When I read that Walt Mossberg would be retiring, it reminded me of how much has changed in the way consumer technology products have been reviewed over the years. I write this as one who has been on both sides: developing products that ultimately were reviewed and writing my own column for twelve years that reviewed products for the now defunct San Diego Transcript.
In the late eighties, as technology products began to appeal to non-technical consumers, the only place where they could go for buying advice was the numerous technology magazines. The magazines did a great job of evaluating the technical details of computers, printers, and other complex devices, with some periodicals even creating their own test labs.
But, for the most part, the reviews were written by those who valued a product by how many features it contained. The reviewers appreciated technological wizardry above all else. So, the articles were filled with graphs and tables with checkmarks comparing the plethora of features each product had, usually awarding the editor’s choice to the product with the most checkmarks. It was assumed the customers would find the products as easy to use as they did.
For the non-technical reader, getting through each article could be a challenge with the new terminology and abbreviations that were used by the industry. I remember trying to keep straight the different units of memory, data speed, and processor speeds.
As a product designer, it was frustrating to see a product reviewed and rated based on the number of features it had, even when many of those features would never be used. I saw how the magazines had influenced the design of new products. Design engineers and marketing people would tend to pile on feature after feature without much thought to usability. That made products take longer to design, harder to use, and less reliable.
In 1991, Walt Mossberg created a much different approach to product reviews that not only made it easier to assess a new product but also changed how products would be designed.
He would look at products, not based on the number of features, but on their practicality and usability. He was one of the first to understand that these products would find a much larger audience among those who might not be technically inclined and they needed to be assessed differently. He took a position as an advocate for the user and found a receptive audience by reminding his audience not to blame themselves for a product being hard to use because they were not alone.
When I was writing my book, “From Concept to Consumer”, I asked Walt to describe the attributes of what he considered to be an excellent product. He said, “It is a product so useful in function and clear in its operation that its user, within days or weeks, wonders how she ever got along without it. This is not the same as having long lists of features, specs, speeds and feeds. In fact, my rule is that, if a product claims to have, say, 100 features, but an average person can only locate and use 11 of them in the first hour, then it has 11 features.”
That was the basis for his judging products. Because of his ability to understand products from the position of the consumer, his observations were much more relevant and useful. From his post at the Wall Street Journal, his influence was widely felt. Companies knew his reviews could make or break a product or even a company.
Walt was also instrumental in advocating for the consumer beyond just products. He saw how cellular providers were restricting product advancements and compared them to Soviet ministries.
Walt, along with David Pogue of the New York Times, the late Steve Wildstrom of BusinessWeek (and a co-founder of Tech.pinions), and Ed Baig of USA Today, were among the first to review major new products. The four were courted by big name companies such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, and others so that their reviews would appear at nearly the same time. With their columns published in each Thursday’s edition of their respective publications, the marketing people, engineers, and company executives would frantically wait for the first edition to see how their product fared, much like the cast of a Broadway show reads their reviews the morning after opening night.
On a personal note, I always found Walt, Steve, and Ed to be thoughtful, insightful and fairminded. While one might disagree with their product assessments, they were always respectful and considerate. If they encountered a problem with a product, they’d get back to the company and get their comments but reported their complete experiences without omissions. They took their job and the impact of what they wrote with great responsibility. And they would not waffle but gave their opinions and backed them up with facts. David Pogue does do reviews but with a more entertainment focus.
In recent years, as gadget blogs replaced newspapers for our source of new product news, the number of reviews have multiplied, although the quality seems to have fallen. Many are done by those with limited product experience and often reflect their own biases without thinking from the position of the consumer. I’m often appalled at how inaccurate they are about products and technology I know well.
There are good sites with in-depth reviews, such as Digital Photo Review, PC Week, Tom’s Hardware, The Gadgeteer, iLounge, The Verge, the Wirecutter (owned by the New York Times), and many others. Many of these sites now derive revenue from their reviews by linking the products to Amazon to receive referral fees.
So, while we have more sources, they will be hard to replace the wisdom of a few good writers that avoid parroting press releases and take a very thoughtful approach to assessing new products, based on their years of experience.