How to Write a Ridiculously Great Product Review

Writing

Expert journalists, YouTubers, and podcasters weigh in on how to write about gadgets

Dave Gershgorn

[1]

Nov 2.8 min read

[2]Image for postSource: The Wall Street Journal

Product reviews are a way of letting the world know your experience with a piece of technology, whether that’s positive, negative, or a caveated mix somewhere in between. And that’s important, because right now these gadgets are our connection to family, friends, entertainment, work, and pretty much everything else.

There’s a real need for more people to review products. Professionals reviewers get advance access to products like phones and computers in order to review them, which can be a double-edged sword.

Reviewers end up incredibly well-tuned to the ins and outs of gear, able to recognize when a screen’s brightness or resolution isn’t up to snuff, or slight ergonomic changes that might have been made to a phone. But their time with products is typically limited to a few days or weeks before its release.

And I found, during my time as assistant tech editor at Popular Science magazine, having a constant stream of free new gear, even on temporary loan, can change the way you think about the price and utility of gadgets. When you don’t have to fork over £900 to play with a new phone, or pay up front to try £400 headphones, then theoretically paying that price for a premium experience seems a lot more reasonable.

So this is a call for you to review a product.

What do you use in your daily life that you want other people to know about, that might make their life a little easier? Especially right now in this present moment. Or did you try buying something from Amazon on a whim that turned out to be a dud?

Or maybe your experience with a gadget made you realize something about your relationship with technology that other people might relate to.

Having a constant stream of free new gear, even on temporary loan, can change the way you think about the price and utility of gadgets.

To help guide you through the ins and outs of writing your own review, we asked some of the industry’s best product reviewers what makes a good product review, and what mistakes they see others making.

What do you think is the key to a good product review?

Test features in the real world

Real world testing is always number one. Any good product review must give a sense of what this thing is like to use in your life. Especially with tech, it can be easy to want to list out the specs, but everyone can get that on the company’s website.

Cut through all that and tell people what this is like to use and how you used it.

Now, clearly in the last few years, I’ve pushed the “real world” testing just a bit! I’ve tested a phone entirely underwater,[3] I’ve been thrown off a mechanical bull[4] to test how well AirPods stay in, I hired a private investigator[5] to test a Samsung zoom camera. Sure, with all of these I was looking to have fun but I also was pushing specific features or components to the max to see how they’d hold up.

– Joanna Stern, The Wall Street Journal[6]

Be relatable

The number one thing that makes a good product review is that it’s relatable to the reader.

It allows the reader to put themselves in the reviewer’s shoes and understand how a device or service will work for them. It also builds credibility, as a reader can learn to trust your opinion and look for it the next time they want to read a review on something.

That’s a challenge to pull off — everyone is different and reviewers always have their own preferences and experiences (or less charitably, biases) baked into their work. A savvy reader will look for the reviews from the reviewer that they can relate to and trust over others.

That credibility is the most valuable quality a reviewer can have.

– Dan Seifert, The Verge[7]

Be specific about your use case

I think you should come out loud and early with an opinion and rationale so people know where you stand. This way they can decide if your use case or lifestyle matches their own and whether or not they can take or leave the review. I don’t believe most gadgets are one-size-fits-all so specificity is good.

– Stacey Higginbotham, Stacey on IoT[8]

Know your audience

The key is knowing who you’re writing for.

Your audience needs to shape your review. If you’re covering a new MacBook Air, you might determine it’s great for students, but not so much for graphic designers. How do you communicate that?

It’s your job to make clear to whoever’s reading where this thing fits into their life. That can be tougher when you have a broad audience, because you need to cover all your bases. Writing for a more niche crowd allows you to focus in and make more specific recommendations.

Either way, it’s important that you take the time to figure out who your readers are before you start telling them what’s best for them.

– Nick Guy, Wirecutter[9]

Be personal

The key to a good product review is it gives the reader your own experience. People are reading your review to see what went really well with a product and what went really badly and get a personal account. Be honest and always consider what you would want to know about a product before you got it in your hands.

Was it going to feel cheap, or be too heavy? Was a new feature going to work perfectly out of the box or require you to sign into four accounts and sign over a child before you got to use it? If you think a concern or a piece of praise is too niche, it’s not.

The smallest things, both the thoughtful design elements and the minor inconveniences, are the ones that are most frequently overlooked and most appreciated by readers.

– Alex Cranz, Gizmodo[10]

Be empathetic

I think a good product review anticipates the questions of those who would seek out the review and seeks to answer those questions as clearly and succinctly as possible. In that way, a good product review looks past the self to make sure it’s helpful to one’s audience. That means reminding yourself of empathy every step of the way.

Pay attention to price. Pay attention to features. Pay attention to the market.

Pay attention to comparable products. Pay attention to various use cases. If you find you’re only answering questions that you yourself have asked of the product, you’re probably not answering all the questions that need to be answered.

– Mikah Sargent, Host & Producer, TWiT.tv[11]

Point out the overrated features

I think the key is telling the audience how or if it’s worth the money, and how you would actually use it.

I also like to show a few overrated aspects of a product or some downsides it may have that people might not think of.

– Shelby Church, Tech & Lifestyle YouTuber[12]

What’s the mistake you see most often in product reviews?

Always remember that gadget’s don’t have feelings

A focus on specs is a major one. Very few people really know the differences between processor A and processor B or how a bit more RAM can help them. What can you do with that extra power?

Anything valuable? Set it all in context.

Another mistake? Not being clear enough on your verdict.

If you don’t think someone should buy something just say it and say why. My editor used to tell me “gadgets don’t have feelings.” It always helps to remember that.

– Joanna Stern, The Wall Street Journal[13]

Don’t fall for the company’s marketing pitch

It happens to all of us, especially when we’re working under tight deadlines, but it’s very easy to fall for a company’s marketing pitch around a product and miss the bigger or more important story with a product. Maybe a company is pushing a particular feature really hard in its advertisements, but that feature either doesn’t matter because nobody will use it or it doesn’t work as well as the company would like you to believe.

The best way to combat this is to spend real time with a product and use it in real world situations. Even speaking to people who are considering buying the device or own a prior version of it can help determine whether the new and shiny stuff matters or is just forgettable fluff.

– Dan Seifert, The Verge

Don’t be afraid of looking like an idiot

Don’t be wishy washy. A lot of reviews read like, I think this is a well-constructed product but it didn’t work for me, but… it could be right for you.

This should go without saying but you also need to be accurate with specs and whatnot.

And if you struggled with the review unit you need to say that even if you look like an idiot.

– Stacey Higginbotham, Stacey on IoT

“It can be easy to want to list out the specs, but everyone can get that on the company’s website.” — Joanna Stern

Focus on the features that matter to most people

Reviewers can tend to focus more on specs and figures than how the thing actually works. Every time I see a Geekbench score in a review, I have to wonder how many people even know what that means, and how much that number is actually going to impact anyone using the device. That’s not to say specs aren’t important at all, but in most cases, they shouldn’t be the primary factor.

Focus on the things that are going to matter to the people using the product. I’d likely recommend something with a great UI that’s a little bit slower over a faster but clunkier product because most people will get more annoyed with a bad interface than a little bit of waiting.

– Nick Guy, Wirecutter

Don’t get distracted by the numbers

The biggest mistake people make is getting too bogged down by specs and recounting the promises of a device. If half your review is a spec dump or reads like it could appear on the website for the product you’ve got too far afield.

Take a step back and return to asking “what would I or a close friend who’s just as geeky as I am want to know about this product?”

– Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes

It’s simple: A lack of empathy. It’s not easy to put yourself in another person’s shoes in the midst of a product review, but it makes all the difference when it comes to creating something that truly helps your audience. I see product reviews that complain about certain features or hardware changes that likely won’t impact the average user of the product.

You have to make sure you’re not introducing confusion and/or alienating your audience by forgetting them. In the end, your audience is who you’re serving in the creation of any product review.

– Mikah Sargent, Producer & Host, TWiT.tv

Add your own perspective and opinion

The biggest mistake I see is being too technical. I want to see someone’s perspective and opinion, and not the specs.

Anyone can find the specs on the product website.

It’s okay to highlight it but I just find it to be boring if it’s based too much around this.

– Shelby Church, Tech & Lifestyle YouTuber[14]

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Megan Morrone contributed reporting.[15]

References

  1. ^ Dave Gershgorn (dave.medium.com)
  2. ^ Nov 2.8 min read (medium.com)
  3. ^ phone entirely underwater, (www.wsj.com)
  4. ^ mechanical bull (www.youtube.com)
  5. ^ private investigator (www.youtube.com)
  6. ^ The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com)
  7. ^ The Verge (www.theverge.com)
  8. ^ Stacey on IoT (staceyoniot.com)
  9. ^ Wirecutter (www.nytimes.com)
  10. ^ Gizmodo (gizmodo.com)
  11. ^ TWiT.tv (twit.tv)
  12. ^ Tech & Lifestyle YouTuber (www.youtube.com)
  13. ^ The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com)
  14. ^ Tech & Lifestyle YouTuber (www.youtube.com)
  15. ^ Megan Morrone (medium.com)

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