One of my favorite iPhone apps, Groceries by Sophiestication Software, was recently updated to version 3.0. Its new features are mainly support for the taller screen of the iPhone 5 and a greater emphasis on adding items to grocery lists via autocompletion.

In version 2.x, one could tap on a category — such as “Bakery” or “Health & Beauty” — then choose from a list of all known items in that category. As you can imagine, I never bothered with this approach. Instead, I used the search field. Start typing the name of your needed item, and Groceries would offer suggestions that matched your query. Tap to add the correct suggestion, then instantly start typing out your next item.

It was a fast input system, but there was room for improvement. Accessing the search field took one more tap than I preferred, and adding any information about the quantity needed (such as “2 dozen” or “1 gallon”) required backing out of the add-grocery mode and messing with the item you’d already added. Usually I just didn’t bother with quantities — too much trouble.

Enter version 3.0: autocompletion has now taken center stage. There are no categories to dig through — hitting the add-item plus sign button instantly lands you in the search field. Noting quantity is now integrated right into the grocery query. Typing “mil 2q” will offer “Milk (2 qt)” as the top hit. One tap adds both the item and its associated quantity. There’s no more backing out of the list-making process to add those details.

In my view, it’s hard to argue this isn’t a better system. It’s faster and requires several fewer taps per item. But the grocery-shopping public doesn’t agree. Since the release of version 3.0, Groceries has been hammered with 1-star reviews, and its rating stands at a positively-depressing 1.5 stars as of this writing.

What happened?

Incredibly, it seems quite a few users actually preferred digging through those old grocery store categories. They didn’t use the search field at all! And for those items which made the list frequently, they relied on the “Favorites” category to get at them without all the scrolling. Suddenly, that innocuous Update All button has completely changed the grocery game on these shoppers, and they are none too happy about it.

In the end, I don’t know how the update could have been better handled. There’s so much that’s better about Groceries 3.0, it would have been a shame to forego those improvements for the sake of maintaining the status quo. But one can understand why users who’ve come to rely on a particular interaction would be frustrated when that interaction changes with little warning. As Mike Hay suggests, this may just be an issue with how the App Store handles major updates. A user can be completely surprised by a strange, new version of an app; and she has no way to roll back to an earlier version.

I hope users of Groceries won’t give up on the new UI too quickly. It’s clever, easy to learn and more efficient once one gets the hang of it. It may be that Ms. Teutschler, the developer, can address some of the criticisms by adding a Favorites category back in somewhere. Meanwhile, I recommend you go try it out. If you come to it without preconceived notions of how a grocery list app should work, I think you’ll be very pleased.

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March 6, 2013