Keep on Submittin', or the road to the App Store

We’ll say it up front: this is not a love confession about a globally popular fruit. Or even a list of complaints lodged against them. Rather, we decided to reflect on the leaps and hurdles we encountered making an iPad documentary app. Or should we rephrase, getting one into Apple’s App Store. (spoiler alert: it’s finally in!)

When Bruno Felix, co-founder of Submarine and Submarine Channel, presented “How Submarine learned to love and hate the App store” at DocLab‘s Interactive Documentary Conference in Amsterdam last November, the audience was certifiably laughing out loud; with good reason too. What started out as an idea to create a documentary app on the iPad for the documentary Keep on Steppin’, by renowned Dutch filmmaker Marjoleine Boonstra, turned into a complicated and hysterical relationship of dealing with a new, and unexpected gatekeeper – the App Store.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why the iPad?

We previously wrote about why the iPad/tablet medium offers great promise for documentaries in this Top 5. Beyond pushing boundaries of digital media to create immersive experiences that tell beautiful stories in ways that only an iPad can, the physical characteristics of the medium lends itself to a closer and more intimate experience with media.

Our aim was to create a single cinematographic experience comprised of five beautiful poetic films to tell the personal stories of people who, through circumstances beyond their control, have been displaced and forced to start from scratch. But how do you portray the strength of people to survive when they face enormous setbacks in life? And how do you transform 20-year-old photos into a film?

The iPad offered great promise: you’re forced to hold it in your hand, coming closer to the striking images on the screen, and thereby deeper into the personal, subtle stories. The iPad made it easy to remain in the film, continue in the same mood as the film beforehand, and get a feeling of roaming through emotional, poetic, short stories.

We went ahead and submitted our app.

What follows are comments we received from Apple throughout our 3 re-submits. Vague and unclear feedback that reads more like a script — one that never paid attention to the tweaks and changes we made at each submission.

 

“WE FOUND THE USER INTERFACE OF YOUR APP IS NOT SUFFICIENT QUALITY TO BE APPROPRIATE FOR THE APP STORE.”

“THE USER INTERFACE STILL WOULD BENEFIT FROM ADDITIONAL NATIVE IOS FUNCTIONALITY TO GIVE THE USER A MORE ENGAGING EXPERIENCE…”

And so we added functionality like push notifications

“…WE UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE NO HARD AND FAST RULES TO DEFINE THIS.”

“WE FOUND THE FEATURES OF YOUR APP WERE NOT USEFUL OR ENTERTAINING ENOUGH.”

“YOUR APP INCLUDES A VERY LIMITED SET OF FEATURES.”

But who decides how entertaining a feature is? Apple executives? Creatives? No, a processing applications center.

“YOUR APP DID NOT APPEAL TO A BROAD ENOUGH AUDIENCE.”

Except then they write

“WE BELIEVE IT IS ALWAYS BEST FOR YOU TO DETERMINE WHAT FEATURES ARE BEST FOR YOUR USERS…”

“…HOWEVER, PLEASE KEEP IN MIND APPLE AND APPLE CUSTOMERS PLACE A HIGH VALUE – AND HAVE HIGH STANDARDS – FOR THE USER INTERFACE AND THE EXPERIENCE THE APP PROVIDES.”

“WE FOUND THAT THE CONTENT OF YOUR APP WAS NOT USEFUL OR ENTERTAINING ENOUGH.”

Now it’s our content?

“APPS SHOULD BE SPECIFIC TO THE IOS PLATFORM TO TAKE THE FULLEST ADVANTAGE OF THE IOS IN DELIVERING A ROBUST USER EXPERIENCE.”

“YOUR APP WAS NOT OPTIMIZED TO SUPPORT THE DEVICE SCREEN SIZE AND/OR RESOLUTION.”

“IF YOU THINK THAT YOUR APP WAS REJECTED IN ERROR, YOU CAN SUBMIT AN APPEAL TO THE APP STORE REVIEW BOARD.”

In total we re-submitted the iPad documentary app three times. But each time the feedback we received was nearly identical. We tried to get a human on the phone, but alas that was as useful as the written feedback we received. At some point we even entertained the possibility of releasing this as an iBook.

Our takeaway:

Despite small tweaks, added functionality, and changes to the app category, Keep on Steppin’ continued to be denied by the App Store for reasons that remained inexplicable to us. Yes, we understand Apple has an agenda and a way of doing things. But from our experience, it’s not clear who is making the decision or whether they know what they want; first it’s our features, then it’s the content, followed by the entertainment value.

The twist in all of this?

Making an iPad documentary has been an odyssey where we’re forced to oscillate between two different realities: one motivated by creative storytelling pursuits, the other of appeasing a [holy] store for approval.

 

Or maybe we were simply red-flagged by Apple.

 

On our fourth try we chose to have another developer submit the app on our behalf. It was immediately accepted…which only leaves us more bewildered. Was it us? Was it the app? Did any of our changes to the iPad documentary even make a difference in the end? We’ll never know, but at least you can finally enjoy these beautiful stories!

Don’t have an iPad? You can still watch Keep on Steppin’ on our dedicated website: keeponsteppin.submarinechannel.com

Watch the Making of Keep on Steppin’ iDoc

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