If you were like most people, you opened up Apple's App Store, after upgrading your iOS device in September, and did a double take.
No more endless rows of little icons, running off to infinity and beyond, no more reams of gray robocopy written by preliterate developers. Instead, you saw a sunny page called "Today," with half a dozen oversized tiles linked to a short and sweet "news" story about the app, and some (usually) beautiful video and still images from inside it. A new architecture broke the store into "Apps" and "Games," making the search process more natural. All in all, it was a pretty huge refresh.
And the time had come. Lest we forget, app sales drive device sales, and while for years the App Store kicked butt even with bare-bones maintenance, it had started to get stale. There was a lot of user fatigue. The sheer volume of apps (now more than two million), compounded by the, uh, minimalist organizational scheme, had become a problem too big to ignore, trapping users in what Barry Schwartz referred to as "the paradox of choice."
Now the emphasis is on quality. And if you are a developer, that has huge implications for how you package and submit your app for approval by Cupertino. If you do everything right, and with a little luck, you might just find yourself getting some extra love from the mothership.
It's all about the icon
The first key to standing out from the masses is your icon. Yes, icons matter to users, but also to Apple. And if you aren't sweating every detail -- simplifying and refining it until your eyes bleed -- you aren't taking it seriously enough. At Scrollmotion we had our icon designed and our app submitted only to realize once it was in the App Store that we had failed to create mockups of what it looked like in the context of dozens of other apps. It didn't stand out at all. It did not pop, not even a little. (We ended up pulling that icon and changing the shade of white, which solved the problem.)
Creative genius is an absolute must
Then there is the artwork. You simply must kill this part of the submission process. The hero shot, the video, stills -- all of them have to be gorgeous. And they need to capture the moment(s) in your app that really define what makes it different. Have newbies use your app and watch them to see where their eyes light up. That's the central action of your video. (And by the way, you can't fudge these. Stills and video need to be of your actual app, in use.)
Become teacher's pet a bit (or a lot)
Another thing to bear in mind is that Apple is always looking for apps that do a great job of showcasing the newest features of its hardware and software. When iOS 11 rolled out, for example, drag and drop was a huge deal for Apple and developers who showcased that feature in their apps were going to get a close look. So if you track those upcoming features (and they are almost always telegraphed at Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, or WWDC, months before a new iOS release), you can give yourself a better shot at prime App Store real estate.
Take a personal approach--and educate yourself
To be clear: Getting featured is not easy. But there are other ways to work your way closer to the center. For starters, there is an actual email address you can send your app to in order to get promotion--there really, truly are Apple people reading those emails and looking at those apps. But that is like walking in the front door and buying a lottery ticket.
So check out the Hands-On Labs at WWDC: You get an insiders' tour of new features and code, which can be an amazing opportunity to learn how to improve your app--and maybe even make a few friends with Apple engineers, which never hurts. Apple Developer Relations can also be a huge help as a bridge between the developer community and Apple engineering, marketing, and promotion. (For Apple's review guidelines, see here. For a good roundup of other basic tips, try here.)
But the best way to develop a relationship with Apple? Build a great app. If you do, Apple will Hunt. You. Down. Believe me.