Product Reviews are Broken

Apple Watch reviews were published yesterday. The majority of reviewers thought the Apple Watch was a great device and has potential to be a game changer in how they use technology. The problem is that unless you read every review, you wouldn't have known that. Instead, the collective conclusion from the web yesterday was that the Apple Watch flopped with early reviews. There were 21 Apple Watch reviews published, but the 4 reviews that were more critical of the device got the most attention, leaving the 14 glowing reviews behind. Meanwhile, most of the important features of the Watch such as watch bands and durability were either not included or buried within lots of other text. Simply put: product reviews are broken. There needs to be a better way to review products. 

Product Reviews Have Lost Their Luster

I couldn't help but think how the product review has changed over the years. Whereas a company's primary benefit from a product review was to win precious space in newspapers and magazines, product reviews are still mostly a marketing ploy, but the review itself has become a commodity, with people pulling the most interesting and juicy quotes (using iPhone screenshots) from various sites, and combining them into a new "Review Round-Up" post. The rest of the narrative, and the actual review, is left far behind. This process has been occurring for a few years, but lately it is getting much worse. This is the primary reason why so many people thought the Apple Watch was panned by reviewers while in reality, most people enjoyed the product. Out of thousands of words written about Apple Watch, most will only remember a small fraction and even a smaller fraction will be included in these problematic "review summary" posts.

We now get our news and information from social networks where the desire to be noticed in a sentence or two has led to much more noise with sporadic bouts of greatness. In the process, the product review has lost its luster. Whereas in the past we may have turned to the WSJ for the definitive Walt Mossberg product review, we now are exposed to 20+ reviews that are all trying to be the one to stand out from the pack. While we still have talented people writing most of these reviews, they are increasingly gearing them toward their core audiences. Apple realized this long ago and expanded the number of review units accordingly, effectively watering down the review and in doing so, diffusing the voice of a few into a dull rumble of many.

In a quest to stand out, we now have some reviews turning into full-fledged productions. The Verge's Apple Watch review involved 31 people. Meanwhile, other reviews have remained largely unchanged from yesterday, basically a few paragraphs of generalized statements. 

There is still a Place 

I still think the world needs independent product reviews. There is enough prior misbehavior on behalf of companies to suggest such third-party reviews can serve a purpose by giving consumers value. The problem is that many reviewers don't know what kind of value that is. The move into personalized wearables has largely turned the traditional tech gadget review into an artifact from a begone era. The nature of the tech review should have changed, but many tech reviewers haven't adapted their review process to this new wave of technology. While adding video may represent a new dimension to the review, the underlying premise of the review needs to be rethought.

Path to Fixing the Review

There are two ways to start putting the review on the right path. 

1) Embrace the Current Environment. Video. Video. Video. 

One of the more effective Apple Watch reviews came courtesy of Mashable. It wasn't their couple thousand word review intertwined with various high-quality photos but their six-second Vine clip that didn't include any words. I found the clip to be amusing and interesting because it: 1) showed Apple Watch packaging 2) briefly revealed watch bracelets being resized 3) revealed the mechanism of how the watch bracelet worked. I wasn't able to get that information from any other Apple Watch review. Of course Apple could have had the same video on their website, but this is where the independent product review's value shines: legitimacy. There is value in seeing someone not connected to Apple show off its technology in a real-world setting. 

Video is an effective medium for much of this to take place because it's 1) easily shareable 2) able to retain its message. One of the biggest's problems facing text reviews is the ease in simply taking a few words out of context. But a six-second Vine? It would be pretty hard to shrink that down any further.

Pharrell Williams published his seven-second Apple Watch "review" Tuesday on Instagram. Similar to Mashable, it showed one aspect of the watch that most people would actually find interesting: how the watch face turns on when one's wrist is turned. 

I think one of the better Apple Watch reviews would have been comprised of 10 Vine or Instagram clips that highlight features of Apple Watch that would likely show how we would use the device. Johanna Stern at WSJ did a four-minute video for her Apple Watch review which was entertaining  but ultimately too long and missing the larger point of Apple Watch: it means something different to each user. The answer to that isn't simply to do every single thing possible with the watch and then complain at the end that the watch does too many things. 

2) Redefine a Review.  As technology products become more personal, it is becoming more critical to redefine what a product review should be. Instead of videotaping oneself doing 20 different things with Apple Watch during a typical day, focus on aspects of the device that are universal: quality, craftsmanship, durability, and the simple tasks everyone will have to do.

  • Does the Apple Watch screen scratch easily?
  • What happens if you get grease on Apple Watch? What about sweat? 
  • What if you keep the Apple Watch on for long periods of time? Any rash?
  • Is it easy to charge?
  • How do you replace bands?

Very few reviews addressed those talking points, with only a few even mentioning watch bands, arguably one of the more important deciding factors when it comes time to purchase the watch. Each one of those questions could be answered with a six-second Vine. The product review essentially becomes a test as to whether a company's claims about a product are true. There is a different time and place to talk about the larger implications of how Apple Watch will or won't change the world. A product review isn't necessary the right place to go into theories about technology or nit-pick on why turning on all notifications results in too many notifications being sent. People are going to buy Apple Watch if it looks cool. The review should try to help answer that question. 

Taking into account Apple's changing retail strategy, reviewers will need to understand how Apple.com and the Apple Store iOS app are going to become more crucial information sources for consumers. It is important to embrace the change and not brush it off.  Apple will have 10 Guided Tours for various Apple Watch features. How about using Instagram video to compare the most important parts of Apple's multi-minute videos to real-life reenactments? 

Apple's New Apple Watch Guided Tours

Apple's New Apple Watch Guided Tours

The product review will be rescued when it is understood that the consumer should make the final decision of whether a product is good or bad. The product review should be one variable in the much bigger buying process that likely will involve family, friends, time, and a bank account. The product review has a bright future for giving valuable information and insight to consumers. It just needs some help getting there.  

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