Groceries - When an app refresh becomes a nightmare

Removing "minor" features outrages longtime users

Can you think of an app you have been using regularly for more than four years? What if one day all the functionality you had taken for granted simply disappeared. This is the case for some unfortunate users of Groceries by Sophiestication, an app that helps you to create and and share shopping lists easily.

The latest version 3.0, which debuted last week, is a full revamp of the Groceries you know. Along with the needed support for the longer display of the iPhone 5, there is fresh code, use of smart filters to identify amounts and units for every product you enter and the sharing options introduced on iOS 6.

There are notable enhancements on the visual department too. Groceries sports a new shiny icon and more subtle pastel colours on the user interface, keeping the look modern and crisp, although it still leans on the textures that made the app recognisable against competition. Apple has even kept the app featured on the 'New & Noteworthy' section over the weekend. Moreover, all these improvements are available as a free update for an app launched four years ago. What could possibly go wrong?

Forgetting that the minority cares

One of the changes in version 3.0 is that Groceries no longer supports the old version aisle layouts used for different shops. Previously, you would be able to tailor the order of the supermarket sections to resemble the layout of your supermarket. If you shop at two different stores, you may want to adapt your shopping list to the layout of each of the shops. Having the vegetable and fruit items handy on a list makes sense for me as this is the section at the entrance of the local Waitrose. However, if I'm shopping at a small Tesco two blocks away, the first thing you see when you enter are the household and cleaning products. Having that flexibility is something unique but a time consuming exercise.

Some users are reporting the new approach to sort every item on an alphabetical order is not as useful. The reliance on search is probably a reason for this, although I'm not sure why these two could have not coexisted.

Favourite items, as in the most frequently used items, are also gone with version 3.0. The closer you get are recently added items, which is a dynamic list under the search bar. It turns out one of the key workflows to create shopping lists quickly was ticking products from the list of favourites. Apparently, some people had gone to extents of creating meal plans, sets of items they normally need to restock using this feature.

A destructive upgrade

Ruined, inexplicable, frustrating, useless. These are the thoughts on the removal of the option to favourite items or tailor aisles. It looks like a usual routine was to scroll through a list of favourite products and check them instead of typing. One reviewer puts it very well, saying "how do you search for something you're not sure you need until you see it?".

The biggest offender for longtime users is the clean start approach. People are pissed off because they've spent a ridiculous amount of time building their own database over the years just to see it disappear installing the latest version of the app.

The surprise comes when I see the common folk reaction to the update. Having bought this app ages ago, I thought of it as abandonware. I couldn't believe this new app featured on the App Store was the same I already owned. The iTunes reviews tell a different story.

If you skim through the angry iTunes reviews, small details like the ability to swipe to delete, display remaining items and even the new icon are causing uproar. Looking at the UK and the US iTunes storefronts you can see what I'm talking about. There's almost no meaningful positive reviews for this update.

An overreaction?

Having heard the developer Marco Arment talking about plans to release the upcoming version Instapaper as a different app, I can't help to realise the amount of planning these things must involve. Apple doesn't offer any clear method to downgrade an app — you can try luck recovering it from a local drive backup — or options for developers to ask for money to update to a new, potentially groundbreaking version.

If you have been using an iPhone since the inception of the App Store, you would be lucky to name two or three apps you bought in 2009 and still use them. The app economy moves quickly, and as the operating system changes so frequently, older apps relying on older technology are naturally replaced by newer ones making use of hardware and software.

I'm extremely sorry about the bad reception of this update by all the people that had relied on it for years. The developer Sophia Teutschler is pouring a lot of effort trying to keep this very old app current, at her own cost. She cannot monetise this 'new app' if she doesn't market it as a new version and discontinues the old one. All the promotion bonus from being highlighted as New and Noteworthy will go to the bin as soon as the new user sees the reviews for this version.

Lessons to learn

These unfortunate events would name a good case study on how to manage restrictive software upgrades. Although the developer has stated on Twitter that some of the features removed weren't used by many people, it doesn't come across as a very reassuring message. At least one hundred users were angry enough to take the time post an iTunes review and elaborate of their frustration.

Overlooking how your product is used by 'a minority' is a mistake. Not acknowledging people are disappointed by your decision is a different one. Having taken such a radical approach removing features, he communication with the user base should deb different: either explaining why current code and hardware makes these much better or inform that the app is taking a different direction for whatever reason.

It doesn't take much effort to see the amount of work and production costs that have gone in refreshing this very old app. Only a minor part of the iTunes reviewers are valuing and recognising this. New potential customers may go away seeing the negative reactions, either not bothered to read through the arguments raised or horrified by the lack of touch between the developer and the community.

I still believe there's room for correction. To make things right. This doesn't necessarily mean to return to the old system and give this minority what they want. Just to explain what the thought behind this update is and how it can benefit everyone.