I ran an Android studio for many years. We released four apps including HD Widgets, which ranked as a #1 paid app, had millions of users, and maintained a 4.5+ star rating for years.

What did we do right? What did we do wrong? Here are my insights on how to maximize 5-star ratings for your apps.

1. A single 5-star feature is better than multiple 4-star features

How often have you seen this: a developer releases an app with mostly-finished features. Or a company releases a feature before it's actually ready — because of a deadline.

Don't bite off too much. Focus on one or two features at a time and make sure they work flawlessly. Aim for the simplicity of "it just works".

2. Be sure your messaging matches your product

Don’t promise the moon when you only have a ball. People are fine if it’s just a ball and you say it’s a ball because they'll expect a ball. It can be a 5-star ball.

It’s fine to be glib and use flourishing jargon to describe your app, but stay within the lines. Don’t talk about what you hope to offer because sometimes you’ll have to pivot and can't deliver. Save the excitement for when it actually happens.

3. Android 1-star reviewers can become 5-star advocates

Did you know Android users can update their reviews? If you follow my advice (and really it’s not mine, it’s just common sense) it will be common for 1-star users to become your biggest fans. It’s an awesome feeling when it happens.

4. Set aside a sprint (2 weeks) after every major release for support and adjustments

Unit testing is great, but it’s not user testing. Even UX research with 100 testers won’t match the million+ users who just got your big update. They’ll find bugs. If not, they’ll find inconveniences.

Focus on those issues for a sprint so you can tie things up, release an update, and move on. This will demonstrate candor and attention to detail. It will help convert low-star reviews and reduce the potential for less than 5-stars.

5. Know when to ask for a 5-star rating

We’ve all seen this: you’re using an app and a dialog will pop up asking you to rate the app in the store. The smarter apps first ask the user if they’re enjoying the app and follow up with either “how can we fix it” or “please share in the store”.

There’s only two times to ask:

  1. Ask new users only once: early on, following a positive experience
  2. iOS users: current ratings reset with each update. Feel free to ask a limited percentage of your users after a positive experience with the new feature.

What is a positive experience? That’s up to you to determine, but usually it's when your app demonstrates a critical solution. Feel free to try some A/B testing since it’ll be unique to each app.

Why a limited percentage? Apple has a 3x per year policy. You essentially want to avoid “rate us” exhaustion, which may cause 1-star responses.

6. Include an easy bug-reporting mechanism in your app

There should be a button in your app settings that allows users to send a bug report. Keep it simple. Do NOT ask for Jira-level details. Use a basic text form and allow them to attach screenshots.

Automatically provide device details (model, OS), app details (version, preferences), and their email address with their submission. Early on, we just sent it to our support email address with a unique subject line.

7. Use user-focused version numbers

I get it: you just rebuilt your app, so it should be version 2.0. You kept the exact same features just to be sure the new version works just like the old one... but it looks exactly the same to your users, so what happened? This works fine for devs, but confuses users who aren't all up in your Twitter.

Users expect a 2.0 to be different for them. A whole version different. Waiting until version 2.1.396 build 45328 to release the new UI or features will be awkward for your marketing and support teams, and slightly annoying for users. More 4-star reviews instead of 5-stars.

If possible, version the rebuild as the last number of the previous sequence, i.e. v1.9 instead of v2.0. Save version 2.0 for user-facing features and changes and let marketing have something big (2.0!) to promote and go nuts over. Dangerous maybe, but way more exciting for everyone. Excitement will land you more 5-stars.

8. Keep an open channel to your users and answer every one of them

Email support is great! Talk directly with your users a much as possible.

Mike and I answered every email ourselves for the first year. We got tons of feedback on bugs, features, and especially localization issues we would have never known about.

Eventually, we hired a friend to do customer support who did a great job, but it wasn’t the same. We wouldn't catch small details and ended up with little bugs and inconveniences that lasted for months.

I highly recommend setting up a beta user group with hands-on moderation and discussion. It will give you a place to explore and try new features, making mistakes without affecting all users, and get to know some of your power users.

Finally, take advantage of Google Translate. Most of our overseas users could talk to us in English, but when necessary we’d try translation. It didn’t always work, but at a minimum it demonstrated empathy and effort.

9. Set the right tone

While you can't moderate your app store page, you can moderate how you respond to user comments and ratings. Users don't frequent your page as often as you will, so they tend to default to the overall tone of the conversations. Is it a community or a mob?

If visitors see happy exchanges with you and your team, they may feel a sense of community, which is more important than 5-star reviews. We're happy to take the 5-stars though, too.

10. Try to avoid canned responses

At first, I wrote every response to user reviews. I had a lot of fun with it. But over time, I took shortcuts and used a variety of canned answers. Later, after I handed off responsibility, it was mostly canned answers.

I know it saves time, but do it too much and it'll turn off new users. We’ve all seen companies that provide generic responses to user comments. It’s not a fair exchange. New users want to know you’re going to be responsive and authentic.

Sure, canned responses are better than no response, but not much and can mean the difference between 4-star expectations and 5-stars. At least try to mix it up enough to seem human.

11. Never, never, never argue with user comments

Most user comments are positive, but some can be pretty rough. Our first instinct is to argue back, which we’ve seen a lot of small companies try. That’s bad juju.

Remember: new users are checking out your app and reading those comments, especially the negative ones. Negative energy naturally cascades into lower expectations and ratings.

12. How to handle negative comments

I find theres three types of negative comments:

  1. Hostage takers - these are users who give you a 1-star rating until you provide them a feature. Best advice: don’t respond. You don’t want to encourage this behavior. You ignore them, and everyone else will too. If you happen to actually do the feature, go back and tell them. Otherwise, pass.
  2. Confused people - same thing. You'll get random reviews talking about stuff that has nothing to do with your app. Let 'em be.
  3. Legitimate complaints - these are what you want! Really!

Legitimate complaints often won’t be just one user but many users experiencing the same issue. It’s best to agree with these complaints. People love genuine responses. Be candid, open, and thank them:

“Ah nuts, you’re right. I'll get on it. Thanks!”

If it’s a bug, tell them you’ll fix it, then fix it, and then tell them you fixed it. Remember, they're not the only one reading your message.

If you can’t fix it, let them know. Explain why maybe, but keep it brief.