Reviews: it’s the middle ones that matter

Whether you’re selling ebooks or giving away MP3s, designing T-shirts or creating iPhone apps, if you’re creating something for public consumption then sooner or later somebody’s going to criticise it.

How you feel about that will depend on the mood you’re in at the time, the way it’s expressed and the critic’s grip on reality — iOS app reviewers in particular often appear to come from different, more stupid planets — and even the nicest criticism can sometimes feel as if somebody’s ripped your heart from your chest and stomped on it as you stand there jetting blood – but it’s important to separate the reviews that matter from the ones that don’t.

As a rule of thumb, if the review’s at either end of the scale — if it’s one star out of five, or five stars out of five — then the review doesn’t matter. As nice as they are, five star reviews often mean that the reviewer knows you and likes you, or quite liked the thing you did and wanted to give you a big thumbs up. Similarly if it’s a one-star review, the reviewer may have decided in advance to hate what you’re doing, and only paid attention to it to confirm the initial prejudice and give you a good shoeing.

Sometimes — I’ve been guilty of this — the score is pushed in one direction or another because nobody reads or cares about two and a half star reviews, so you try and entertain with fulsome praise or a devastating slagging. I once wrote that Feeder were the best live band in Britain when what I really meant was that of all the British bands I’d seen that week, a list that began and ended with “Feeder”, Feeder were definitely the best.

The ones that do matter are the ones that say “but”. This looks good, but. The story is believable, but. The drum track is amazing, but. That’s criticism you can use. You might not agree with it — your response to it may well be “You BASTARD! How dare you suggest that my description of thirteenth-century dentistry was irrelevant to the wider narrative! I am AWESOME!” — but if you choose to pay attention to it, it can be a really big help.

6 thoughts on “Reviews: it’s the middle ones that matter

  1. rutty says:

    I’m a software tester by trade so I’m always looking for problems. “Defects” come in all shapes and sizes so if I can be arsed to review something I’ll bear this in mind. Serious issues with something result in lower marks, but my reviews are usually balanced.

    Take FIFA12 for iOS for instance. It’s got bugs galore and can be intensely annoying, but I’ve played it a LOT, generally like it and it only cost me 69p. Maybe 99p, I can’t remember. All these factors mean that I’d be harsh if I gave it less than 4 stars, even with all its faults.

    You are right. Five star reviews don’t tell you anything useful and are only good for massaging your ego. I do think that 1 star reviews /can/ have some benefit though. It depends on the reviewer. Poor reviews from people of opposing worldviews or perspectives can give you an idea of where you could adjust your product to appeal to a wider audience, if you chose to do so.

  2. Gary says:

    > All these factors mean that I’d be harsh if I gave it less than 4 stars, even with all its faults.

    Oh, definitely. I’d be more forgiving of a fault in a £99 tablet than a £499 one.

    > It depends on the reviewer.

    True. The different worldviews thing is a good point.

  3. tm says:

    >I’m a software tester

    I’m a programmer. Whilst people throwing problems at me left right and centre causes me no end of frustration (“You wait until now to tell me THIS?!?!”) nothing terrifies me more than an extensive phase of “testing” where no one reports anything wrong.

    Do reviews fall into the same category? Some reviews – even bad ones are better than nothing at all? I have no idea…

  4. gary says:

    There’s the argument that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I’m not sure it applies to reviews. I dunno. I’m looking at it from the perspective of the person who made the thing, but of course reviews aren’t for the writers’ or musicians’ or manufacturers’ benefit; they’re for prospective purchasers and the odd reader.

  5. rutty says:

    Traditional waterfall dev cycles can be a terrifying thing for a developer I’m sure. Most of the test teams I’ve worked on have regularly updated project management (usually daily) on defects but perhaps you’ve had some poor test teams.

    Anyway, I do think there are some similarities between software dev and books/reviews. I “rate” software everyday, or at least bits of it. I like to give lots of info & I try not to write “FFS THIS IS SHITE” when perhaps I might.

    So, what was I on about?

    *confused*

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