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Getting more visibility for your Windows Store app Part 1: Create great apps

Pete Brown - 23 January 2013

Many developers ask me how to get more visibility for their apps in the Windows Store. Most do not realize, that even on the public web, visibility is almost never organic. It's the result of hard work on the part of all involved. In this first post I'll provide some observations as to things that I personally think help increase app visibility, specifically, app quality. In part 2, I'll cover the listing and promotion side of the equation.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not a marketing person, and I do not have inside knowledge of the Windows Store ranking and sorting algorithms. Additionally, I do not have metrics which empirically prove any of these techniques work. This is just advice based on my own observations, primarily targeted to people who are new to publishing apps in an online store. This is not a replacement for the Develop Great Apps content on our dev center.

The single most important thing you can do to increase the visibility of your app is to start with a great app. Full stop. All other things equal, a great app will do better than a mediocre app or a terrible app. Here are some suggestions for things which can help tip the scale from "meh" to "yeah!"

Don't create throwaways

Back when I used to work for Scott Hanselman, one recurring piece of advice he'd give to the team was "Don't create throwaways". He was talking about blog posts then, but the same thing applies to apps. Throwaway apps can ruin your reputation with customers and also with the Windows Store. The Windows Store is not a great place to post things like little test projects or homework apps. You can do those easily and share them with your testers using documented side-load capabilities.

Each and every app you put in the Windows Store should be an app you're proud of. It should be something you wouldn't hesitate to show your friends, family, and your colleagues. It should be useful and engaging. In fact, the number one requirement in the Windows 8 app certification requirements is "Windows Store apps provide value to the customer". Put another way: Your app needs to be worth the download time and storage space, or else it's going to get a bad review.

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Apps don't need to be perfect, or masterpieces, but they need to be apps that will raise your overall reputation. If you thought of, designed, and coded the app in an evening, chances are you can do even better if you take a few more days :)

Don't be tempted to put a rough draft out into the wild. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. This is as true for apps as it is for dating.

Go beyond the stock templates

I do a lot with music both in the app world and with hardware synthesizers. A common complaint is when a synthesizer preset gets used by many different artists as-is, without any substantive customization or modification. It becomes the only thing you hear in the song. Some get so over-used, even when slightly modified (M1 Piano, DX7 E. Piano 1 (and this) and slap bass, D-50 Fantasia, JP-8000 supersaw (which I still like, but that's besides the point), Alpha Juno "Hoover" etc.) that others start to rebel against them. The recommendation is to start with stock patches, but to customize them, or just create new ones from scratch. Otherwise you'll sound pedestrian, dated, and maybe even like a copycat. Presets are in synthesizers just to give you an idea of what the machine is capable of, sound designers didn't expect to hear them on actual records.

The built in templates in Visual Studio are a great starting point for structuring your app. However, like the synthesizer presets, they were never meant to be used exactly as-is. They are a starting point to help you get from zero to working in a very short period of time.

Here's a screen shot of one of the built-in templates running on my 30" screen.

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Notice how each square is the same 250px with a text overlay at the bottom. There's nothing there to mix it up. It's a starting point - a preset. It's deliberately grayscale so that you don't fixate on existing colors while you flesh out your ideas.

The Windows design aesthetic doesn't limit you to a gray app with a bunch of 250px squares with a text overlay at the bottom. Think, erm, outside the 250px box.

Once you've proven that the functionality of your app works, then you can get creative with the UI. Customize it with appropriate branding and logos. Change the sizes of tiles, if you decide to stick with a tile layout at all.

Here are some apps which use simple box layouts, but do it in a good way that is different from the stock templates. Some vary the sizes of the boxes, some simply alter the layout of the main screen. Both use branding and colors. This is a very conservative approach which looks good, but relies on amazing content to carry the app. Keep in mind that you're seeing these all on my huge screen.

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I've seen an increasing number of apps in the store which use rectangles and even the labels as shown in the stock templates, but mix it up enough to be different and interesting. For example, most of the Xbox games on Windows have a hub screen which is not quite as conservative as the previous two, but still rooted in the same design principles. Note the use of boxes which span more than one row or column. Note the use of color. This is a simple design which any developer could pull off.

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Xbox video takes a similar approach.

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Top Gear News from the BBC is another app which sticks with a general box layout, but is far from being a template app. This is a portal-type app where the content is highlighted in the app but hosted on the web site.

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(Please note that none of the above three are optimized for a high resolution, low DPI screen like mine. More on that later):

(The built-ion News app is another great app with a variation on the box layout. No screen shot today, however, as it doesn't feel right to post that with the headline story being about the college shootings.)

How about some other interesting boxes? The FX app leans towards the boxes side of the design aesthetic, but manages to have an engaging and very attractive UI, again, without sticking to a pure template layout. The app also scales well to different resolutions.

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My wife and I share a Kindle account (we set it up before Kindle supported sharing). Here's what the Kindle app hub page looks like when you're signed in (I don't read books on this PC. I use my Surface for that). It's not the same type of boxes we've seen before, but it is appropriate to this app's audience. Notice also the use of branding logos and colors on the top left.

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Enough with the boxes

Then you have other apps which eschew the boxes and go their own way (you can thank me for that, later). There's nothing in the design aesthetic which mandates the use of boxes in your layout. Grids are recommended, but we don't have any commandments you absolutely must follow when laying out your content. As long as you're consistent in modes of interaction and with system-provided tools (app bar, charms, navigation), and the app is attractive and usable from mouse, touch and keyboard, you should feel free to experiment with design that is appropriate to the brand, domain, and audience. An example of this is Nook. Notice that Nook also takes advantage of the extra space on my huge screen.

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They don't look like boxes, but we're still on a grid layout. We still have side scrolling. How about a couple apps which move even further away from the boxed layout design:

image image

(Did I mention I have a four year old daughter? The dress-up app isn't mine. Honest!)

The Disney app still uses side scrolling and has obvious touch points. It just works well. The Lola math game has no such box layout, but has obvious places where the user would interact with the screen and works well with touch and mouse. My 4yo girl picked it up without any problems at all.

You can see that although most of these use the hub page boxes-style layout, none of them look exactly like one of the built-in templates. Each has changes in color, styling, branding, and most importantly, layout which works for that specific app.

Several of them (and many other apps) do, however, fall down a bit when it comes to targeting people with giant screens like mine. Let's look at that.

Be resolution and DPI aware

When you write apps for Windows 8, you're writing apps for PCs. Apps need to work on everything from 1024x768 all the way up to low DPI 30" screens at 2560x1600, and smaller high DPI screens running at similar resolutions. Much of the DPI work is taken care of for you automatically by the runtime, and scaling to different resolutions is easy.

High DPI

High DPI screens are ones where there's a high resolution but small physical size. On these types of screens, Windows typically installs at a higher DPI setting where one pixel in your app is multiple physical pixels on screen. The additional pixels are used by vector graphics and fonts to make edges smoother and crisper. But when it comes to bitmapped graphics, you need to provide different DPI versions in order to maintain crispness in the display. Luckily, this is REALLY easy to do by simply naming your images following the scale naming convention. Visual Studio even has support for this for the logo graphics.

High Resolution

Higher resolution, low DPI screens take a little more thought on your part. You generally have two choices:

  • Show more content on the screen
  • Make everything bigger

I've seen both done successfully. The second ("make everything bigger") works well only when you have high resolution bitmap graphics or you are using all vector content. In XAML, you can use a ViewBox to make this happen for you. The former ("show more content") works well only if you have sufficient content to fill the screen. The stock itemscontrols (ListView, GridView) typically work well in this scenario.

Unfortunately, many apps take a third option: just center everything in an area optimized for 1366x768. On a large screen, this looks terrible. I won't pick on specific apps here as I'd rather work constructively with those app authors to see how they can make better use of screen space.

While you're there making your app scale nicely, you can use the same code and layout to make sure you support Portrait, Landscape, Snapped, and Filled views. The default templates provide a great way to structure these notifications and layout changes. Endeavor to make each view as functional as possible.

Testing DPI and Resolution

We don't all have access to giant screens, or high DPI screens, so we need to use the built-in tools. The Simulator in Visual Studio lets you run your app at different resolutions and DPIs just to verify that elements are laying out as you'd expect.

Support different processors

My desktop machine is a water-cooled overclocked processor with 6 cores and 12 logical processors and 12gb memory. I have a 16gb quad core laptop as well. My son has an older netbook with something like 2 or 3gb. My wife has a core i5 machine with 4gb memory. I also have two surfaces, each with ARM processors running Windows RT. All of those Windows 8 PCs are just in a single house.

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The power of the Windows ecosystem is choice. There are currently over 1,700 systems certified for Windows 8. Now, before you think "holy crap that's a huge test matrix" consider that this is no different from what PC manufacturers have had to test for in the past, except we've made the API more uniform and have made the OS version matrix far smaller.

I'd encourage developers with serious apps to test on:

  • A developer class desktop or laptop with high resolution display. This should have discrete NVIDIA or AMD graphics, also preferably an SSD. No touch.
  • A typical laptop with integrated graphics and a spinning rust hard drive, touch optional but a good idea.
  • Possibly an older (2-3 years) laptop without touch.
  • A Surface or other Windows RT device with touch.

That, to me, provides a decent look at performance at a CPU level. Now, if you're a game development house, you likely have a much larger matrix, covering different makes of video cards with different capabilities, for example. Again, we've made that easier in Windows 8 and Windows RT, but you'll still want to continue that practice.

But what's the independent developer to do? For you, I suggest testing on your development PC and a Windows RT device. Consider it a good excuse to get a lightweight and low power tablet (I know I love mine). For other performance testing, invite some friends with different laptops and side-load the app on to their machines for testing. Make a party out of it (but realize you'll get the most, umm, useful feedback before the party gets too far along). It's easy to do and you'll get great feedback not only on performance, but your friends will be blunt with their assessment of your app as well.

Many developers ask me "if I'm targeting ARM, do I really need a Surface to test?" Yes, I consider a Windows RT device, such as a Surface, essential for testing anything but the most basic of apps. We've done a ton of work to unify the development model across all of Windows 8 and Windows RT, but at the end of the day, ARM is a completely different architecture from x86/64. I've worked with developers who discovered race conditions in their apps that were masked on x86 but which showed up on ARM, for example. Plus, for many developers, it would be their only touch device, and you really do want to understand how your app performs on a true touch device.

If you can't pick up a Surface (or other Windows RT device) yourself, you could solicit the help of local or international friends who could test on their own Surface. The Internet is a wonderful thing.

Don't be an island: support searching

Most apps have data which can be searched. Sometimes that data is external, on the web. Sometimes that data is just files stored on the file system. Sometimes that data is structured and stored in a database. In all cases, these apps should support the search contract.

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Adding search contract support is quite easy, and you can use it to replace any built-in search you were going to include in your app anyway. You can learn more about searching on MSDN, and also in my book Windows 8 XAML in Action.

Use the built-in file pickers

The days of all the user's data existing on their local machine are, if not already long gone, well on their way out. These days, a file might exist locally, or on a server, or on a social network, or cloud storage. Or maybe, just maybe, the file doesn't exist in a physical form at all! WinRT provides an easy way for apps to integrate with file pickers both as consumers and as owners of content. You could, for example, provide a file picker interface for your app which pulls data from a database and assembles a file on-demand.

Back to the music scenarios: imagine that you want to load a sample or loop into your app. Another app could serve as a file picker, but only for content you purchase. You could then easily use that purchased content in your music creation app.

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(figure from Windows 8 XAML in Action)

By integrating with file pickers as a consumer, your app doesn't need to know where the files came from, or how they got there. It simply simply needs to work with the StorageItem class and the file picker interfaces. These are your new OpenFileDialog and SaveFileDialog, so get to know them well.

You can learn more about the File Open and File Save pickers on MSDN (and, as with most of these topics, also in my book).

Sharing is as important now as it was in Kindergarten

One of the first things you're taught in Kindergarten is to share with others. Why? Because it forces interaction with others and helps take a bunch of loners and turn them into a classroom.

An app that can share to other apps will gain visibility through that share. For example, if your app can share photos it creates with other apps, there's a better chance those photos will show up on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

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An app that can be the target of sharing will be indispensible to users. For example, if your app can take shared music files and post them to SoundCloud or MySpace or BandCamp, or shared videos and post them to Vimeo or YouTube, the user will come to rely on your app for those operations. Your app becomes an integral part of the system, adding value to every other app in Windows, and serving as an important gateway to outside services.

There are a number of different formats which can be shared, from simple URLs and text to whole files and HTML markup. Support as many of these as makes sense in your app.

You can learn more about sharing on MSDN.

Draw your user in

Let's assume for a moment that you were able to get the user to download and install your app (the topic for the next post). Once installed, a good app keeps the user coming back for more. It does this by keeping content fresh, if it is a content app, or by just being an indispensible part of the user's workflow.

The Start Screen Tile

An attractive tile is important to getting the user to use your app. It needs to be obvious and clear. It should also be attractive, and not look like it was a last-minute design asset thrown together in Paint. :)

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Content apps and games can both take advantage of live tiles on the Windows Start screen. Content apps can show slideshows of the content, working under the assumption that it is the content that is the draw, not the app itself. Games can, similarly, entice users to continue playing by showing progress so far, how many steps to the next level, etc.

Make use of the available layouts in the tile template catalog and pick one which is appropriate for your app. That page also has excellent guidance for when to use each type of tile.

The Hub Page

If your app has a number of different options, different categories of content, or has multiple projects the user may be working in, a hub page may make sense. A hub page is the first page the user sees - it provides an overview of what has been done so far, and what remains to be done, as well as what new content is available and more. The minesweeper screenshot near the start of this post is an example of a hub page. It lets you switch themes, see your achievements, and more.

Many productivity apps on the desktop include a dialog which is displayed when you first start the app. For example, when I open Cubase 7, I get this dialog:

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Formatted another way, this type of hub would be perfect for the hub screen of a Windows 8 app.

Similarly, when I open Premiere Pro and After Effects, I get these screens:

image image

And, of course, you're all familiar with the hub screen we see almost every day:

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If your app is complex enough to warrant it, or simply needs a nice landing spot for the user before throwing them into the task, consider putting a hub page. It will help you with discoverability of features for your app, as well as make it easy for a new user to navigate your UI.

Music Maker Jam uses its hub page for selling content packs as well as for loading existing projects and even a little advertising on the side.

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One of my favorite uses of a hub screen is in the episode-based game Adera, shown here in a screen shot from my Surface. Notice how it has the main tasks right there, but then additional engaging information to the right, including achievements and collections. Each group lets you drill down to see more episodes, items, and more.

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A good tile can attract the user's attention, and a good hub screen can engage them them moment they launch your app.

Test, Test, Test

Finally, I can't say this enough: test your app. Test it on your own machines, and then, if you don't have a formal testing group, send side load versions to your friends to test. At a minimum, you want to test on all processor architectures you support (x86 32, 64 and ARM). If your app makes use of peripherals like sound cards, web cams, microphones, or others, you'll want to test using a variety of those devices as well.

Trust me, you don't want your app to earn one of these stickers:

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Just because an App seems smaller than an Application, don't test it any less.

In the next post, I'll provide some ideas for promoting your app and for getting your user to get past the first hurdle: the initial download.

       
posted by Pete Brown on Wednesday, January 23, 2013
filed under:        

4 comments for “Getting more visibility for your Windows Store app Part 1: Create great apps”

  1. Marc Drossaerssays:
    Hello Pete,

    Thanks for the advice. The 'first impression' phrase set me thinking. I am planning to publish a simple app in the Windows Store, simple for several reasons, one of which is to let it grow into directions indicated by customer feedback, and another reason is: to get some experience with the really not trivial process of getting an app into the Store. Of course the risk of 'simple' is a bad first impression (Is that all it does???)

    What nobody likes is to first develop an app that after substantial development effort he/she feels is (pretty)perfect, to then discover it is a long way from being published in the Windows Store. Publishing is an integral part of development, just as deployment is. Of course, there is the certification kit, but that provides no guarantees. It seems rational to me to start one's adventures with the Windows Store on a basis of agility, hence limited investments up-front.

    Perhaps, a staging Windows Store environment, with an admittance probability that closely matches the one of the actual Windows store would relieve the tension between Microsoft's desire for mature apps, and developer's need for a learning experience.

    Regards,

    Marc.
  2. Petesays:
    @Marc

    An author probably wouldn't publish some unedited rant just to get a feel for publishing to a magazine. Instead, they'd create a small article or short story. It would be small, but well-done.

    You can still create a small app, but one which users will like and not consider to be crap. That's the real thing you need to watch out for: is the app something the users will consider to be crap and which will therefore affect your reputation in a bad way? Will the reaction discourage you from creating more apps?

    So, there's a line. Not every app needs to be Angry Birds, but it should be useful and well done, even if quite small.

    Pete

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