A review of reviews

Tech Life

Yes, I know: the title sounds presumptuous, the intent ambitious. I just want to point out a few things I’ve been noticing more and more often in reviews in general, and in tech reviews in particular. Things that somehow bother me, both as a reader and as a tech writer myself. Some may read this as a holier-than-thou attitude, but the truth is that I have made similar mistakes in the past, so I’m not calling myself out while expressing my criticism.

I’ve tried this product/service/software for a couple of days, and —”

And this is the worst possible start for a review. It doesn’t matter who you are: you can be a staff editor for a renowned newspaper or magazine, you can be a blogger with a reputation, you can be a nobody, but with such a beginning you’re throwing your credibility out of the window — at least in my eyes. You’re making me look for another review.

I know you probably have deadlines. I know they probably gave you the device on Friday and expect your 5,000-word review on Monday. Yet I think that in most cases you don’t have enough time to make a thorough assessment, especially with sophisticated devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers and related peripherals. Sometimes you need to spend more time with a device to get accustomed to certain choices in its operating system, user interface, and general design. Sometimes you need to spend more time with a software application (or service) to have a better understanding of its abilities or to fully realise its usefulness — and not necessarily because of a fault in the software, but because its usefulness is designed to be experienced the more you use the software (or service). Not everything is designed to stand out by instant gratification.

On the other hand, if you are given just a couple of days to review a product and you have no choice or say in it, at least don’t start your piece that way. You can do better by mentioning in your conclusion that, regrettably, you didn’t have as much time as you wished to properly explore the product. You may argue that this is just semantics, and you would be right, actually, but sometimes semantics is what makes people read or skip your review.

The review is about the product, not about you

A lot of reviews I read are dominated by the reviewers and their long shadow. I enjoy the personal style, the occasional quip and so on, but I think that the more you disappear from a review, the more you try to keep it balanced and remove as much bias as you can, the more your review will be informed, informative and useful for the prospective buyer/customer. How you use a device shouldn’t be used as a metric to make quick judgments on the usefulness of a particular feature or design choice. (You could certainly use yourself as a type of user among others and point out that those who have similar habits/peeves as yours will probably find a particular feature useful, cool, handy or not).

Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion — in the end a review is based on personal impressions — but I believe the most intellectually honest approach is to give ample space to observations and to clearly emphasise what is your personal opinion and judgment. In other words, the reader should be able to always ‘see’ the product while reading your review, without being obfuscated by your thick fog of opinionated (negative or positive) criticism. As I’ve often said, a good measure of your experience is how little of your personal experience you let come out in your allegedly objective essays/reviews. With your review, you’re helping people make a choice about a product, not showing them how smart you are.

Who is your audience?

This is related to the previous section. Often I read reviews where it’s immediately clear (to me) that you’re not addressing the general public: you’re really talking to your peers. Which means other tech writers, bloggers, journalists, nerds, Mac/iOS/Windows/Android fans, and so on. If you’re doing it deliberately, then everything’s fine and also everything I’ve said so far doesn’t apply. Because you’re talking to your circle, and everyone expects you to be opinionated, biased and politically incorrect. However, since your website is public, you should at least put a bit of a disclaimer in your review, stating that it is addressed more to your peers than anyone else. This way the occasional visitor who reaches your blog or website by way of a search engine will be properly informed about what to expect from your assessments and from the tone of your review.

Why do I think this is important? Because we tech-savvy geeks and power users all have our pet peeves, our habits, our preferences, our standards of excellence, our needs and expectations, which are going to be rather different from those of ‘regular people’. Our beloved iPhone may be ‘just a fancy phone’ for the man of the street, and many people don’t really care about which OS runs these fancy phones, as long as they make calls, send texts, do some email and Web browsing and have a bright screen so that they can find their way around using Google Maps. To remain within the smartphone realm, don’t assume that a two-second delay in opening an application is an unacceptable performance in a modern smartphone and that this is going to be a deal-breaker for everyone. You will be surprised at the amount of people who don’t even notice such a lag. (Or, if they do notice, they might not mind that two-second wait).

If you’re trying to write an objective review, just keep in mind that the end user may come from a radically different experience than yours when you’re judging what’s good and what’s bad in a product. For instance, writing things such as “If you’re accustomed to iOS and the responsiveness of an iPhone 4, you’ll need time to get used to this other smartphone’s interface and you’ll probably find its performance disappointing” is more useful (and accurate) than just saying “This other smartphone’s performance is ridiculous and these design flaws in its UI certainly don’t help either”. Users’ perceptions vary a lot, depending on what they’ve been using before. My parents both have old-school Nokia mobile phones, and when they tried my old iPhone 3G, they found it quite snappy and pleasant to use, while I find it annoyingly sluggish and at times unresponsive since I became accustomed to my iPhone 4’s general performance.

That said…

…Products (both hardware and software) have flaws, bugs, terrible design and usability choices, and other problems that clearly go beyond the subjective realm, and an honest review ought to point these things out. Again, your knowledge and expertise should guide you and suggest the best way to express such faults and issues, so that people can understand whether a certain issue is a big deal per se (e.g. a lack that makes a device patently less useful or usable, a feature that is poorly implemented by today’s standards or in comparison with competing products), or an annoyance that largely depends on personal habits and experience (e.g. I like to have applications with menubar icons for easy access and this app lacks one, and it sucks for that).

Maybe I have stated the obvious here, but if you read certain reviews carefully, you will start noticing the same things I did. If I’m not making direct examples isn’t for lack of honesty, but just because it doesn’t seem fair to single out anyone in particular. Reviews, especially of big products, are important, as they may contribute to their success or failure. Writing thoughtful and thorough pieces may take longer than you’d like (and sometimes all that matters is that the review be ‘out there’ just after the product’s introduction), but you’ll eventually provide a better service for your readers and your reputation will benefit in return.

The Author

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