Adding “value”.

Instacast released its 2.0 update yesterday to some Twitter fanfare. As a regular user of the app, I updated immediately. Now, to be clear, I don’t love Instacast. In fact, I have lots of personal issues with it. But as a regular listener of podcasts, it sucked the least of all the apps I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many. I wish so much that Apple would add even the most basic subscription support for podcasts to iOS within the native music app, but they haven’t, and it doesn’t look like they will any time soon.

What I found after updating was an interface that remained just as abstruse as the initial one, with the “added value” of reduced functionality. Most notably, the default behavior for podcasts downloaded within the app was altered. The original behavior of the app was that when podcasts were downloaded, they would stack up in a list, from oldest at the top to newest at the bottom. Now that order is reversed, to list the newest at the top. Which fundamentally changes the only way I listen to shows.

For a $1.99 in-app purchase, it appears that I could add functionality that would allow me to edit this playlist, and (I assume) change the order to something more palatable. I’m assuming this because I’m not going to make that purchase. And believe me, it’s not because I’m cheap. I buy tons of apps. I buy apps I don’t even plan on really using if I want to support the developer, because I believe in doing things like that. I won’t be adding that in-app purchase for two reasons:

1) because I don’t like paying again for what I was getting as a previous paying customer

and more importantly

2) because I have a hard time supporting something I don’t even really enjoy.

Instacast was originally a purchased app, not a free one. I understand completely if the developer of a free app wants to monetize through in-app purchase, but having paid for the app initially, and not expecting anything more than the basic continued functionality I was experiencing, to be forced to use the app differently is annoying, but then being told that I can use it the way I was using it if I pony up a few more bucks is really annoying. I’m not talking about adding new abilities or allowing some additional features. I’m talking about simply making it work the way it was previously working, one day earlier.

Furthermore, as I said, I don’t really love this app. And I know I might be in the minority, but I paid for and used the iPad app too, and I don’t like it either. Both UIs are needlessly complex, and expose inconsistencies throughout. The iPad app is almost unusable in my opinion because between the arcane controls and the spotty iCloud integration, I can never tell what’s actually happening within the app, and as such, I just stopped using it. I know a lot of people who wrote great things about it when it launched, and it was pretty as all get-out, but I’d be curious to know how many people are still actually listening to podcasts on their iPad at this point with it.

Listen, despite how this all came off and how my cranky tweets read, I don’t hate this app, nor do I hate the developers, their families or their pets. I just really believe very strongly that if you’re going to refine a UI, then really refine it. Don’t add things that seem like new controls yet obfuscate purpose. Don’t take gestures that were slightly difficult to discover but very useful and replace them with even more confusing options. If you have an overcomplicated hierarchy, make it simpler. And for the love of all things holy, don’t up-end the way people (especially previous paying customers) use the app and then tell them they can buy “great new features” in order to restore the basic way they’d been using the app to begin with.

I’m fully aware that these choices were most likely not arbitrary, and actually based on feedback. They represent a conscious choice on the part of the designers and developers to respond to feedback and provide what they feel is an improvement to the existing model. Choices are hard. I get it. The craziest part of all of this? Instacast is still, after all of this, significantly cleaner and easier to use than almost every single other podcast app in the App Store. Don’t even get me started on the other app everyone endlessly recommends to me (because I have it, surprise, and I have even fewer things I can point to as good).

Bottom line: creating in-app purchase options is a tricky choice, and I give a lot of credit to devs who pull it off successfully. But this kind of purchase isn’t adding value. The only thing it’s adding is frustration.

Update on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This post was picked up at iMore and there’s some discussion over there about it. I was challenged as to the harshness of the post, and I defended my reasoning behind writing it if you’re curious about my motivations. (Hint: it wasn’t because I wanted to conduct a witch-hunt today.)

Update on Thursday, June 21, 2012

Since it was brought to my attention earlier today, it is worth noting (and I should have posted it as soon as the change took place) that Vemedio has since reinstated the features that were pulled from Instacast and placed behind the in-app purchase. They listened to their user base, respected the feedback, and in turn, I respect that decision. It was a tough call, and I disagreed with it initially, but I certainly harbor no ill will, despite how cranky I was the first time around.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.