduardo
    1:34pm, August 2, 2011

    What app is that you use to check the ratings?

  12. Pet
    2:08pm, August 2, 2011

    Text is unreadable – light gray on white = eyes hurt + can’t distinguish words.
    If your intent for the article was to look nice, you probably succeeded, but if you wanted it to be read, you failed.

  13. Chris
    2:12pm, August 2, 2011

    The problem is definitely in the app concept. It has limited appeal but I also think there is a problem with the art style chosen for this app. I am a fan of Davids art but not sure it fits well with the app concept.

    I purchased the Faces app a couple days ago simply because it was from taptaptap but it does not feel like a taptaptap release. Some of the usability is cumbersome and feels unnatural. It wasn’t all that fun using it and I have since deleted the app.

  14. Drew
    2:18pm, August 2, 2011

    I prefer the trunk icon personally. It’s more clear on the purpose of the app. I also agree with earlier comments that it is more geared towards children, so I think it could have done with younger models being used in the screenshots.

  15. Xee
    2:39pm, August 2, 2011

    I preferred the old icon, but the new one isn’t too bad either. Anything David Lanham does is always awesome.

    I like the app, personally. It’s well designed and easy to use. Would like to see some more items added in future though.

    I think the reason it hasn’t done that well compared to other tap tap tap apps is because similar apps are already out there – some even for free, I believe. It doesn’t bring anything new to the App Store or for the user, except for its fantastic design/illustration.

    Best of luck with the app!

    Waiting for Camera+ 2.3…

  16. MrD
    7:28pm, August 2, 2011

    You forgot the part where you tell us exactly how many copies Faces sold after it was featured, so we can compare.

  17. iynque
    8:33pm, August 2, 2011

    I hadn’t seen this app until just recently, and I didn’t think it was from tap tap tap. It’s too goofy. I think the icon still needs work. I liked the thumbs as the only icon that shows what the app does, and highlights what’s fun about it: playing with props. I saw that and was actually interested for the first time. Rather than showing you can make a goofy final product, it shows that you can PLAY!

  18. Flapdoodle
    8:47pm, August 2, 2011

    Just my two cents, A few Years ago I purchased an app called staschetastic and I loved it, it had the same concept but it appealled to me much more than faces… I am
    Perhaps one of your “target audiences” as i enjoy such photo apps, my friends and i had a hoot with stachetastic the diff was they used actual pictures which seemed to gel well with photos…and made it really look like u had the Afro or beard… Whereas for faces, From the screenshots it seems your face is just buried under a bunch of clipart , there’s is no value in using your face … It would work as well on blank ovals…. So for me the issue is the artwork… It it beautiful no doubt but doesn’t intergrate too well with photographs…

  19. Lisa Bettany
    9:56pm, August 2, 2011

    I vote for Party time! ;)

  20. Bitbox
    10:08pm, August 2, 2011

    Well, I agree in that I didn’t think the app was targeted well. It was too goofy. I haven’t purchased it or taken much of a gander at it, but what has struck me is that it is a thin stand alone concept. I have app fatigue. For photog alone, I am using a number of apps already and don’t really want another. But. I was surprised that this idea of adding props wasn’t released as a module for camera+. Why not an in app purchase that gives you the “prop room” within the lightroom work area? I might even spring for that. But maybe that’s just me.

    At any rate, great article. Good luck!

  21. Michael D'Ulisse
    2:30am, August 3, 2011

    @Alex Kent That actually was something I was thinking about. I too don’t love the idea of stock shots. I’ve had the most success creating funny shots with photos of my friends, it was actually a bit difficult to work with those stock shots.

    @Daniel Waldron I think it’s more the fact that ttt markets to a base that isn’t as interested as we thought they would be. The app can produce some really funny images…and we thought that would appeal to pretty much anyone. I guess we were wrong…but the app store in general seems to have embraced the concept.

    @Skoua Faces took a year and 3 months. I think the Heist was 2 years. Not sure about Camera+ but I’m pretty sure it’s got a running tab.

  22. Tony
    10:00am, August 3, 2011

    Yepp: What app is that you use to check the ratings?

  23. jbm
    6:29pm, August 3, 2011

    Thanks for sharing! and esp the bits about iTunes marketing.

    Maybe the 3rd icon (from the left) in the 3 Faces set looks better than the rest.

    Most of the icons look cartoonish; not the results you’d expect with a real photo. In the web demos also, the props hide the original face in most examples – can’t tell if it is the original face or someone else’s. Shouldn’t viewers be able to at least recognize the original face.

  24. Cloudane
    8:26pm, August 6, 2011

    I actually preferred that 2 faces icon.

    - It conveys the intention of the app (to have fun with at least one friend and take pictures of it, and shows very clearly that it’s about applying props to faces)

    - It’s not too crowded (which the 3 faces one are, IMO)

    - The Goofy Stache one is kind of… I don’t know… I’d almost say creepy. Maybe it’d actually put me off. Hard to say!

  25. Cloudane
    8:33pm, August 6, 2011

    However to add to the previous comment…

    Being so open about these things is brave of a company but admirable. I’m happy dealing with such an honest company (even for something silly like this it’s still a factor as it shows you care about the app and may make improvements etc) and think all the better of Tap tap tap for allowing these kinds of posts.

  26. Alex
    8:52am, August 16, 2011

    He uses AppRankings to track Faces’ ranks.
    You can find the source code for this app here:
    http://www.mavericksoftwaregames.com/AppRankings.html

  27. gify
    2:20am, September 12, 2011

    The article you wrote is really nice.

  28. zakładanie firmy
    8:49am, October 29, 2011

    I love reading such news. They are very interesting and give me very much information.

  29. AppLaunch
    10:55am, May 12, 2012

    Firstly – great post, it’s great to see this kind of transparency from big developers – I’m sure it will be of great value to smaller developers currently working on apps! So thank you.

    A quick plug – for those of you about to release an App – http://applaunch.us is a great way to ensure a solid launch by getting your app in front of hundreds of App Review websites!

  30. gjawua
    3:20am, June 12, 2012

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    2:08am, June 20, 2012

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    7:20pm, August 24, 2012

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    11:24pm, August 30, 2012

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  34. James
    5:23pm, January 31, 2013

    Highly Enlightening


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