Last night, an embargo lifted and a stream of technology sites posted reviews for a major new product launch. I'm not going to bother telling you which launch, that isn't the point, and you can probably figure it out (hint: not the MacBook Air). It's always a rush to be part of that initial surge of interest. It's hard to sleep afterwards. Instead, I took to Twitter and started posting my thoughts and answering questions.
[Image credit Anssi Koskinen]
One friend, who works for a competing manufacturer, kept asking what all the hubbub was about. He had read reviews and seen the photos and watched the videos, and he still couldn’t understand why there was so much enthusiasm, let alone interest at all, in this new device. I completely understood his sentiment.
I tweeted something like "Read all the reviews you like (especially mine), but until you've had one in your hands, you won't understand."
An analyst friend soon retweeted a post from Jason Hiner, who works as Editor in Chief of TechRepublic, a CBS site (according to his Twitter profile). Hiner doesn't follow me, so I'm positive he wasn't referring to me when he said:
"Reviewer tip: NEVER tell people they won't understand until it's in their hands. Your job is to make them feel like it's in their hands."
My guess is that this was a sentiment being repeated by numerous reviewers of the same product. How did I feel when I read Hiner's tweet? Narcissistic rage of course, same as always. But then I poured myself three fingers of bourbon (I have small fingers), and decided to respond in more detail.
The first question that came to mind was whether this sentiment is true, and whether we should want it to be true. When you read a review, should it be so immersive, so thorough, that you completely understand the product as surely as if you held it in your own hands? I don't think so. I think that reflects expectations from the reader that are too high, and aspirations from the reviewer that are too egotistical.
Think of other review categories, besides technology. If you read a restaurant review, do you want it to make you feel as if you have eaten there? You certainly want the right details, rendered succulently to whet your appetite, or turn you away if the spot is lousy. But you don't want to feel like you've experienced the restaurant per se, because one of the best parts about trying a new restaurant is the feeling of novelty. If we've read a dish described in detail, we'll recognize it as familiar, but at best, the tastes we encounter should be novel and unexpected, no matter how well the food is described.
If you read a movie review, do you want to feel as though you’ve seen the movie? Of course not. Movie reviewers go to great lengths to describe the film without destroying any of the novelty of the experience.
Of course, with technology, there's a big difference. It's okay if I blow $20 on a movie or even $100 on dinner, but spending hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars on technology is not a decision to be made lightly. Admittedly, there is no novelty to ruin in, say, a laptop review. I don't want novelty when I buy a new piece of technology, at least not in the long run. I want some sort of performance, some sort of need to be met.
When I review a piece of technology, I think of my reader as someone who is about to make a purchase. There are sites that cater to technology enthusiasts, people who may never buy the gadgets about which they read, but still want to know every last detail. For those people, a hands-on experience might be out of the question. They might not even be interested in making the effort to spend hands-on time. But I imagine my readers are about to spend a very long time using the product I'm reviewing, and it will probably cost them a significant chunk of change.
With too many products today, it is very difficult for interested buyers to spend a great deal of time handling the device. Even products that cost thousands of dollars might go sight unseen by the average buyer until it's at home, unwrapped and in use. To that extent, Hiner is correct. It would be best if I could describe the product so well that my reader encounters no surprises once the purchase has been made.
For the product in question, I was fortunate enough to see relatively early builds of the final version. Never an actual working model, but slides, movies and market research concerning the product. I saw early hands-on experiences. I saw pictures, watched literally hours of videos and read the first impressions of my colleagues in the Northeast, who did get an early hands-on opportunity. I read spec sheets, reviewer's guides, owners manuals and marketing materials. Before I started my review, I prepared myself as best I could.
My first impression when I took the gadget out of the box? Holy cow, this is nothing like it seems in the videos. You really have to get your hands on this thing to understand it.
That was my response. It was purely emotional. I was surprised. I was delighted. I felt a sort of cognitive dissonance, in that I had so many expectations in mind, and the device in hand didn't match any of them. It wasn't about exceeding or failing to live up to my expectations. It was a completely different animal.
That's my review, in a nutshell. You have to get your hands on it. You have to see it in person to understand what it's all about. That's no less a legitimate opinion than a multi-volume description of the device and all its parts.
A good writer can deliver emotion to his readers, and certainly the experience can feel realistic, but let's not deceive ourselves that writing can ever replace reality. Holding an object in your hand, feeling it respond to your touch, that triggers an entirely different set of emotions than reading and imagining the same. Would you ever buy a car after simply reading a review? Of course not. You can read about the roar of the engine, or the thrill of cornering on a windy road, but until you've actually heard the noise rattling your eardrums and felt gravity slam you against the door in a hairpin curve, you haven't come close to the full experience.